Beyond ‘Incident’: How Zach Theatre adapts shows for people with autism


Zach Theatre has offered sensory-friendly performances of its family shows since 2015.

This production could lead to more main-stage shows including sensory-friendly versions.

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is the story of 15-year-old Christopher, who begins solving a Sherlock Holmes-type mystery after he’s suspected of killing the neighbor’s dog. Christopher has a knack for math but struggles with his everyday surroundings. He’s what many would recognize as someone with autism.

The play, which won a Tony Award in 2015 as Best New Play, is on stage at Zach Theatre through March 4.

“The Curious Incident” brought Zach Theatre an opportunity: to bring theater about a person with autism to people with autism and other sensory differences.

The theater has offered sensory-friendly performances of all its family shows since 2015, when it performed a sensory-friendly show for its production of “The Three Little Pigs.”

“We’ve done it for every show after that,” says Chad Dike, the assistant director of education. Once Zach staff tried it and saw the possibilities and got positive responses from parents, they became excited about it and decided that “we should just do it for every (family) show,” Dike says.

As well, it has started family Pride Nights and includes a bilingual show each season. “We’re thinking about any of the barriers,” says Dave Steakley, producing artistic director. The theater also is raising money to bring students from economically disadvantaged schools to shows.

For sensory-friendly shows, Zach has altered the experience and the staging in these ways:

  • Leave the house lights up about 20 percent. This allows people to see when they need to get up. It also comforts people who might be afraid of the dark.
  • Create a relaxed environment. Zach makes it known that it’s OK to get up. It’s OK to stand in the aisles. It’s OK to leave the theater and come back in.
  • Create space in the seating area. Zach purposefully sells fewer seats for these performances, which allows for an empty seat between each group of people.
  • Create a break area. A space is designated for people to go away from the theater and for kids to color or just hang out while the show is happening.
  • Create an educational piece about what to expect in the theater. Zach supplies this piece for any of the people signed up to attend the sensory-friendly shows. It explains what to expect when you see a performance and where bathrooms and your seats are. Handouts are also available at the theater. It lets families prepare a few days ahead and reminds kids once they get into the theater what’s going to happen.
  • Warn families of potentially upsetting things or confusing things ahead of time. In “Charlotte’s Web,” it revealed to families that the spider does, indeed, die, but reminded that it’s not the actor who dies. She’s OK. In “Las Aventuras de Enoughie, the Adventures of Enoughie,” it let families know there were people behind the puppets.
  • Take out any sudden movements or scary moments. In “The Three Little Pigs,” the wolf was supposed to rush onto the stage and howl while the stage was dark. For the sensory-friendly show, Zach just turned on the lights before the wolf appeared.
  • Avoid any loud noises or flashing lights. Anything that could be jarring can be taken out for the show.
  • Use glow sticks to alert families something is coming up. In “Charlotte’s Web,” they brought out a glow stick before the father appeared on stage with an ax. This signals to the audience that if they see a glow stick, they should be prepared for something uncomfortable to happen.

“We try to keep the artistry, the storytelling as close to what’s on stage (at the other performances),” Dike says. “We don’t want to dumb down the performance.”

The sensory performances also are ideal for a sign-language enhanced show because with the house lights slightly up, families are able to have a side conversation with sign language.

Adapting “The Curious Incident” will be a bit more of a challenge than many of the family shows. The show is designed to give the audience the feel of what autism is like. It’s staged to be a sensory overload experience in many ways.

It won’t be the first time it’s been done, though. The Broadway production of “The Curious Incident” created a sensory-friendly version.

“I had been thinking about doing this for adults,” Dike said. “There aren’t that many theaters doing sensory-friendly or relaxed shows (for adults). It really lived in the youth field.” This adult show, though, he said “makes perfect sense” to offer as a sensory-friendly option.

Adults and teens with autism shouldn’t be relegated to seeing only the sensory-friendly options that the family shows provide, Dike says. “We can all go see a theater for youth show,” he says. “But if we’re trying to challenge and think differently in the world, they need to go see things that stimulate them.”

For “The Curious Incident,” Zach is working with Joe Carr, who lectures on the subject “My Autism Is a Super Power.” He consulted to tell the staff what things should be changed in the staging. “He had five pages of notes for me,” Steakley says. “Everybody is eager to make it work.”

Zach staff also will apply many of the techniques it’s used in the family shows.

Zach’s Topfer Theatre’s seating structure has built-in accessible seating areas that Zach will be able use in different ways for this audience.

Staging the show this way does come with extra costs. Zach runs an extra technical rehearsal for this show. It also is lowering the ticket price and selling fewer tickets.

Dike would like to expand the approach to other main-stage shows as well as create a sensory-friendly subscription, in which you would get tickets to every sensory-friendly show.

For Dike, the hope is that people in the autism community would begin to see Zach as a resource for them, as a place that welcomes them and lets them know they can ask for what they need to be able to enjoy theater, too. “We hope that our audience becomes more interesting, that more of Austin is represented,” Dike says.

Through sensory-friendly shows, bilingual shows, Pride Night shows, sign language-interpreted and audio description shows for people with visual impairments, “we are changing the makeup of our audience,” Dike says.

“How do you lay down the welcome mat as large as possible and let people in?” Steakley asks. “The ability to participate is something, that is theatrical.”

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