Seattle Opera makes inclusivity a priority with sensory performances

Opera music

The Seattle Opera prioritizes inclusivity with a sensory performance of “Earth to Kenzie” at 11 a.m. Sunday.

“Earth to Kenzie” is part of Seattle Opera’s summer lineup designed to appeal to young people and families, but for Sunday’s sensory performance, Seattle Opera has hired sensory consultant Tiffany Sparks-Keeney to make “Earth to Kenzie” accessible and enjoyable for children with different sensory needs.

Sparks-Keeney is an occupational therapist and professor of occupational therapy at the University of Puget Sound who has consulted with Seattle Children’s Theater on sensory performances in the past, most recently “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”

“As a sensory consultant, I help make theatrical and artistic experiences as accessible and enjoyable to as many people as possible,” Sparks-Keeney said.

When asked to consult, Sparks-Keeney said she comes to the theater, watches a performance, and identifies aspects of a performance that create heightened sensation — bright lights, loud or tense music or background noise, emotional content – ​​things that can affect people with higher sensitivities. She notes what steps can be taken to address certain issues, such as keeping house lights on halfway or turning down the sound at key moments, which she shares with the theater’s production staff. She also develops a plan that meets individual needs, such as creating a space for children to walk around while watching or creating a separate space for children who need to disengage from the crowds while using technology.

Sparks-Keeney also writes a story guide outlining what audiences can expect at various points in the performance to reduce surprises. Finally, she will create a physical layout guide identifying where everything is in the theater to take the guesswork out.

“It reduces some of the anxiety, so their experience is more enjoyable,” Sparks-Keeney said.

She said that through her work as a consultant, she has developed a universal, sensory design model that can benefit everyone but specifically enhances the experience for some people.

“I think the main thing, the most important thing that we do is welcome people in and say, ‘Hey, this is your show, and it’s reserved so that it’s a safe space for everyone. here,'” she said.

Sparks-Keeney said sensory performance not only benefits children, it also puts parents at ease because they are non-judgmental areas.

“What we’re trying to do is create a community and bring people who don’t always participate in activities and welcome them,” Sparks-Keeney said.

Sparks-Keeney said that while she primarily consults for children’s theater, she hopes more organizations incorporate sensory performances as part of their regular programming.

“Any theater in the area can do sensory performance, and I’d love to see it expand into adult performance,” she said.

Sparks-Keeney said her training in dance and musical theater as well as her master’s degree in occupational therapy and doctorate in instructional leadership helped her create a successful role model.

“It really is the perfect combination of all my skills put together,” she said.

She said her work as an occupational therapist aligns well with her work as a sensory consultant because of the way occupational therapists analyze and break down from an occupational perspective the types of activities people want to participate in and offer. tools they can use to make them successful.

Sparks-Keeney said she is now taking these tools developed at the clinic and applying them in a community setting.

“I kind of think of the whole audience as my client,” she said.

Seattle Opera presents four performances of “Earth to Kenzie,” at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., June 4 and 5. The first performance on Sunday is the most sensory. The 2 p.m. show will include an American Sign Language interpreter.