Sensory Friendly Project – The Polar Express

Written by Jamie Abelson

In 2018, Chicago Children’s Theatre was contacted by the folks at Rail Events Productions about consulting with them to create a sensory friendly version of their annual family tradition “The Polar Express Train Ride.” This immersive holiday theatrical experience is based on the beloved book “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg and deftly recreates the story of the book on actual trains around the country.

In the months leading up to Christmas, we worked with their production team, led my Holli Hipwell, to transform elements of the production to make it more sensory friendly an inviting to children with autism. This process included making small changes to the production design, including changing the strobing lighting effects, turning down the volume of the music and performer amplification, and transforming participatory group moments into more individualized interactions. We decided to reserve 2 cars on each train as “quiet cars” for children needing a break from the performance.  Each “quiet car” provided teaching artist support, sensory friendly toys, and “social stories” that visually describe the performance to audience members feeling anxiety during the experience.

When it came to training the acting companies on how to alter their performances for children with autism, we decided to partner with the wonderful people at Infinteach to create a comprehensive training for performers new to this type of work.  Along with their team, Lally Daley, Christopher Flint, Katie Hench, and Ned Williams, we created an afternoon of trainings about autism, how to anticipate specific behaviors and responses, and performing tips for creating sensory friendly experiences.

Like all new programs, the first year was challenging in terms of reaching a new audience, but with all the organizations involved spreading the word, the first year was a huge success. In fact, many of the performers and production staff involved mentioned that the sensory friendly performance was one of their favorite experiences during the project.

In 2019, we were able to extend the program to train rides in Whippany, NJ and New Orleans, LA as well as returning to Chicago for a second year. We scheduled a marathon of trainings around the country led by Chicago Children’s Theatre and Infiniteach staff. Joining the actors at the trainings were members from 2 wonderful organizations, Kaiser’s Room in New York City and Soar with Autism in New Orleans. These groups of teachers, families, and artists staffed the train during the sensory friendly rides to support the audience. The amount of families taking advantage of this amazing experience grew exponentially from the first year to the second and we are so proud to have helped Rail Events offer this unique experience to children with autism all across the country.

New York Times Announcement

June 17, 2020 – Theatre for Young Audiences USA (TYA/USA) in partnership with the Center for Scholars & Storytellers (CSS), based at UCLA, announces the release of the Exploring the Landscape of Live Theatre for Young Audiences in the US Report. Initiated last year by the leadership of TYA theatres across the country who were interested in understanding and confronting the inequity across the industry, the study was commissioned by TYA/USA to provide concrete data as a tool for meaningful change and accountability. Key findings demonstrate that the TYA industry has made strides for increased representation in terms of gender and race across the last decade, but racial diversity in live theatre for young people is not yet representative of the US population. The study showed that productions by POC playwrights nearly doubled in the last decade, but the overall total was still only 20% in the 2018/19 season. Moreover, productions helmed by POC directors accounted for 15% of the 2018/19 season. Examining the national landscape in this way provides an important step in creating an equitable TYA industry that represents all children and families across the US.

This landmark study offers the first-ever analysis of representation of gender and racial diversity of this scale to be conducted of the plays being produced for young audiences across the country, including the stories that are presented and the actors, playwrights, and directors who create them. TYA/USA was inspired to pursue this research based on the work of the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition and their efforts to collect similar data across the Off-Broadway community. Compiled by the Center for Scholars & Storytellers, the report shares data representing the productions from TYA/USA member theatres across the 2018/19 season and compares it to the 2008/09 season. Research demonstrates that diverse representation is an issue across disciplines and media, supporting the need for studies like this one to illuminate the significant work left to achieve.

Read the Report

New York Times Article

Together | #blacklivesmatter

Dear Chicago Children’s Theatre Families,

The recent days have been hard for our nation and our city as we experience and witness the ongoing protests that seek justice for the unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Sean Reed.

Chicago Children’s Theatre expresses solidarity with everyone fighting injustice in Chicago and across America.

Black Lives Matter

At Chicago Children’s Theatre, we believe in the ability of children to have thought-provoking conversations about challenging themes; this belief is a guiding principle in our work and mission.

Children are observant seekers of truth and understanding. The topic of race is one that adults must address and speak about truthfully to young people. Your children are likely to have lots of questions right now. We respect that every family is different. Each family will have different needs and approaches to answering these questions.

Below are links to tools and tips for talking with your children about race and current events.

We encourage you to:

> Reassure your children that they are safe
> Listen with your full attention
> Inform through age-appropriate conversations
> Acknowledge their feelings
> Encourage them to ask questions

Resources that may be useful –

> Parent Toolkit: How to Talk to Kids about Race and Racism
> 31 Children’s books to support conversations on race, racism, and resistance
> Pretty Good Design’s Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race: Resource Roundup
> How to Educate your Children on Riots & Protests
> George Floyd was a Dad

Lastly, what we can we, Chicago Children’s Theatre, do for you and your family right now? Please reach out to us and let us hear how you and your children are doing. We want to be a resource for our community (you). We are ready to listen and to serve you and your children with love, humility, and compassion. EMAIL US

In solidarity,

CCT Staff, Artists, and Board of Directors