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Arts & Culture

Behind The Scenes Of Sensory Friendly Production Of 'The Grinch'

The cast of the 18th annual production of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!," directed by James Vásquez.
Photo by Jim Cox
The cast of the 18th annual production of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!," directed by James Vásquez.
Behind The Scenes Of Sensory Friendly Production Of ‘The Grinch’
The Old Globe adjusts their production of "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!" to make it easier for families with kids on the autism spectrum.

The people of Whoville can be a really loud bunch. It's not just the incessant holiday singing, which drives the Grinch batty. They're also armed with those clever Seussian toys and musical instruments.

For the most part, the clanking and banging isn't an issue at the annual stage production of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" at The Old Globe Theatre. But for families with kids that have special needs, it can make seeing "The Grinch" impossible.

Four years ago, Lisa Porter took her daughter Daisy to see the show. Daisy was 7 and had already been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

"And I spent the whole time with her and another mom with a kid on the spectrum down below where the bathrooms are listening to the show on a speaker," Porter said.

Porter is an accomplished stage manager. She works on productions all over the world. "The Lion King" on Broadway had just staged a sensory friendly production. She asked the folks at the Globe if they would do the same. They agreed. Porter became an adviser for the production.

"So the first thing I did with the folks at Grinch is we just took the audio level on the actors and orchestra and turned it down," Porter said.

"For a lot of kids on the spectrum it’s the aural sense, what they hear and how it sounds," Porter said.

They got rid of sounds in certain frequencies. And they made other changes.

"We slowed things down and don't do anything in a black out," Porter said. They keep lights up during transition between scenes so the audience can see what’s happening and it won’t be a surprise. For kids on the spectrum, surprises can produce a lot of anxiety.

And then there's the mean and green Grinch character.

"The Grinch character in particular will be less aggressive toward the audience," Porter said. "For example, if he was going to jump out from back stage, we might have him put his hand out first."

Actor J. Bernard Calloway is playing the Grinch in this year's production. Calloway said he'll pull back on certain things, like using the whip when he's torturing his long-suffering dog Max.

But Calloway says they’re careful not to change the core of the story for these productions. The Grinch still has to start out pretty mean.

"So when his heart does have room to grow three times bigger at the end of the show, the kids can understand there’s a true change in this guy," Calloway said.

Porter prepares Calloway and the rest of the cast for another change: they may hear more distracting sounds from the audience during the sensory-friendly show.

"Because a lot of kids who are non-verbal express pleasure by squealing or making sounds that may sound unpleasant, but often it’s that child having a really great time," Porter said.

During the show, the kids are also allowed to get up and move around. Porter said, as a parent who wants her kid to experience theater, it’s such a relief to find a stigma-free environment.

"A bunch of us were like wow, it’s so amazing to not have to worry about being judged by the general public because my kid isn’t meeting their expectations about how they’re supposed to behave," Porter said.

Now, she and her family go every year.

"For us, it has become part of our holiday tradition and ritual because Daisy knows it's Thanksgiving, Grinch, Christmas," Porter said.

The cast performed the sensory-friendly version of "Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" last Saturday to a full house.