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'The Magic School Bus' Paves the Way for Sensory-Friendly Performances at RiverCenter

Mrs. Frizzle is in town, and she's brought a new type of magic with her.

Members of the cast of The Magic School Bus - Lost in the Solar System. Image by Jeremy Daniel Photography.

This week, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is offering their first ever performances for special needs children. As a part of a residency with a national tour of The Magic School Bus – Lost in the Solar System, RiverCenter is offering sensory-friendly performances for children with autism and other sensory, social, or learning disabilities.

For most, it will be their first time to experience a theatrical production. Conditions like loud volume levels and sudden changes in lighting can be frightening to children with sensory issues and make it difficult to attend regular public performances.

Enter the magic of sensory-friendly theatre.

The RiverCenter has prepared to offer their sensory-friendly performances this week with appropriate accommodations in place. This has been achieved through input from Muscogee County School District, Autism Hope Center, and Anchors for Autism.

In addition to scheduling several sensory-friendly performances for local schools, one public performance has been designated as a sensory friendly-performance on Saturday, September 29 at 10:00 am. This performance is open to the public and RiverCenter is offering a 30% discount on tickets to the 10 o'clock show.

Rick McKnight, RiverCenter's Director of Education, is proud to be a part of an organization that works to provide beneficial arts education experiences for children of all abilities.

"We want to provide a welcoming atmosphere for this specific population of children," McKnight explained. To provide the best experience, McKnight said that theatre staff, volunteers, and performers have been made aware that some of those in the audience may vocalize and move around throughout the performance.

Norman Easterbrook, RiverCenter's Executive Director, is thrilled to provide a more inclusive experience for as many children as possible to come to the theatre. “For this season, adding sensory-friendly performances to our schedule is a natural progression for our commitment to making RiverCenter more accessible for our entire community,” said Easterbrook.

When preparing for these performances, RiverCenter worked hand-in-hand with experts to ensure the sensory-friendly shows would meet a local need for these types of experiences.

"Before we just created something, we wanted to be sure there was a need. So first, we reached out to leading teachers in the special education field in the Muscogee County School District. We also reached out to experts at Autism Hope Center, and at Anchors for Autism. Then, we worked with the production company TheatreWorksUSA, which is one of the best producers of children’s literature in America."

What RiverCenter and the recruited group of educators developed was a plan to bring all of the elements of a professional theatre production to the stage in a way that children of all abilities could enjoy. "The best word I can think of is that this is a more ‘relaxed’ performance while still retaining all the sizzle of a ‘regular’ production," said McKnight.

Easterbrook addressed the planned accommodations in detail via a press release earlier this month.

"The accommodations offered in sensory-friendly performances include keeping sound levels down, keeping low lighting in the auditorium and allowing the audience to come on stage to get familiar with the actors in costume and the set," Easterbrook explained. "We will also be providing other amenities that we hope will make the RiverCenter experience more accommodating for audiences with special needs,” said Easterbrook. 

RiverCenter is joined by many other local organizations looking to make inclusion a part of their programming as well. Similar initiatives are being explored at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and the Springer Opera House this season.

"As a community service organization, we have a responsibility to ensure that as broad a population as possible can access as much of our programming as possible,” said Easterbrook.

Thanks to this move toward sensory-friendly performances, children across our community will continue to see positive changes in the area of inclusion within the arts.

”We work in schools all the time and are aware of the special needs of hundreds of children," said McKnight. "This is our first-time effort to make theatre more enjoyable and accessible." ◼︎

If You Go:

What: The Magic School Bus – Lost in the Solar System

When: Saturday, September 29 at *10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Where: Heard Theatre, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

Cost: $19


More to Know: RiverCenter's sensory-friendly performance at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning will run about 55 minutes.

* indicates a sensory-friendly performance with a 30% discount.


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