Theatre for All program creates inclusive theatre experience


Photo courtesy of Jill Grundstrom

SHOW TIME – Student performers rehearse for NMU’s production of “The Producers.” The show itself won’t change for the Theatre for All version of the performance, but will have reduced light and sound stressors and allow patrons to have more movement and noise flexibility.

Hannah Jenkins, Contributing Writer

Mel Brooks’ hit Broadway show “The Producers” is coming to NMU’s Forest Roberts Theatre.  This comedy musical follows the fictional exploits of theatre producer Max Bialystock and his accountant Leo Bloom after the former’s latest show closes on opening night. Bloom realizes that a producer could potentially make a bigger profit on a show that fails than on one that succeeds, and the pair set out to produce the most spectacular failure that show business has ever seen. 

To promote a more inclusive and sensory-friendly theatre experience, NMU Theatre and Dance has partnered with Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative in creating the Theatre for All initiative. 

The Theatre for All program hosts a special performance for each show presented by NMU, providing a supportive environment for those with light and sound sensitivities. “The Producers” Theatre for All performance will be held on Saturday, April 16.

The Theatre for All initiative is designed to give people with sensory issues an opportunity to go to the theatre in a safe environment where they can experience the production like every other patron,” Paul Truckey, theatre professor and director of “The Producers,” said.

The Theatre for All program was established at NMU as a result of a visit to New York City, during which members of the theatre department met with the Theatre Development Fund and were invited to experience a modified Broadway show.

Changes made for a Theatre for All performance include leaving some of the house lights up, keeping the sound at or below 100 decibels, providing noise-canceling headphones and fidget toys and building decompression areas in the lobby. Thanks to a fund that underwrites ticket costs, audience members undergoing financial difficulties can also participate in the theatre experience at no charge. 

“If you’re working with sensory overload as a barrier, we don’t want that to be the reason that you can’t come and see a show and that you can’t participate in an experience like this,” Jill Grundstrom, professor of dance, co-director of the Forests Roberts Theatre, and choreographer of “The Producers,” said. “So that’s what we’ve heard from a lot of people is just they’re really excited about the fact that they have access, and that they don’t have to feel like they’re being judged in the space.”

Despite the technical modifications and extra effort put into making an inclusive environment, the performance aspect remains unchanged. 

From a performance standpoint, the actors don’t do anything different. They perform all out,” Truckey said. “The only difference for them is learning to concentrate because audience members tend to move around a lot during a Theatre for All performance.”

Theatre for All also allows audience members to meet with the actors in costume after the show. This lets people who have tactile sensitivities see the different materials up close and personal.  

“We do character guides and have some extra program materials for these shows as well so that they can really get themselves acclimated to the experience before the show starts,” Grundstrom said. “We had an extra costume that we brought out so they can feel what the fabric is like.”

The Theatre for All program has been a success in the few years since NMU has implemented it. Family members with sensory sensitivities have been able to attend these theatre performances without the fear of being judged or disturbing others. 

“I hope that they just remember how fun it is to be in the theater with other people and experience live theatre,” Grundstrom said. “I hope that the audience just comes in and can check out for a couple of hours and just be here in the theatre and laugh and have a good time.”