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UW-Eau Claire production of ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to include sensory-friendly shows

| Julie Poquette

Area youth and their families will enter a fantastical world during the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s upcoming production of “James and the Giant Peach,” with two of nine performances being sensory-friendly shows to ensure the enjoyment of a neurodiverse audience.

Performances of “James and the Giant Peach” are slated for March 6-8 and 12-15 in the Jamf Theatre of the Pablo Center at the Confluence in downtown Eau Claire. The sensory-friendly shows are set for 10 a.m. on both Saturday, March 7, and Saturday, March 14. See the Pablo Center website for all March 6-8 and March 12-15 showtimes.

Student crew member hanging lights in Jamf Theatre

UW-Eau Claire student Chris Wangen, a sophomore pursuing a major in theatre arts education, hangs lighting in Jamf Theatre at Pablo Center at the Confluence in preparation for upcoming performances of "James and the Giant Peach."

The UW-Eau Claire music and theatre arts department production, directed by Dr. Jennifer Chapman, professor of theatre arts and theatre program coordinator, is an adaptation by David Wood of author Roald Dahl’s popular book. An elaborate set and props, along with student-composed music and special visual effects, will help tell the story of four-year-old James Henry Trotter and his adventures with his new friends Centipede, Miss Spider, Old Green Grasshopper, Earthworm, Ladybug, Glowworm and Silkworm, who help him in the face of cruel treatment by his aunts Sponge and Spiker.

Learn more about the elaborate set, music, lighting design, props and makeup that are part of UW-Eau Claire’s production of “James and the Giant Peach.”

Pre-performance resources

The following links go to resources that will help patrons prepare for the sensory-friendly performances of “James and the Giant Peach”:

  • The “’James and the Giant Peach’ Social Narrative” (sometimes called a “social story”) is a digital resource that walks patrons through the entire theater experience. This includes getting ready, arriving at the Pablo Center, waiting in the lobby, entering the theater, finding a seat, procedures during the show, after-show opportunities and exiting the theater.
  • The “’James and the Giant Peach’ Video Tour” is a six-minute video describing what the theater experience will be like. It also will help patrons accustom themselves with what the building and theater space will look like.

What is a sensory-friendly performance?

“We understand that some theater patrons in the Chippewa Valley may experience sensitivity to theater productions and need a variety of supports during a theater experience,” Chapman said. “This may include patrons who have autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other physical and special needs that make it difficult to participate in a traditional theater environment. The sensory-friendly performances of ‘James and the Giant Peach’ offer a space for everyone to enjoy the theater experience by making adjustments to lighting, sound and the theater itself.”

For example, the theater doors are left open for patrons to take a break if needed, Chapman said.

“Audience members are encouraged to be themselves at the show,” Chapman said. “Standing up, leaving to take a break, eating a snack, making noise, wearing noise-reducing headphones — these are all OK during our sensory-friendly shows.”

During sensory-friendly performances of “James and the Giant Peach,” the house (audience) lights will be on at about 40%, the volume of all music and sound effects will be lowered, and stage lighting and lighting effects will be adjusted so that the audience does not experience severe contrast. Also, helpers in the audience will hold up glow sticks at “big moments” that are sad, scary or exciting.

Patrons who do not want to watch these “big moments” can cover their eyes, cover their ears or exit to the “take-a-break” space that will be provided in the atrium of the theater for use at any time before, during or after the show. This is a more private space that will provide a variety of sensory manipulatives and activities.

Throughout the performance, patrons will see people in orange shirts wearing tags that say “James and the Giant Peach Helper.” These helpers will be there to assist audience members at any time during the theater experience. Helpers will be wearing backpacks that contain a variety of sensory manipulatives, and anyone is welcome to ask a helper to borrow something from their backpack at any time. Audience members also can also bring their own sensory materials, a quiet snack or a covered beverage from home.

New to the local live theater scene 

The sensory-friendly performances of “James and the Giant Peach” are a first for local live theater in Eau Claire, Chapman said.

“This is new for us as a department and a community, but not new in professional theater by any means,” Chapman said. “It’s very popular nationally to offer, among various accessible options, performances for people who have heightened experiences with various sensory inputs.”

To help UW-Eau Claire faculty, staff and students in creating the sensory-friendly shows, Chapman applied for and received grant funding to work with accessibility and inclusion consultant Diane Nutting, who collaborates with cultural arts groups nationwide to create welcoming arts programming for all. Nutting will attend dress rehearsals the week of March 1 to help UW-Eau Claire’s cast and crew make any needed changes to ensure the success of the sensory-friendly performances.

Grant funding also supported the hiring of two students to research sensory-friendly theater production and to begin preparing for the “James and the Giant Peach” performances. Since early December, UW-Eau Claire students Olivia Haven and Cole Estrem have been conducting that research and communicating with Nutting as they formed a plan for the modified performances.

“We started by researching websites and other available materials by theater companies that have already produced sensory-friendly performances,” said Haven, a choral music education major with a theatre arts education minor. “This helped us understand the overall concept of a sensory-friendly performance and the materials we would be producing. We also had the opportunity to see a sensory-friendly production in Minnesota. This was a valuable experience and we learned so much about what the sensory-friendly experience looks like.”

The biggest challenge for the student researchers has been applying what they’ve learned to create a sensory-friendly plan specific to UW-Eau Claire’s upcoming performances, said Estrem, who is pursuing a double major in English and French education and a theatre arts education minor.

“You can know how it needs to function, you can take a look at how other people have built it, but in this case, you need to make your own design and you don't necessarily have the same materials as other people did when they built theirs,” Estrem said. “Creating the plan, deciding how we are going to do it, that has been the most challenging.”

Haven, Estrem and Chapman partnered with the Autism Society’s Chippewa Valley chapter in designing the sensory-friendly performances. Support for their research and work with Nutting came from Student-Faculty Collaborative Research and Guest Artist grants through UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, as well as from the music and theatre arts department and UW-Eau Claire’s Division of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Student Affairs.

For more information or to arrange media interviews about UW-Eau Claire’s "James and the Giant Peach" production, including its sensory-friendly performances, contact Dr. Jennifer Chapman, professor of theatre arts and theatre program coordinator, at chapmajj@uwec.edu or 715- 836-5614.