Sensory-friendly entertainment: Night Train 57 to present a comic folk opera April 5

Courtesy photo Dan Zanes and Claudia Eliaza are shown with friends. Zanes and Eliaza, along with Yuriana Sobrino, below, will perform during Night Train 57, a sensory-friendly comic folk opera at 4 p.m. April 5 at Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park.

Tyrone mother Kim Capenos tries to plan ahead when it comes to anticipating the needs of her three daughters who are on the autism spectrum, but sometimes no amount of pre-planning works perfectly.

She wishes more people who encounter her family displayed as much understanding, empathy and acceptance as Maestra Theresa Cheung did at an Altoona Symphony Orchestra performance earlier last season.

“I selected seats toward the front but on the side,” Capenos explained. “This way the girls could get up and dance. The director was so wonderful about it and remarked that she wished more people would get up and dance. It was so wonderful for her (Cheung) to comment positively and say she wished more people would join them. She understood the girls were feeling the music and it inspired them to get up and dance.”

Capenos attended a “community discussion” earlier this year in State College organized by the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State in advance of a sensory-friendly performance originally scheduled this month has been postponed to April 2020 due to illness within the cast.

“We gained so much awareness from the parents and even more so from the neurosensitive adults who also attended and self-advocated,” Medora Dutton Ebersole said. Ebersole serves as the center’s education and program manager.

The center presents Night Train 57, a sensory-friendly comic folk opera on April 5.

CPA invited Roger Ideishi, director and professor of occupational therapy at Temple University, to help the center prepare for Night Train 57.

Ideishi’s visit helped facilitate the meeting and was funded by the Bill and Honey Jaffe endowment, which also pays for a portion of the busing costs for schools to attend school-time matinees.

“A performance’s ability to provide multiple points of entry into the artistic experience is something we always keep in mind when programming for families and schools,” Ebersole said. “Night Train 57’s singalongable songs filled with festive instrumentals and use of imaginary play draws everyone in so we knew it would be perfect! The artists Dan Zanes and Claudia Eliaza are at the forefront of the emerging sensory friendly movement which the Center for the Performing Arts is excited to join.” CPA is among “a growing wave of presenters in Central PA who are making small but very visible changes in our venues so that individuals with a wide range of needs, their families and their classmates feel welcome and can also have performing arts experiences,” she said. A few of those changes: acknowledge that waiting can be difficult for some so staff will anticipate an influx of arrivals right at curtain time and an advance introduction of masked characters.

Soaring Heights operates licensed private academic schools offering educational and behavioral programming for students ages 5 to 21 diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or in need of emotional support services. Among its locations are Altoona, State College, and Clearfield. And, it plans to have students attend the show.

John Dibert, principal and program director at Soaring Heights Schools, found the community discussion helpful.

“It was great to see other community programs looking to expand their activities to the Autistic communities,” he said. “Parents of students on the spectrum are looking to expand activities that can include their children.”

Capenos attended the discussion to share the challenges she faces with Marabeth, 23, Lavender, 16, and KasmirPaige, 15, whether it be attending a performance or eating dinner at a restaurant. All three daughters benefit from a therapeutic support staff person.

“For venue staff who haven’t been educated, they often want children to remain like statues in their seats which is unrealistic. If the child isn’t impairing another patron’s view, it’s better to let the child be. She often comes back to her seat on her own,” Capenos said.

The family — and often each child’s therapeutic support staff person — attends sensory-friendly performances in Pittsburgh and Philipsburg where they occur more often and also to the Bennedum to see “Wicked” and professional ballet performances.

“The worry of being censured by the public keeps many away,” Ebersole said. “And the expectations of behavior in a theater can be especially daunting. One really creative idea that assistant ticketing manager Shannon Arney proposed for Night Train 57 is to identify certain rows for flexible seating and for pacing. Marketing is busy creating a guide that even shows what the parking garage looks like and the route into the building.” (For more information about changes, visit https://cpa.psu.edu/ sensory)

Capenos said she’s received dirty looks, stares and derogatory comments if a child acts out in public, despite her best efforts. Over the decades between her eldest’s diagnosis to now, she has noticed an increase in tolerance from other diners in restaurants as awareness of autism spectrum diagnoses have increased.

“How are my kids going to learn how to eat out or behave in public if I never take them out so they can learn,” Capenos asked rhetorically. “I’ve had people tell me to leave them at home and I won’t do that. That’s not helping them to learn.”

One of the suggestions Capenos had for those attending the community discussion was to allow activity and snack bags, and comfort articles into venues. Also helpful is advance notice if costumed characters will be interacting with the audience.

“In the Lion King show we attended, the characters would come quietly down the aisles and interact with the children. Interaction is good, I get that, but for a child with AS it’s hard,” she explained, but the children can be told it will happen and that helps.

When “Disney’s The Lion King” returns to the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh Sept. 4-29, Campenos said, she and other families plan to attend.

At movie theaters, she explained that it is very helpful to allow families to bring small food items, sensory-soothing items such as weighted blankets and special seating that helps children succeed at sitting still. Also, many children find the noise level overstimulating and painful for their ears, so Capenos recommends noise-blocking headsets to reduce the noise level for the child without impeding hearing for the audience.

“I prepare three bags — one for each child — that has stress balls, quiet activity books, easy-to-eat snacks, like gold fish crackers and gummy bears and other items,” she said. Her youngest, whom she calls “her wiggle-worm” has difficulties sitting still. What helped keep KashmirPaige “grounded and calm” was an inflatable seat recommended by an occupational therapist. However, Kim often encountered “push back” from theater staff.

“I’d tell them that having this chair would make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone — especially people around us,” she said. “Parents know what to bring for our kids to be successful,” she said.

Another tactic she frequently employs is sitting in the last row of a theater.

This allows her children to stand up and move around without interfering with other patrons’ views and also permitted a quick exit if the child needed a quiet place to calm down.

“A lot of theaters now are offering quiet rooms where children can go for a break from the action or the noise to avert a ‘meltdown’ (which occurs when a child feels over-stimulated and over-whelmed). If that’s not available, a parent often finds herself in the restroom trying to calm the child. And, that’s not ideal either.”

Mirror Staff writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

If you go

What: Night Train 57, a sensory-friendly comic folk opera featuring Dan Zanes, Claudia Eliaza and Yuriana Sobrino

When: 4 p.m. Sunday, April 5

Where: Center for the Performing Arts, Penn State University, Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park

Tickets: $19 adults and children 18 and younger, $15 University Park Students; phone 863-0255