CINCINNATI -- Jennifer Chamberlin watched a small boy cautiously peek out from behind the door at the Taft Theatre to catch his first glimpse of the Wicked Witch of the West last season during the Children's Theatre of Cincinnati's production of "The Wizard of Oz."
It wasn't a typical vantage point from which to enjoy the magic of live theater, but this wasn't a typical live show. It was a sensory-friendly performance intended for children on the autism spectrum and individuals with other sensory challenges as well as their families.
These special performances are now included in the Children's Theatre of Cincinnati's lineup each season. The shows feature the same cast and follow the professional theater company's vision of instilling a lifelong love of theater in children, but there are some adjustments: Slight modifications to lighting and sound are made and effects such as fog, strobes and lights that extend into the audience are minimized.
Additional resources are available to help parents prepare their child for the shows, and there's an area staffed by specialists where patrons can take a break from the performance if necessary.
The best part?
"It's a judgment-free zone," said Chamberlin, a Children's Theatre volunteer. "Kids have the freedom to get up and move around, shout out and even play with toys during the show to help keep their mind occupied."
Chamberlin, of Milford, knows the importance of that freedom for children with sensory challenges. Her teenage son, Nicholas, has special needs. He struggled with sensory issues when he was younger, she said.
"Back then, there was nothing like this available," she explained. "As a parent, it's really hard because you want to give your child every opportunity and you know how much they want to participate."
That's why seeing that little boy, who happens to have the same disability as her son, peeking out from behind the door was so heartwarming for the local mom.
"It brought tears to my eyes," she explained. Since then, Chamberlin has watched more and more children with special needs experience live theater in a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Last season, attendance soared from about 100 patrons at the theater's first sensory-friendly performance of "Alice in Wonderland" to nearly 500 at its productions of "The Wizard Of Oz" and "Tarzan," according to Kim Deaton, Children's Theatre of Cincinnati's managing director and CEO.
The most recent sensory-friendly production, Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat," sold out earlier this month. It was the first one held as part of the theater company's Showtime Series at Red Bank, which is hosted at a smaller performance space within its new facility on Red Bank Road.
"People are overjoyed to have the opportunity to experience live theater without worry that their child might disturb those around him or her, and they are able to enjoy the performance knowing there will be no startling effects," Deaton noted.
If ticket sales are any indication, the new initiative is a hit. The response from families and school groups in attendance at the shows has also been "overwhelmingly positive," she said.
Much of that success can be attributed to the sensory-friendly shows' judgment-free audience environment, she said.
Another key factor is all the work that has been put in behind the scenes, according to Jennifer Smith, a clinical psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst in Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
Smith is part of the Children's Theatre's Sensory-Friendly Committee. The company reached out to experts in the field to aid in the creation of the special performances, including staff from the Theatre Development Fund's Autism Theatre Initiative, an organization that implements sensory-friendly performances on Broadway.
Committee members include professionals from Cincinnati Children's and the University of Cincinnati's Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities as well as members of organizations such as the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, Cincinnati Occupational Therapy Institute and Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati.
"They set out to be more inclusive, and they went about it in the right way," Smith said of the Children's Theatre. "They were very mindful of the planning process and reached out to a variety of groups and got a lot of great feedback and input."
Smith trained the staff and cast to help prepare them for the sensory-friendly performances.
She said that special training and the added support and resources provided during the shows allow many children with disabilities to experience live theater for the first time.
"It's a beautiful thing to see," Smith said. "Our kids may need a little extra preparation and support, but once they get to the theater they love it."
Other arts organizations in Cincinnati, such as the Cincinnati Ballet, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, offer similar sensory-friendly performance opportunities.
"We're excited to see Cincinnati really embracing inclusiveness for our kids," Smith said. "They are receiving a lot of support from local arts organizations."
The Children's Theatre of Cincinnati's next sensory-friendly performance, "Peter Pan Jr.," will be held at 9:45 a.m. Oct. 30 at the Taft Theatre. For details, visit the Children's Theatre online.