Standing Ovation

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Savannah Ballet Theatre’s sensory-friendly performances set the stage for inclusivity

Photography courtesy of Savannah Ballet Theatre

There are several accepted norms at a ballet performance, whether it’s Swan Lake or Don Quixote. The house lights dim, the stage lights flash, the music crescendoes; the audience goes silent and stays that way. It’s an experience designed to heighten the senses — which is exactly what can make it so alienating for school-age children with autism spectrum disorders, vision impairment and other unique needs.

That’s why, with its 2019 holiday performance of
The Nutcracker, Savannah Ballet Theatre kicked off a new initiative featuring sensory-friendly performances and backstage “touch tours” at select shows. Throughout this year, the Savannah Ballet will offer sensory-friendly shows of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in April and The Nutcracker in December at Lucas Theatre for the Arts.

“Our mission is, everybody should experience dance,” says Savannah Ballet Theatre Director of Advancement Abby McCuen, whose soft voice and warm demeanor belie her moxie. After a visit to the Colorado Ballet in Denver prompted her to consider new forays into inclusivity, she spearheaded backstage tours for visually impaired Savannah Ballet Theatre patrons in March 2019 and began to contemplate broader environmental modifications like softer live music and simple stage lighting (“No crazy pops of color,” she says).

Sensory-friendly performances create a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere that champions self-expression and encourages comfortability — and they’re gaining traction all over the country. In general, these low-sensory shows reduce stimuli: the room stays bright, the orchestra plays more quietly and strobe lights and other special effects are omitted. Audience members can engage with the performance through clapping, singing and any other vocalizations that come naturally to them; they can get up, walk around or even exit the performance at any time.

McCuen has added a preamble to SBT sensory-friendly performances where participants meet the dancers, see the stage in advance and learn what to expect during a show. She’s also added the post-show touch tours, providing an opportunity to feel costumes and props and hear descriptions of the backdrops.

In a city so supportive of and conducive to the arts, it’s perhaps no surprise local officials took notice of McCuen’s efforts. As of press time, the City of Savannah and the Georgia Council for the Arts are in the final stages of approving a grant to Savannah Ballet Theatre that covers ticket costs for sensory-friendly performances, which would make them free for all attendees.

“When they were reviewing our grant, I sat in and listened, and I was honored to hear one of the commissioners speak,” McCuen recalls. “He had someone in his family who was blind, and he was so excited we were offering this.”

While city and state funding for sensory-friendly performances is a boon, to be sure, the effect resonates much further, McCuen says.

“These grants aren’t just about the financial aspect,” she says. “It’s a stamp of approval, and that means more to us than anything.”