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'Wigglers welcome': Arts organizations provide performances for children with special needs and their families

The lights dim at the Capitol Theatre but stop before the room gets dark. As the "William Tell Overture" plays, the children sitting with their families wiggle, move and whisper, but no one tells them to be quiet.

That's the vision for Access to Music, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s January concert for parents of children with special needs, where families are encouraged to enjoy an evening without worrying about being disruptive.

“Because it’s an open evening that invites activity, there are kids conducting from their seats,” said Paula Fowler, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera director of education and community outreach. “They’re bouncing in their seats. There is dancing in the aisles, which we are delighted with.”

Access to Music is one of the events offered by Utah arts organizations to allow families of children with special needs to enjoy a night of cultural performances. The events are adapted for the audience and have more lenient audience rules.

Fowler said the organization became aware of this specific audience through a family that has an autistic son. As the family attended cultural events, they became increasingly uncomfortable because other patrons saw the son’s behavior as disruptive.

“They felt awkward and that other people were critical of them and they weren’t always welcome,” she said.

The father suggested the creation of a special event for families where they could be comfortable but also be in a venue other than a school auditorium — a place such as the Capitol Theatre — for a “special outing for the family.”

“We wanted to be welcoming and inviting for anyone who would be patient with other activity in the audience but could still really enjoy a professional performance,” Fowler said. “We assure families in our conversation at the beginning: Please do what your children need during this concert.”

Utah Symphony and Utah Opera have been presenting the free 45-minute concerts since 2001.

Over the years, the organization has received “fabulous feedback” and suggestions for the following year’s concert, Fowler said.

“We tweak from one year to the next to make sure we’re really meeting the needs and the interests of the families who come,” she said.

The songs are picked specially for the concert and include “classics beloved by all,” such as scenes from "The Magic Flute," the overture to the "Marriage of Figaro," the overture to "The Barber of Seville," a duet from "Hansel and Gretel" and selections from Gilbert and Sullivan.

“We always have to play either the cancan from 'Orpheus in the Underworld' or the 'William Tell Overture,'” Fowler said. “… The purpose is to let them enjoy these classics together and to really get a good sense of the things people have loved for a century or more.”

Another area arts organization that offers performances geared toward families with children who have special needs is the University of Utah Youth Theatre, which offers sensory-friendly performances.

Utah Symphony and Utah Opera promoted the company’s “Great American Tall Tales” at Kingsbury Hall in this year’s Access to Music concert program.

“The families who come to our annual concert every January said they were thrilled to learn about the opportunities that were there,” Fowler said. “Finding them in the right places is often a challenge.”

Robin Wilks-Dunn, community engagement manager at Kingsbury Hall, said families have expressed how excited they are to have options.

“One of things that really struck me with our sensory-friendly performance was that families can come and relax,” she said. “Parents can come and enjoy it and they don’t have to worry about how a behavior is perceived; it’s just accepted.”

The performances are geared toward children who are on the autism spectrum but can be for children with other special needs as well.

Wilks-Dunn said arts organizations are aware “that this is a growing need” and have started offering more sensory-friendly performances.

As Kingsbury Hall takes “baby steps” to have a more sensory-friendly space, she said, she has talked to colleagues across the nation, used resources such as the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education and observed Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s special-needs performances.

“The arts organizations in Utah are all very friendly,” she said. “We all work with each other to help all of our education programs flourish.”

With the Youth Theatre, which is locally produced and cast, Wilks-Dunn said it was easy to work in adaptations for sensory-friendly productions.

She said the idea came as organizers were working to provide an arts experience for students needing an adapted performance during matinees for school groups; they realized it would be more effective to offer the performances to families.

Fall 2014 was the Youth Theatre’s first public sensory production with “Big Bad Musical,” and the theater produced “Great American Tall Tales” this spring.

“We dabbled in it since 2012 … but this year it felt like it got a little more momentum,” Wilks-Dunn said.

Anybody is welcome to any of the youth performances, she said, but they wanted to provide something for families in specific circumstances and so they adapted the audience space to make it more comfortable.

“We encourage people to do what they need to do to make it comfortable for them,” she said.

Audience members are invited to watch the performance on the lobby monitors if they are overstimulated, or to go to the “Quiet Zone” in the upper lobby.

Performers and other staff are educated on how to handle any disturbances that may occur during the show.

“There’s not restrictions on the audience members,” she said. “If they need to get up and move around, that’s fine. If they need to change seats, if they need to vocalize, which is sometimes the nature of that, we don’t discourage that. They’re allowed to do that.”

The shows are adapted to be quieter, and the house lights are dimmed but not turned off completely.

Wilks-Dunn said the program is still in the building stages but is off to a good start. “We feel like we’re heading in the direction we want and getting the community support that we want,” she said.

Programs started in Utah are having an impact in other parts of the country as well.

At North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s Access to Music inspired “Chords for Kids,” a yearly concert for children with autism and other special needs. Lawrence Van Oyen, who conducts the college’s concert winds ensemble, began the program after some women in the community told him about the concerts in Utah nine years ago.

“By far, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” he said.

The ensemble, a “top-notch band" that is used to playing challenging classical music, relishes the opportunity to play songs such as the “Chicken Dance” and the “Macarena.”

Band members and Chippy, the North Central College mascot, get up to dance with the children for some of the numbers, Van Oyen said, and the March concert always ends with “YMCA.”

“Our motto is ‘Wigglers welcome,’” he said. He makes it an educational experience by inviting speakers to come and talk about autism and by getting other directors involved, but he said the concert primarily serves as an opportunity for families to get out.

“One mom said her son comes up to her every month and asks, ‘Is it time for the concert again?’” he said.

In the first year the free concert was held, 50 people attended. But in the past two years, the Wentz Concert Hall, which seats 600, has sold out.

“It’s the high point of the year,” Van Oyen said.

Another area arts organization that offers performances geared toward families with children who have special needs is the University of Utah Youth Theatre, which offers sensory-friendly performances.

Utah Symphony and Utah Opera promoted the company’s “Great American Tall Tales” at Kingsbury Hall in this year’s Access to Music concert program.

“The families who come to our annual concert every January said they were thrilled to learn about the opportunities that were there,” Fowler said. “Finding them in the right places is often a challenge.”

Robin Wilks-Dunn, community engagement manager at Kingsbury Hall, said families have expressed how excited they are to have options.

Email: ginny.l.romney@gmail.com

Twitter: GinnyRomney