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Sensory kits, staff training make Clarence Brown Theatre more accessible for those with autism

The professional theatre in Knoxville said it's always looking for ways to include more community members on stage and in the audience.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There's a place for everyone on the stage or in the seats of a theatre.

"What we're trying to do is to tell diverse stories," said Hana Sherman, Grants, Education and Outreach Manager for the Clarence Brown Theatre.

At that professional theatre on UT's campus, diversity means more than casting a range of different actors.

"We wanted to make sure it was a welcoming environment," said Sherman. "So we've reached out to our different community partners, both internally and externally to find out ways that we could do that."

Sherman saw that opportunity with their current production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a play that follows the journey of a teenager with autism.

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"It also starts to open the conversation of, how do we interact with others that are different from us? And how can we be more welcoming and accepting?" said Sherman.

Clarence Brown staff started working with the Autism Society of East Tennessee, UT's Student Disability Services and others familiar with the autism spectrum to adapt their theatre.

"We've put together sensory boxes that are available for checkout," said Sherman. "We have noise-reducing headphones, as well as sunglasses and stress balls and fidget items."

These items are meant to help anyone with light or noise sensitivities, or attention difficulties.

Sherman said several boxes are available to check out for free in the lobby before the start of each performance.

Though they were inspired by the theatre's current production, they'll be a permanent option for patrons coming to see a musical or play.

Credit: WBIR
Items included in the new sensory kits at Clarence Brown Theatre.

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"We've brought in grad students from the department of psychology to come in and help train to better equip and educate our staff on how to welcome members of the intellectual and developmental disability community," said Sherman.

They've also added new text to playbills that explain how some people may take in a show differently and to give some grace.

This is an excerpt from the playbill for Curious Incident:

As this play also highlights the very different ways that we all experience the world, we ask for understanding and grace as we especially welcome community members with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, many of whom may experience the world similarly to our protagonist. Please be aware that there may be increased movement in the audience, occasional loud reactions, and talking during the play. Thank you for making theatre a place where we can all gather and celebrate life together.

Sherman said these changes are what make it possible for people with autism and other developmental disabilities to see themselves represented on stage.

"It's definitely here to stay," she said. "And you know, we're always looking at ways to like continue to improve as well."

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" runs for one more week, with nightly performances Tuesday, February 15 through Saturday, February 19, and an afternoon performance on Sunday, February 20.

You can buy tickets here.

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