TWO NIGHTS BEFORE their spring musical, Legally Blonde, officially opened, the Morristown High School theatre department (New Jersey, Thespian Troupe 4647) welcomed guests into the auditorium. Ushers passed out fidget spinners and stress balls to guests along with abbreivated, image-heavy programs. They reviewed how to access the adjacent “chill room,” where attendees could lounge in bean bag chairs and watch a live stream of the show. At the curtain speech, audience members were asked to turn off their cell phones, refrain from flash photography — and feel free to talk, eat snacks, leave, come back, and move around the auditorium at will.

Morristown High School's production of Legally Blonde.

Morristown High School’s production of Legally Blonde. Photo courtesy of Morristown High School Theatre.

This is not your average performance. But then, “average” has never been enough for MHS’s theatre department. The group is regularly honored with statewide award nominations and wins for both artistic excellence and creative inclusion for individuals with special needs. Artistic director Michael Maguire, producer Ralph Losanno, and their students and colleagues developed the sensory-friendly performance here described for audience members on the autism spectrum or with other special needs — or even just families with small children who want to see a show without disrupting the peace.

“There were families who came up to us after … who said, ‘thank you so much for doing this, because this was the first time we were able to take my child to a show,’” says Losanno. “There were these families with small kids, and adults who had never been to a theatre before, and who had lived in town all their lives … People were so genuinely appreciative.”

For the sensory-friendly show, mics were reduced, lights kept dimly lit in the house to facilitate movement, audience size restricted, and trained adult staff were on-hand should attendees need support. Student director Asha Sanderson provided a video welcome/orientation, which local media sites posted before the show. To help guests feel familiar with the theatre, Maguire and Losanno invited attendees to come to a “meet your seat” event for one hour a week before the show. In the 2017-18 school year, they plan to bring in both an ASL interpreter and a PTSD-trained therapy dog.

For these and other efforts, MHS was nominated for the 2017 Paper Mill Playhouse statewide “Theater for Everyone” Inclusion and Access Award, which they previously won in 2016. The award is given by a panel of evaluators from Paper Mill Playhouse; VSA New Jersey, The State Organization on Arts and Disability; and the Cultural Access Network and includes a $1,000 grant.

In addition to the sensory-friendly shows, Morristown stages a special performance for senior citizens on the eve of opening night. Both performances are free of charge, and they double as the students’ final two dress rehearsals. These shows provide an extra layer of training for the cast, crew, and pit — how to go on with the show despite unexpected house distractions — not unlike a runner training at high altitudes before the race. “It’s also valuable professional experience,” Maguire points out. “Broadway theatres do [sensory-friendly shows] now. I think it’s great that they’re getting this parallel experience.”

Maguire and Losanno share a vision of high school theatre as a social nexus. “We have always felt the theatre should be a home for everyone,” says Maguire, himself a graduate of Morristown High School. “It was a home for [Losanno and me] when we were in high school, and we wanted to build the same safe and loving space we had for our students now.”

That means everything from reaching out to coaches to get more athletes involved — including cheerleaders and members of the varsity football team — to including more students with special needs. Leading the student committee for their sensory-friendly show was a recent grad and former crew member with cerebral palsy. Previously, for the 2016 spring musical, Once Upon a Mattress, they cast Amy Albin, who is blind.

“We created an environment where she felt comfortable auditioning, and we just looked at each other like, ‘Wow! This girl has such a dynamic vocal range!’” says Maguire. But the student’s blindness presented a logistical challenge. “How do we get her on and off stage in an organic way?” She landed the part of the Nightingale, and the crew developed a birdcage chair, which actors playing the knights could wheel on and off stage.

Amy Albin (left, with Kirsten Traudt), who is visually impaired, played the Nightingale of Samarkand in Morristown High School's production of Once Upon a Mattress.
Amy Albin (left, with Kirsten Traudt), who is visually impaired, played the Nightingale of Samarkand in Morristown High School's production of Once Upon a Mattress. Photo courtesy of Morristown High School Theatre.

Losanno admits that prioritizing inclusion and access isn’t always easy. “I’m not going to say that we just have this mindset and everything falls into place. There’s no magic wand or prescribed technique. We approach it in the same way that we approach kids in our classroom. We look at them and say, ‘what are their strengths?’” The school’s record of awards and nominations — recognizing everything from outstanding individual performances to excellence in scenic design, stage crew, and ensemble acting — can attest to the high quality achieved by these diverse groups.

These efforts got the attention of community groups, as well as their principal, superintendent, Board of Education, and other central office administrators. “The administration recognized that we were including so many people with such diverse backgrounds, and it kind of piqued their interest. We had them eager to be there, because they were so curious, and it also gave us the chance to have an honest conversation with them about what we needed moving forward,” says Losanno. Community partners began attending school board meetings to laud the theatre’s efforts, which increased admin support. Students have also gotten involved in fundraising efforts, and their successes provide opportunities for crosspromoting community partnerships.

For the theatre department at Morristown High School, simply sharing the magic of live theatre remains the best reward. “I think that’s why we all do what we do, because we all have this memory of going to the theatre as a kid, and being totally enthralled,” says Maguire. “I always say that the theatre program should be the heart of the high school, and with all these families coming together, from all these different backgrounds, I feel like it’s the heart of the community.”

This story appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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