The Dragon Hatcher: WMU to offer its first production that will have a sensory friendly performance

One of the eight presentations of "Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher", featuring dragon puppets, will be staged to be inviting to those with sensory concerns. 

In theater, it's the goal of the cast and crew to present scenes as vividly as possible.

Especially when there are dragons involved.

"Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher" will run March 10-19 at Western Michigan University. For its March 11, 1 p.m., performance, WMU theater will present a sensory-friendly version for audiences with special needs and their families. This is their first such modified production.

The adaptation, by local playwright Tucker Rafferty, of Bruce Coville's children's book shows the magical happenings hatched when a boy receives a dragon's egg. All performances will have "full contact puppetry,"  which means the puppeteers' hand is in direct contact with the puppet rather than moving it with strings, puppet director Jason Potgieter says.  

The puppet artist out of Cape Town, South Africa, worked with the WMU Theatre Department on another play full of beasts, "King Stag," in 2014.

Though "Dragon Hatcher" is a milder show for children, Potgieter's going for the same style of puppet theater, with life-sized creatures controlled by actors and puppeteers who appear on stage rather than being hidden. "It's about getting people to use their imaginations a different way, getting them to see the magic of the puppetry when the puppeteer is present," Potgieter says.

As-is, it should be a fun show for all, but it could be too much for some.

Getting to know the dragons

To make it sensory-friendly, particularly for children with autism, the house lights will be up and the sound will be softer.

There will be a pre-show meet-'n'-greet with the dragons and other creatures. "The kids will be able to meet the puppets before, so it's not so overwhelming to have them suddenly running on stage barking and jumping around, and dragons flying everywhere," Potgieter says.

The WMU School of Psychology is helping out the March 11 show, too.

When doctoral candidate Alissa Anne Conway heard about the project, "I was very interested in this opportunity, as community involvement is often very difficult for the families I work with because the children often require some accommodations that prevent them from attending popular events."

She met with cast and crew, "and they were very receptive to my information about what they might encounter during the performance," Conway says. She informed them that "the children will most likely be moving about, and the noise level of the audience is expected to be louder than they are used to."

Interactions with the children at the pre-show meet might include "alternative communication, picture exchange, tablet devices" she told the cast. "The cast were also provided examples of vocal outbursts and some other behavior that may be new to experience during the show."

She worked to plan a "quiet space" where families can take a time-out, and enlisted help from nonprofit support group Parent to Parent of Southwest Michigan and others. "The response so far has been amazing."

Conway emphasizes "that this experience is so important for the families in the community." 

Puppets as a conduit of communication

Dr. R. Wayne Fuqua, current professor and former department chair of WMU's psychology department, says, "Many children on the autism spectrum find social interactions to be challenging. That, along with sensory changes -- often linked to sensory sensitivities and repetitive behavior -- and language deficits are the three primary defining features of autism. There is a great deal of person-to-person variability but, in general, children on the spectrum have difficulty interpreting social cues and social situations and often have problems with 'perspective taking' -- seeing the world through another person's perspective."

Puppets could be a "less-threatening" conduit of communicating with children with autism, Potgieter speculates. "If you have ten actors on stage, it can be incredibly overwhelming, but if there are ten puppeteers on stage, plus puppets, it's far less threatening." 

Fuqua clarifies that "simplified social situations, including those with simplified characters such as puppets or cartoon characters, can be more understandable than more complex real-life social contexts."

He continues, "Exposure to social situations and opportunities is important but seldom enough by itself. There is typically a need for children to have opportunities to engage in social interactions and to get reinforcement and corrective feedback. It really helps if the social situations can be adjusted to be 'manageable' for children on the spectrum, and then gradually made more complex as the children develop a better understanding of social situations and develop better social coping skills."

A chance to experience culture and community 

Having a manageable theater experience gives these children a chance to experience a simply entertaining cultural event outside of home or school -- but could it also be therapeutic, educational?

"Any opportunities to engage children on the spectrum with social and community opportunities can be educational and also improve overall quality of life for the children and their families," Fuqua says. "It is wonderful that the Theatre Department is providing this type of opportunity for children on the autism spectrum and their families to enjoy a cultural event."

Jeff Garrett, community development program manager of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, agrees that there is a real need state-wide for cultural experiences suited for families with special needs.

MCACA, charged with overseeing the granting process of state funds to nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, has been seeing a growing demand for sensory friendly and other accessible cultural events.

"We know that persons with disabilities are underserved in many communities and in many venues," Garrett says. So MCACA is planning a pilot program "to provide training to arts and cultural organizations about accessibility and inclusion."

The expected start of the pilot program is this summer. It'll be based in the Grand Rapids area and surrounding counties, then go state-wide if successful, he says.

"It's not a mystery," Garrett adds. "Arts and culture are beneficial to everyone at some level.”

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist working out of southwest Michigan since 1992. For more information visit his website.