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Milwaukee Rep offers first sensory-friendly performance

A couple dressed in wedding costumes stand in the middle of a stage.
Michael Brosilow
Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Milwaukee Rep is is offering a special event: their first sensory-friendly performance, of Much Ado About Nothing.

At the start of the show, the lights rise onto fair maidens, who don’t know they’re on the cusp of love. Soon, they’ll learn a group of soldiers is about to return home from war overseas.

It’s Milwaukee Repertory’s production of the Shakespearean rom-com, Much Ado About Nothing. Two couples meet. One couple is engaged to marry, but thwarted by a villain. The other bickers endlessly, leaving their friends to set them up. It’s love, and it’s messy. Theirs happens to be set in 1990s Seattle, so there’s flannel, ripped jeans, and original grunge-y music.

An extended conversation with Katie Cummings, Pink Umbrella Theater & Jenny Toutant, Milwaukee Repertory.

On Tuesday, the theater company is offering a special event: their first sensory-friendly performance. It’s meant to be a welcoming experience for people with sensory sensitivities, as well as those with vision or hearing impairments.

The actresses wail together. One strums a ukulele, another rocks the harmonica. Someone carries the rhythm on the cajón.

You wouldn’t be able to tell, but their sound represents one of the tweaks made for the sensory-friendly production. Where the cast played electric instruments for the other shows, their instruments now are acoustic. Instead of a whole drum set, there’s the cajón. The sound levels are also a little lower.

These adaptations were designed to create a comfortable experience for people with anxiety, dementia, autism, or other challenges that might make them sensitive to light or sound.

While some changes have been made, ultimately, the production stays true to the show’s artistic intent.

“It’s not about dumbing down the show or taking things out,” said Katie Cummings, the director of Pink Umbrella Theater, a disability-focused arts company that partnered with the Rep to produce the show. “It’s about making sure that the show is built in a way that is as sensory-friendly as possible."

A few days before the show, the cast and crew rehearsed with the adjusted light and sound levels.

Cummings worked with an actor and big Shakespeare fan, Clayton Mortl.

“I’m here today to serve as a gauge, if you will,” Mortl told the crew before the rehearsal began. “I’m autistic and as such, I have sensory overload issues. Very sensitive hearing, at least.”

Cummings and Mortl viewed the rehearsal, in addition to several other run-throughs, giving notes on potential triggers. They suggested avoiding sudden, dramatic changes — in light, music, or speech.

“When it’s loud and fast and startling, that kind of thing could be triggering to somebody,” Cummings explained. “Really think about that bell curve. We will go with you and we’ll come back down with you.”

That bell curve came to life as the cast rehearsed a party scene. After Hero and Claudio meet on the dance floor, the dance grows frenzied. The band plays faster. For the sensory-friendly production, the sound designer instructed the musicians to skip the rhythmic chaos.

“There will be no tempo pick-up in this configuration,” he said. “We’re just going to be grooving.”

Instead the music swells, bringing the audience along comfortably — while maintaining a sense of drama.

During rehearsal, it became clear this show isn’t something you could pull off without planning ahead. Cummings said Milwaukee Rep reached out to Pink Umbrella about the collaboration nearly a year ago.

“A lot of times, it’s an afterthought for theaters,” she said. “When it becomes that afterthought, it’s a scramble to get everything together.”

A group of actors faces away from the audience, looking up towards a band overhead. The actors' hands are up above their hands, fingers extend in ASL applause.
Lina Tran
The cast of Much Ado About Nothing demonstrates applause in American sign language in rehearsal.

Besides the production itself, the Rep is making some other accommodations. The house lights will stay on, at a low level, throughout the performance. Audience members will be free to talk, move freely, and use communication devices. In the building, they’ll find quiet rooms, fidget bags, and touch tables. The Rep also limited ticket sales to keep plenty of space in the theater for movement.

There will be audio descriptions, sign language interpretation, and captioning. The Rep typically offers these services, but this is the first time all three will be available at the same performance.

Jenny Toutant, the Rep’s chief education and engagement officer, said the sensory-friendly show is part of their wider efforts to make theater accessible to everyone. The hope is this becomes standard practice for future shows.

“We knew that we need to do this show,” Toutant said. “Part of our mission is to have an audience that’s representative of Milwaukee’s rich diversity. We want to make sure that we’re looking at all dimensions of diversity in that.”

Cummings said it’s not enough to intend to include everyone.

“Kindness isn’t always enough,” she said. “We need to know how, we need to know why. When we have that knowledge, we’re able to make better decisions, and then the disability community feels welcome."

At the top of tonight’s show, one of the actors will give a curtain speech. He’ll invite the audience to applaud sign language-style: hands up and shaking merrily.

Or, as Mortyl put it — jazz hands.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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