What to Know About Sensory-Friendly Performances

Have questions about PNB’s sensory-friendly performance? We’re here to help! Read on to learn about what a sensory-friendly performance is, what to expect at the shows, and more. 

What is a sensory-friendly performance? 

A sensory-friendly performance provides a welcoming and supportive environment for people with sensory processing challenges to enjoy live ballet with their friends and family. These performances have a relaxed environment which includes lighting and sound modifications and entry/exit privileges. During sensory-friendly performances, the lights in the theater stay on, fidget items are handed out and welcome, and patrons can move, vocalize, and behave in ways that are often unfamiliar in other performance settings.

A cloth box full of colorful fidget toys.
An orange sign that says "Sensory Area" stands in a dimly lit room full of green beanbags and toys.

Who should attend a sensory-friendly performance?

Sensory-friendly performances are designed for individuals who are neurodivergent or who have sensory processing challenges to enjoy a show with their friends and family. PNB strives to create a judgment-free theater experience for all audience members, and offering sensory-friendly performances helps us achieve this goal. 

People without sensory sensitivities are also welcome at these performances. Sensory-friendly performances can be a good option for young children or first-time theatergoers. We recommend these folks familiarize themselves with the theater modifications at sensory-friendly performances to help us create a welcoming, inclusive environment. 

How can we prepare for the show?

PNB has a lot of great resources to help you prepare for your performance! We recommend you review our sensory guides, which you can find here. Another helpful tool is PNB’s Social Narrative, which walks through your whole experience at the theater from entering McCaw Hall to leaving the performance. You can check out the Social Narrative here. Lastly, it’s often helpful to review the stories and characters of the ballet you’re attending. There are many articles on the PNB Blog describing the characters and stories of the ballets we perform.

What will the theater be like before the show?

When you walk into McCaw Hall, you’ll enter the lobby, which can have a lot of people in it and be noisy. There are designated quiet areas behind the gift shop and in the Norcliffe room throughout the lobby, as well as activity areas like a touch table on the orchestra level lobby and movement stations on the promenade level that you can visit while you wait for the show to begin. You can also pick up a sensory kit, which includes fidgets, noise-reducing headphones, and a communication card before the show. PNB staff and volunteers at McCaw Hall who have been trained to provide support will be available throughout the lobby.

An orange sign with the words "Touch Area" stands in a theater lobby.
People walk past a table with cloth costume elements like a red crown and a blue hat in the shape of a peacock.

What will the theater be like during the show?

The theater has special modifications during a sensory-friendly performance. Instead of being dark, the auditorium lights are on at a low level. Additionally, rather than remaining still and quiet in their seats, audience members are invited to talk and move around the theater during the performance. They can also use their tablets, smartphones, or other electronic devices with headphones during the show, as well as any manipulatives, support items, seat cushions, or other objects that they need. Each performance is different, but they all will have live music and dancers on stage. It’s helpful to review the Sensory Guide for the performance you are attending, so you can know what moments might be overwhelming. It is also important to note that a Sensory Friendly performance is not a shortened or edited version of the show, so please familiarize yourself with the runtime.

What if I get overwhelmed during the performance?

If you get overwhelmed during a performance, you are more than welcome to leave the theater auditorium. There are designated quiet spaces on the promenade level behind the gift shop and on the 1st tier in the Norcliffe room. You can also enjoy the performance on TVs throughout the hall. When you are ready, a friendly staff person will help you re-enter to enjoy more of the ballet!

A dimly lit room full of cushions, stuffed animals, and books.

What if I have mobility needs?

McCaw Hall is equipped with a total of 21 wheelchair-accessible spaces located at the rear of each level of the auditorium. These spaces also can accommodate walkers, service animals, or other mobility devices. All wheelchair-accessible spaces have at least one adjacent companion seat, with many offering three or more.

If you’d prefer to sit in a different area and have your wheelchair, walker, or other mobility device stowed during the performance, just speak with an usher upon entering the auditorium. The ushers can stow the devices and return them during intermissions and after the performance. 

PNB is proud to present our sensory-friendly ballets, and we hope you have the information you need to enjoy our next one! If you still have questions about our sensory-friendly performance, contact our knowledgeable Box Office staff; you can reach them at 206-441-2424 or tickets@pnb.org.

Photo credits: Front of house activities at PNB’s sensory-friendly performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® in 2021, photos © Noel Pederson.