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[Ability-Inclusive] Sensory Theatre

I define Ability-Inclusive Sensory Theatre, also known as just Sensory Theatre, as follows:

  • An immersive piece of theatre in which audience has intimate sensory experiences

  • Built with a thoughtful structure that is intentionally flexible in its implementation to allow for multiple avenues for engagement

  • Highly permissive of socially restricted behavior

  • Designed, from its inception, with a core motivation to include an audience which has previously been excluded from theatre because of their cognitive status

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Sensory theatre is distinct from sensory friendly performances. Sensory friendly performances are specific occasions when productions which were built for a “typical” audience make adjustments to the aesthetic and social environment to make the space more welcoming to a neurodiverse audience. Some common examples of sensory-friendly adjustments are dampening loud sound effects, leaving the house lights partially illuminated, and allowing the audience to move during a performance. Sensory theatre, in contrast, is built from the ground up  for neurodiverse audiences. Sensory friendly changes are often focused around avoiding sensory triggers rather than exploring a full range of sensory experiences. Sensory friendly adaptation also takes something made for a neurotypical audience and adjusts around the edges to allow in a broader audience – but the content was still made for the “typical” audience member.


In addition to sensory friendly adaptations and sensory theatre, there are many pursuits that fall into the broader umbrella of inclusive arts – drama education programs which include young disabled performers and performances for neurodiverse audiences which use methods different from sensory theater (for example, the Hunter Heartbeat Method); performances and performance collectives created by disabled people (for example, Graeae Theatre); and artforms outside of theatre which are made to be consumed by a primary audience of disabled people. While these pursuits often overlap and can learn from one another, there is also value in drawing boundaries around them for the sake of building community with practitioners who are doing similar work. Without a name for a genre, it is difficult for artists to find one another for support and artistic sharing, and difficult for potential audience members to discern what type of experiences they are interested in having.

Academic Resources on Sensory Theatre

See all of Molly's academic work here

Mattaini, Molly. "Creating Autistic Space in Ability-Inclusive Sensory Theatre." Youth Theatre

Journal. 30 July 2019. 

---. Ability-Inclusive Sensory Theatre in the United StatesUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison, PhD

Thesis, May 2022.

Brigg, Gillian. Theatre for audiences labelled as having profound, multiple, and complex learning

disabilities: assessing and addressing access to performance. University of Nottingham, PhD thesis, 2013.

Brown, Mark, ed. Oily Cart: All Sorts of Theatre for All Sorts of Kids. Trentham Books, 2012.

Fletcher-Watson, Ben and Shaun May. "Enhancing relaxed performance: evaluating the Autism Arts

Festival." Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance. 07 May 2018.

Goodwin, Jill. Sharing an Aesthetic Space of Refuge within a School for Pupils with Profound and

Multiple Learning Disabilities: Golden Tent." University of Winchester, PhD thesis, 2019.

Griffiths, Ellie. "Looking to the Future: Sensory Performance Work for Neurodiverse Audiences."

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, 2016.

Hubshman (Leigh), Samantha. "Art for Everyone." TYA Today. Vol. 29 No. 2, 2015. p. 30-35.

Mahoney, Alison. Sensory Theatre for Neurodiverse Audiences during Covid 19. Ulster University, MA

thesis, Sept 2020.

Napel, Maddie. Seesaw Theatre: A Model for Inclusive Theatre Practice within the American University

Setting. Northwestern University, BA honors thesis, 30 Jan 2017.

Shaughnessy, Nicola. Applying PerformanceLive Art, Socially Engaged Theatre and Affective

Practice. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2012.

Of particular interest: Chapter 6, section 6.5 - "Through the looking glass: the autistic consciousness and post-dramatic theatre: Jacqui Russell and Red Kite (Chicago Children's Theatre)"

---. “Imagining Otherwise: Autism, Neuroaesthetics and Contemporary

Performance.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, vol. 38, no. 4, December 2013, p. 321- 334.

--- and Trimingham, Melissa. "Imagining the Ecologies of Autism." Routledge Companion to Theatre,

Performances, and Cognitive Science. Routledge, New York, 2019, p. 316-329.

---. "Curious Incidents: Pretend Play, Presence, and Performance Pedagogies in Encounters with

Autism" Creativity and Community among Autism-Spectrum Youth: Creating Positive Social Updrafts through Play and Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2016, p. 187-216.

Shoenenberger, Heidi. "Slow Theatre: Creating Multi-Sensory Experiences." ASSITEJ Magazine2019.

p. 58-59.

Shaw, Kerry. The Red Kite Project. DVD. Rascals and Rogues with Chicago Children’s Theatre, 2010.

Wood, Margot. "Performing Arts for Participants with Neurological/Physical/Cognitive Challenges."

Diversity, Representation, and Culture in TYA. International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network, planned for printing 2020.

Other Resources

Upfront Performance Network

Flow Observatorium

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