Broadway is Bustling; Sensory-Friendly Shows, Not So Much



The Lion King billboard on Broadway. Photo by Natalie Demaree

Barbara Gold Strate hoped to share her love of theater with her young daughter, but when the 2-year-old was diagnosed with autism, Strate stopped going to the theater altogether. That changed when she found out about sensory-friendly Broadway performances and realized she didn’t have to give up her passion at all.

“I kind of stopped because, you know, dealing with a child with autism is a full-time job,” said Strate. “It was by me bringing her to the sensory-friendly shows that kind of got me going back to the theater with my friends again.”

The Theatre Development Fund, an arts non-profit, has been working with Broadway theaters to provide sensory-friendly performances since 2011. But the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for the organization, threatening the number of performances it produces. Before the pandemic shut down Broadway theaters in March 2020, TDF put on six sensory-friendly performances a year. This season, because of low demand, the organization has announced a lineup of four performances with a fifth one still to be confirmed, raising concerns that the program could take a pause if things don’t turn around.

“Our ticket sales are not back where they were pre-Covid,” said Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs at the Theatre Development Fund. “The interest is there, the appetite is there, they want to go to autism friendly performances, but they’re not quite ready yet.”

A sensory-friendly performance is defined by the Theatre Development Fund as a musical or play designed to create a welcoming, supportive atmosphere for people with autism or other sensory sensitivities. Certain lighting may be adjusted, the sound is lower, and audience members are allowed to speak or make sound whenever they want throughout a show.

“It means so much to families to be able to come and be in a welcoming, judgment free environment where they don’t have to apologize. Everyone can just be themselves,” said Carling.

Strate and her daughter, Sarah, now 26, are regulars at sensory-friendly Broadway performances, commuting from New Jersey, said Strate.

“We go to all of them. We have tickets to see the Lion King (for like the 10th time lol),” said Strate in a Facebook message.

Strate had taken her daughter Sarah to the theater before the Theater Development Fund’s sensory-friendly performances debuted in 2011.

“My daughter actually attended two shows that were just regular shows. She saw “Beauty and the Beast” and “Tarzan” and it was very, very stressful,” said Strate. “When TDF started doing the shows, it was like a godsend because now she could go to the theater and be who she is, and it was perfect.”

While she’s grateful that these performances are options for her daughter, Strate said she wishes there were a wider variety of shows available.

“How many times can you see The Lion King?” said Strate. “We go to see it every single time they offer it. Now for somebody with autism, that’s great because they love repetition. But for somebody who isn’t autistic—you want to kind of kill yourself.”

Carling said TDF aims to offer more performance options, but the pandemic has set back those hopes because of low attendance at the shows. “Is it crime in Times Square? Is it expenses? I mean, everything’s going up,” she said. “Is it fear of COVID? We don’t know.”

If ticket sales increase this season, the Theatre Development Fund plans to add back a sixth show to next year’s lineup. But if the season goes poorly or theaters are shut down again, the program will be paused, said Carling.

Ray Mercer, is an ensemble member in “The Lion King.”

“Even backstage, sometimes you hear the cast and the crew mention that this is one of their favorite shows that they do every year,” said Mercer, who recalled a special moment meeting a mother in the audience.

“I can remember her face, and she said that she is so happy that we had this performance, because this was her daughter’s favorite show. And she would probably never ever been able to bring her to a Broadway show under normal conditions,” said Mercer.

This season of sensory-friendly performances kicks off Sunday, October 2 withThe Lion King.”