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In Seattle, ‘sensory friendly’ performances allow neurodiverse kids to see live shows for the first time

Dan + Claudia Zanes exclusively play 'sensory friendly' children's concerts (Photo courtesy of Dan + Claudia Zanes)

What happens when a Grammy Award winning children’s performer falls in love with a music therapist jazz vocalist? Obviously, they form a band!

Dan + Claudia Zanes are performing a virtual show with Seattle Theater Group later this month. But something on the press release caught my eye: Dan + Claudia only do sensory friendly shows. These are performances designed to be accessible and enjoyable for people with neurodiversity, like autism, and with disabilities.

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“Working with ushers and the presenters in terms of, hey, it’s OK if kids get up and they want to jump and they want to move about,” Claudia Zanes said. “Let people be who they are in the music and we’re OK with that. We have this culture where we sit in our seats, and we clap at the end of songs, and we sit there for long periods of time and the reality is most people can’t. I can’t do that, often times!”

A sensory friendly show might have dimmer lights and quieter sound. There will be a designated area in the lobby where people can go take a quiet break or do provided activities.

“We have therapists on every single floor of our venue and provide our audience members with fidgets and ear plugs and noise canceling headphones,” said Marisol Sanchez-Best, director of education and community engagement for STG. “It’s modified to make anyone that comes into the performance feel comfortable. They feel like they belong.”

The Paramount Theatre in Seattle did its first sensory friendly show in 2019 with Disney’s The Lion King, and has since done A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frozen. She says every show sells out.

“Some of the feedback we’ve gotten is, ‘I can go to the theater, I just can’t bring my son or my daughter, or my niece or my cousin. And somebody has to stay home to take care of them because they can’t be there during the show.’ [When we do a sensory friendly performance] we get groups of 10 or 20 because it’s the cousins, and the uncles, and the grandparents supporting because it’s the first time that they’re able to go out together and enjoy a performance as a family,” Sanchez-Best said.

It can be an emotional experience. Sanchez-Best sees a lot of parents crying, overwhelmed by the joy of experiencing a performance with their child for the first time. Parents are grateful to be in a judgement-free space, where their child can make loud sounds or wander around the room without people staring or asking them to leave.

For some neuro-divergent people, knowing what to expect at a show is helpful, so a venue might provide a schedule. For their upcoming Seattle performance, Dan + Claudia made a couple videos, introducing themselves and their instruments to the audience before the show.

Dan Zanes has made a living touring the world with various bands since the 1980s, and has collaborated with artists like Lou Reed, Philip Glass, and Sharon Jones. He started playing music for children when his daughter was born 26 years ago.

“This music will help you get a platform, and when you have a platform then you try and do something good in the world,” Dan said. “You know, you don’t just sing about cupcakes and putting on a pair of short pants. You also use whatever popularity you might have to advance positive ideas.”

The Dan + Claudia Zanes show will stream for free between May 24 to June 4, 2021. Click here to register. Learn more about STG’s sensory friendly performances here.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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