Potomac School Stages Sensory-Friendly Play for Autistic Community

Potomac School Stages Sensory-Friendly Play for Autistic Community

Free production Saturday included lower sound levels, fewer special effects

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Students at the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac are performing a sensory-friendly version of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Via Connelly School of the Holy Child

The overhead lights at the Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac flooded its stage in the reds, golds and blues of Joseph’s technicolor coat this weekend.

But for this special performance, the transitions from one vivid color to the next were gradual rather than abrupt. Audience members didn't hear any loud bangs or sudden noises. And they were free to walk around the room and even up to the stage, if they liked.

For the third year running, the all-girls college preparatory school staged a sensory-friendly play, a production designed with lower levels of auditory and visual stimulation so individuals with autism can feel more comfortable watching it.

“The last couple years, families have come up to us and told us what a great experience this is,” said Carrie Gillispie, a doctoral student in special education and disability studies who has helped guide the productions.

Elsbeth Fager, the school’s director of visual and performing arts, said Saturday’s sensory-friendly version of the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat would have a shorter run-time than the performances slated for the following weekend. The mics will be turned down for a lower volume, and the house lights will remain on so that the auditorium isn’t completely dark during the play, she said several days before the play. A quiet room would be be available for audience members who need a break.

Although places like Imagination Stage and the Kennedy Center offer sensory-friendly performances, they’re still not common in school productions, Fager said. A Holy Child administrator, Nora Fitzpatrick, whose daughter is autistic first pitched the idea of presenting plays with less auditory and visual stimulation, and the school recognized the opportunity to combine a couple of its focuses, spokeswoman Caitlin Chalke said.

“This really does marry two big pillars of our school, which is the arts and community service,” she said.

A design meeting for the play. Credit: Connelly School of the Holy Child

Fitzpatrick, the assistant to the head of school at Holy Child, said her 12-year-old daughter, Rory Stephens, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. Fitzpatrick noted that over the past decade, a growing number of venues are beginning to accommodate individuals with autism; the sensory-friendly version of The Lion King has made headlines in recent years asthe first autism-friendly performance of a Broadway show.

But these opportunities are still limited, she said.

“Those things are very few and far between,” she said. “This is something that me, my husband and two kids would never be able to do … the four of us, if there wasn’t a way to make it accommodating for my daughter who has autism.”

Once Holy Child decided to stage its own sensory-friendly play, Fager recruited her childhood friend, Gillispie, to lend her advice for the productions. Gillispie, who’s pursuing her doctorate at George Washington University, says she doesn’t tell the students how to change their plays, but educates them about how individuals with autism might experience the shows.

“Like, [the sound of] a jackhammer would be the equivalent of hearing things that would be a typical noise level for the rest of the population,” she said.

Gillispie also said individuals with autism can experience anxiety before heading into a new situation. It’s somewhat similar to the social anxiety many people feel when they’re invited to a party and they don’t know what to wear or who will be there, she explained.

“You think of that times a thousand,” she said.

So the school posts online a booklet that helps children prepare for the performance, with photos of the actors, the building and the pretend camel and goat that will appear onstage. The pamphlet, called a “social story,” also tells kids that they might hear applause or see bright lights during the play and encourages them to cover their ears or eyes if they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Fitzpatrick said Rory’s ability to move around during the performance makes a big difference. During the Holy Child productions, Rory is able to pace the room’s perimeter and dance and “no parent is going to bat an eyelash,” Fitzpatrick said.

Staging a sensory-friendly show has been a learning process for everyone at the school, Fager said. The first year, the school performed the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Cinderella and put on a production of the Wizard of Oz last year.

Performers in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Credit: Connelly School of the Holy Child

During the toned-down performances, the students aren’t able to lean on lights and sounds to tell the story and must rely more on their facial expressions and gestures. 

“It’s an extra challenge for the students to go above and beyond with the acting, so that it’s really clear, because we don’t necessarily have all the sound effects or other things to aid in a creative display,” Fager said.

Gillispie said during the first year of the sensory play, some of the actors and musicians were surprised when audience members walked up to the stage and waved or approached the orchestra area to check out the instruments.

“I basically tell them to use that as feedback from the audience that they’re engaged,” she said.

Maggie Koch, a Holy Child senior who’s also the stage manager, said she enjoys the challenge of pulling together a sensory-friendly production.

“I think it’s a great way for us to show we’re serving the community, too, and not just trying to put on a great show for Holy Child, but for the wider community,” she said.

Fitzpatrick said it’s exciting to see the Holy Child students learn about individuals with autism and praised them for their care and compassion.

They “really love Rory and treat her like a Holy Child girl, too,” she said.

Admission was free for the school’s sensory-friendly show. More information and the social story booklet are available online.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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