Embry creates sensory-friendly theater experience

A curated table of sensory friendly supports was made available to patrons.
Maya Meade
June 1, 2022
headshot of Alyssa
Alyssa Embry

Alyssa Embry wants to make theater a more inclusive and welcome experience for people with sensory issues. Before graduating with her master's degree in theater, she put her accessible arts research to work and created a sensory-friendly theater experience for her thesis.

“My goal is to create more comfortable and safe spaces within the arts for those with Autism, developmental disabilities, sensory-processing disorders, or anyone who struggles with the traditional event set-up,” Embry said.

Creating safe spaces can include adjusting lights, lowering sound, adjusting length, relaxed audience expectations, all with the goal of creating a judgment-free, accessible environment. Embry proposed the idea of a sensory-friendly performance to Merri Biechler, the Director of the School of Theater, and it was approved, resulting in the show Summer and Smoke in November 2021.

Embry’s inspiration for the project came from Megan Sparks, her Destination Imagination coach of eight years, whose son has autism. Sparks once told her that she wanted to see a show that Embry was the scenic artist for but wouldn’t be able to find a babysitter for her son and she couldn’t expect him to sit quietly in a dark theater for long periods of time. At the same time, her son loved dancing and music, and Embry felt that it was unfair that he didn’t get to really experience theater.

“I have been wanting to bring this programming to Ohio University since I first discovered Passion Works. I was initially inspired by the connections I had to those with developmental disabilities growing up … Coming to Athens made me realize that every community could benefit from this programming,” Embry said.

As part of this project, she organized and facilitated community outreach, researched accommodations that could be provided, communicated changes to the director and designers and provided informative materials for patrons. Additionally, she received a grant to purchase materials that could be checked out during the performance, including sunglasses, hearing protection, fidget and sensory toys, coloring pages and more.

Nancy Epling, an artist with Passion Works Studio, lent Embry bathroom accommodation equipment, in addition to advice and encouragement for the project. Passion Works and Carolyn Lewis at the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities helped connect Embry to different organizations, community members and families connected to those who would benefit from a sensory-friendly show. Both also helped in editing and sharing materials to leave the best impact she could.

A designated room was available if people needed a break.

Embry is also collaborating with the College of Fine Arts and Dean Matthew Shaftel on how to bring sensory-friendly production to other art programs such as art exhibits and choral concerts. This is part of the reason she created a sensory-friendly production guidebook, so others can create their own sensory-friendly programming and events with help from her timeline, contacts, feedback surveys, research, accommodations and more.

“My community collaborations have ingrained me further into the community and have already connected me to two other local theaters looking at creating sensory-friendly programming over the next year,” said Embry. “I've also been met with support and encouragement from different ends of the community while I made a vision a reality, something I'm very appreciative of.”

Embry expressed thanks to the School of Theater faculty and the cast, crew, and team of Summer and Smoke for allowing her to work with them on top of their already busy schedules. She said there were moments when trying to create something new left her feeling in over her head, Debi Jolly Holcomb, the instructor and her advisor of the Costume Crafts program at OU and mentor, would help her get back on track.

According to the CDC, about 1 in 4 people have a disability so the need for sensory-friendly programming is there. Embry said that the issue is not that it is difficult to curate, but that people are unaware of the want and need for it. She considers the arts a second home to her and hopes to raise awareness and provide the tools for others to bring this to the next community they join so that others can share the experience with her.

“I believe the arts are a place of creative expression, beauty, an escape from reality and the fascination alone of the infinite possibilities that can lie on a stage,” she said. “I felt it wasn't fair how many people weren't being considered in its creation. Everyone deserves a place at the table, and in the audience.”