The house lights at the Millburn theater will remain on throughout the production, albeit dimmed. The volume of the show will be lower than usual. And parents and their children won’t be stopped if they want to walk around — or even change their seats.
But the reason is simple.
The production — a faithful adaptation of the classic 1952 children’s book, put on by New York City troupe Theatreworks USA at 10 a.m. on April 29 — is one of the many “sensory-friendly” performances that Paper Mill puts on every year. For these shows, the atmosphere of the theater is redesigned to accompany families with children who have autism and other special needs.
“It’s wonderful to be able to open up our audience in a way for them to be comfortable,” says Rafi Levavy, the stage manager for this production. “It’s wonderful to give them the opportunity to experience theater.”
Often, experts say, that isn’t so easy. Autism is a mental disorder in which people find it difficult to communicate and form relationships with others. And children with autism may experience sounds and visual stimulation differently than others, making some situations — such as movies or live theater — difficult to attend.
One in 41 children in New Jersey have an autism spectrum disorder, according to data released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the highest rate of any state in the U.S. The rate nationally is 1 in 68 children.
Paper Mill is one of a few theaters in the Garden State that offer sensory-friendly performances. The State Theatre in New Brunswick and Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown are two others. More and more in recent years, live theaters, movie theaters, and sports arenas across the country have hosted similar events.
But Paper Mill takes it a step further. Six years ago, the theater created an Autism Advisory Team to examine ways to best bring theater to these audiences.
Linda Meyer, a team leader and an expert in autism education, says the theater started the program in 2011 after hearing from multiple parents who had “devastating” experiences bringing their autistic children to shows at other theaters.
“In many circumstances, they were asked to leave,” Meyer explains.
So Lisa Cooney, Paper Mill’s director of education, met with Meyer and others to develop the program — to encourage families that their theater is a place where they could “have a positive experience and feel welcomed.”
“We do these performances to give parents a sort of break — to come and be relaxed,” Cooney says.
For these events, Paper Mill sells only 800 of the venue’s 1,200 seats, giving families room to move and change their seats if they wish. The theater also hosts “meet your seat” orientation events in the days before the shows to get families acquainted with the productions.
Meanwhile, there is an activity center — known as a “chill-out zone” — in the lobby upstairs. The show continues to play on a TV monitor there.
“Families are never told to leave, but some parents want to leave,” Cooney explains.
Children are also allowed to talk during the show if they need to. And there are volunteer staff members throughout the theater to help with any needs families may have.
Fittingly, Saturday’s performance of “Charlotte’s Web” falls during Autism Awareness Month. (There will also be a “standard” version of the show at 10 a.m. on Sunday, April 30.)
For those who never read it in elementary school, the tale — penned by E.B. White — is about a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte.
The play version is an hour long, with five actors playing 20 parts. Yes, the actors wear costumes to portray the barnyard animals.
“It’s a great way to make literature come alive for the kids,” says Levavy, the stage manager, who has spent the last 18 years with Theatreworks USA, a children’s theater troupe that puts on about 10 to 15 shows across the country at any point during the year, often at schools.
For the most part, the show itself Saturday won’t be much different from a standard performance. The script and acting are the same.
But Theatreworks take out loud noises — such as the sound of fireworks during a scene set at a county fair.
“The audience is a little louder,” Levavy adds. “It’s something the actors aren’t used to. But it’s kind of exciting. It keeps the actors on their toes.”
For Levavy, the show is a bit of a homecoming. He grew up in nearby Maplewood, and his parents took him to see shows at Paper Mill throughout his childhood. He was also an intern at the theater during college.
Paper Mill has two other sensory-friendly shows coming up: “Pete the Cat” on June 11 and “Mary Poppins” on June 23.
And on Friday, the theater will host a school field-trip performance of the sensory-friendly production of “Charlotte’s Web” in which they’ve invited theaters and nonprofits who support autism awareness to see the production.
“We are forming a statewide committee to share these ideas and models,” Cooney says.
Paper Mill Playhouse presents a sensory-friendly performance of Theatreworks USA’s “Charlotte’s Web” on April 29 at 10 a.m. Learn more and get tickets.