Paper Mill Playhouse: Making Theater Accessible for the Disabled and for Those with Autism

By mark-slade April 20, 2011

Paper Mill Playhouse: Making Theater Accessible for the Disabled

Sensory seminars and state-of-the art theater modifications let handicapped visitors, as well as children with autism, experience live theater.
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Lean back and listen.  The orchestra strikes a note.  As the velvety seats of the theater envelop you, a rich panorama of sound reverberates.  The shimmering softness of the cloak, the roughness of the helmet, the smooth “skin” of the statue you touched only moments before—all props from the show – are vivid in your memory.  You can’t help but feel a surge of excitement. 
“Pseudolus enters. He is larger than life, dressed in a blue tunic, dancing across the stage,”  says a voice softly in your ear.
Pseudolus begins to sing.  His voice is a rich and deep.  When the comic actor does something funny – which is often – the little voice in your ear explains it.  
You begin to laugh along with the rest of the audience.  This is wonderful!  You are part of the live theater experience. 
For visually impaired visitors at the Paper Mill Playhouse, this is what a “Sensory Seminar” is all about.  This program, developed in cooperation with the Cultural Access Network of New Jersey and founded by the NJ Theatre Alliance and the State Arts Council, allows people with disabilities to experience live theatre to their greatest capabilities.
“At the Paper Mill, we elevate the whole experience,” says Michael Mooney, Manager of Paper Mill’s Outreach and Access Services.  “Some of the larger theaters offer audio description too, but for the Sensory (Seminar) experience, we do it really, really well.”
Though all theaters are required to provide accessibility services under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Paper Mill Playhouse’s goal is offer programs and features that go way beyond state and federal guidelines. 
At a recent weekend matinee, this is how it worked.
Several visually-impaired ticket holders arrived well before the show began.  They came with friends, family members and seeing-eye dogs. Sitting in the front of the house, they listened to Mooney read a synopsis of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. 
Mooney’s presentation was friendly, informal and, like the show they were about to experience, funny.  Following this, the patrons were allowed to tactically explore a succession of props.  As Mooney patiently brought out one object after another (a plaster bust, a cloak, a warrior’s breastplate, etc.) some of the actors arrived to take part in the seminar.
The actors were, of course, entertaining.  They discussed their characters, the experience of being in the show, their costumes, make up and dance routines.  They shared amusing anecdotes and behind the scenes hijinks.  In response, the seminar participants laughed and occasionally asked questions.  Throughout, the mood was relaxed, convivial and quietly appreciative.
At the conclusion of the presentation, the patrons took their ticketed seats and the show began.  Sensory Seminar participants (as well as anyone else in the audience who requested one) were given handheld audio devices that allowed them to hear running live commentary throughout the show. 
During the intermission, Adele Meyer, who provided the verbal cues during the performance, said she felt honored to be an Audio Describer at the Paper Mill.
“(Disabled visitors) are extremely pleased that we’re able to offer them this,” she says.  “It means so much to them.”
“We have two scheduled (audio) descriptions during each four-week run, but we also do them by request,” said Mooney. 
In addition to the Sensory Seminars, the theater offers open captioning, sign-interpreted and infra-red listening systems for hearing impaired viewers.  “It allows them to view a live theatrical performance with dignity and independence,” said Shayne Miller, Paper Mill’s Director of Press and Public Relations.
And that’s not all.  On June 11, the Paper Mill will introduce another “Sensory Friendly Theater Performance,” that may well be the first one offered in the U.S.   This one is intended for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. 
In cooperation with Autism New Jersey and The Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University, the Papermill will present “Stone Soup and Other Stories.”  Performed by one of New Jersey’s prominent youth theater companies, Pushcart Players, the theater will tailor its theater to suit the needs of the audience.
To this end, according to a press release from the Playhouse, the theater will “provide a sensory-friendly, comfortable and judgment-free space that is welcoming for all families.  At this unique presentation of “Stone Soup and Other Stories,” (a blend of folk tales from around the world) the theater lights will remain up, sound volume will be lowered and consistent, and children will be free to talk and leave their seats under parental supervision.  The show will run about one hour with an intermission.
“Additionally, Paper Mill Playhouse will host a free Open House titled Meet Your Seat! on Friday, June 10 from 3 to 6 p.m.  This is an opportunity for children who are new to theater experiences to visit the theater space the day before the show.  No reservations are required for the Open House.  A sequence book, study guide and sing-along prep video may be downloaded or viewed” 
Stated Miller, “I think this is the first time anyone is offering (accommodations for autism) in live theater.”  If so, Sensory Friendly Theater Performance for children is breaking new ground with this first-ever performance.
Overall, the already well-respected Paper Mill Playhouse is establishing itself as a state-of the art facility for disabled patrons while continuing to offer non-disabled audiences the high quality performances they have come to expect.
For residents of Millburn and neighboring communities who are disabled or have disabled family members, this is great news. Two such patrons were Sally Myers and her grandson, Erik Baude, both from Chatham, who attended this weekend’s Sensory Seminar.
“Today’s play was a wonderful example of what (this service) can do,” declared Myers with a smile.  “(Thanks to the handicapped accessible services) we can understand now why people are laughing or gasping (during the performance).  I no longer have to ask, ‘What happened?’ ”
“For the most part I think I did get everything,” agreed Baude, who, like his grandmother, is blind.  He said he enjoyed the play very much.
“Papermill’s (handicapped services) are infinitely more accessible here than in New York.  It’s a service I wish Broadway would pick up,” commented Myers, adding, “I think Wicked has a form of audio description.  But they do very high quality work here (at the Paper Mill.)”
Both Baude and Myers praised the work of Audio Describer Meyer who was adept at describing the action without stepping on the dialogue.  They said this is an essential skill that adds significantly to their theater-going experience. 
(In fact, Meyer reported that she attends several rehearsals beforehand to make sure her timing is perfect.  But even then, she lamented, it was tricky because the actors sometimes ad lib.  “Pseudolus ad libs all the time,” she giggles.  “Once he sang ‘Old Man River’ during the death scene!”)
Overall, handicapped services like Sensory Seminars, open captioning, sign-interpreted shows, infra-red listening systems and special performances for viewers with autism have changed the face of live theater in 2011.  With these services, theaters like The Papermill Playhouse can enrich the lives of a whole new audience of theatergoers. 
“When my grandson was nine, he went to see his first show,” recalls Meyers fondly.  “I thought he had fallen asleep.  But at intermission he sat up and said to me, “This is great, Grandma!’ ”
Supporters of the Paper Mill Playhouse Access Programs are:  MetLife Foundation; C.R. Bard Foundation, Inc.; The William and Helen Hoffman Foundation, Fund for the New Jersey Blind and The Cultural Access Network of New Jersey; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a partner of the National Endowment for the Arts; and the National Endowment for the Arts, and generous contributions for corporations, foundations and individuals.