The Straz Center Finds Huge Success
by The Straz Center

“We’ve developed shows for people who want to enjoy theater but also might need to get up and walk around, go outside, stim, take a break and do something else for a while and return. The audience knows what to expect during our sensory-friendly performances after reading the online social story. Our Patel Conservatory musical theater program offers one show during the major production that is a dedicated sensory-friendly performance. We’ve created a judgment-free zone for audience members of any age. People can be who they are and enjoy the show.”

Patel Conservatory theater teacher Matt Belopavlovich began a graduate certificate program to study the autism spectrum after noticing an increase in a neurodiverse student population. “We had an opportunity to respond to people who experience life in a particular way whose needs weren’t quite being met here. I was heavily involved in the Straz Access initiative about accessibility and The Straz when Suzanne Livesay [vice president of education] approached me with an interest in offering a sensory-friendly performance,” Matt says. “Things came together. We thought, ‘what a great way to combine resources with information and be advocates for our students.’ Our pilot run was a success that we’ve been building upon ever since.”

The Straz Center’s sensory-friendly initiative followed similar programs launched by The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Orlando Rep. Prior to the show, audience members can download or print out the social story from the Straz website. Patel Conservatory faculty create these picture-book-style documents to familiarize guests with what to expect at the Straz Center and before, during and after the show. The social story includes specific instructions for permission to use the break room, a space set apart from the show that will include stim and sensory objects and the ability to have quiet time.

Although the need for providing a sensory-friendly performance during a show’s run emerged as theater professionals began to understand patrons on the autism spectrum were being left out, Matt realized this modified performance benefits anyone who may have sensory issues such as sensitivities to light or loud noises. “Essentially, it’s the same show with different options,” says Matt. “Typical kids and families are welcome to attend this show, of course, but it is designed for the enjoyment of a neurodiverse group. We’re very excited about it because sensory-friendly is a new frontier, not just for audiences but for the actors, who are learning a new depth to their skills as they shape their craft to a unique audience. The Straz’s move in this direction benefits all.”

To learn more about The Straz, visit us at strazcenter.org, and click our “Accessibility” link under “Plan Your Visit” to learn more about the services we provide.