Nova Knight, 7, raises her hand to answer a question from actor Patrick Livingston during a sensory-friendly performance of “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

BRUNSWICK – The Mysterious Man broke the fourth wall and walked right up to the audience in the front row.

“OK, guys, do any of you know what my secret is?” he asked the children seated there.

“You’re Jack’s father!” one blurted out.

It was a bit of spoiler, sure, but last weekend’s production of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” by Maine State Music Theatre was different by design from traditional shows.

There were no spotlights, or curtains, no booming orchestra or mic’d up actors. The actors weren’t up on a stage, separated from those who had come to watch. The audience didn’t always sit in silence between applause.

But the magic was the same. Maybe even bigger.


“I think we sometimes get more from these than the audience members,” said Curt Dale Clark, the theater’s artistic director, who with creative partner Marc Robin adapted the musical from the English fairy tale.

The June 4 performance was the first of two sensory-friendly shows put on this season by the professional theater company based in Brunswick. The second – “The Very Fractured Tale of Robin Hood” – is next month.

They are aimed at children for whom a standard theater experience might not be the right fit, such as children with autism spectrum disorder, or other social or physical challenges. The Brunswick theater is among the only performing arts organization in Maine that regularly produces such shows.

“I’ve been in the field for 25 years. I think we still have a ways to go,” said Cathy Dionne, executive director of the Autism Society of Maine. “It would be nice if we had many theaters doing this, if it just became a natural part of their operations.”

Parents who attended the recent show largely agreed but said they were grateful for this opportunity.

Ainsley Huckins, 8, watches a scene with actors Noam Osher, left, playing the role of Jack, and Lizzie Hall, playing the role of Miranda, during a sensory-friendly performance of “Jack and the Beanstalk” at the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“If you look hard enough, there are things you can find,” said Kerry Huckins of Windham, whose twin 8-year-old daughters, Jordan and Ainsley, were born with cerebral palsy. “But this was the first time we have come to a show here, or anything like this. I thought they did such a great job. Our girls had a wonderful time.”


The performers did, too.

Lizzie Hall, who played the princess in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” has performed in three sensory-friendly shows and said each has been memorable. The Yarmouth native said the shows serve almost like an extra rehearsal for the actors but are much more.

“The whole thing is very catered to what the kids and the families need,” Hall said. “So, we can adjust the show and make it more interactive. It’s always such a fun time and really rewarding.”


Last weekend’s performance started with introductions.

Clark had each actor tell the audience their name, who they would be playing and a little about themselves, but then encouraged the audience members to share their names, too.


From there, the cast and crew brought out costumes, set pieces and props. They even let some of the children handle the beans that play a major role in the story.

The sensory-friendly performances are held at Maine State Music Theatre’s rehearsal hall, not at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus. Rows of seats are arranged at one end of the big room, but there is no separation between cast and audience.

Colton Knight, 4, touches a gold coin made of wood prior to the performance. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Rebecca Knight of Topsham attended with her husband, Robby, and her children, Nova, 7, and Colton, 4. The younger child has always been sensitive to noises and sounds, Rebecca said.

“We thought it would be a great opportunity, and it was,” she said. “I really liked the way they walked through the production from start to finish. I think it made things a lot less scary for him.”

Knight said the family has gone to the movies on occasion, but the music is often too loud.

“Usually, one of us walks out (with Colton) and paces in the hallway,” she said.


At the theater’s sensory-friendly shows, there is a separate “quiet room” for parents who might need to give their children a break. The Knights didn’t need it, as it turns out, but one parent did use it last weekend. One of the major challenges of bringing a child to a traditional theater is what to do if they make too much noise.

Deborah Rooks-Ellis, director of the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research at the University of Maine, said sensory-friendly shows are hugely valuable because they promote inclusivity for all families.

“Guests are encouraged to freely respond to shows in their own way, and organizations relax the ‘house’ rules,’” she said. “Convention typically requires guests to remain quiet and seated throughout most shows, but during sensory-friendly performances, guests/families are welcome to do things like sing or dance.”

Betsy Puelle, who directed “Jack and the Beanstalk” and also teaches theater at Yarmouth High School, said she approaches the sensory-friendly shows similarly to a main stage show.

“Then we sort of go through and see if there are some parts that are too loud, or maybe too scary, and we can make adjustments,” she said.

Puelle tells all the actors that no show is better for their egos.


“It’s such a moving experience to be able to reach those children in that way and have them experience this art form,” she said.


Once last Saturday’s performance began, the children were hooked.

They had seen the actors out of costume beforehand and knew what to expect. They knew Jack’s horse was played by two actresses, one standing upright with a costumed head, the other bent at the waist behind her.

When the giant appeared, the audience already had been warned about his deep, booming voice.

Maine State Music Theatre started offering sensory-friendly shows in 2016. The performances are free for audiences, thanks to grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Onion Foundation, a Maine-based philanthropic organization that promotes music and arts, as well as conservation and stewardship of the natural environment.


“I think if you have kids, you might be worried about spending a fortune on something that they can be overwhelmed by easily,” said Knight. “But our kids felt so comfortable. I told all my neighbors about it.”

Knight said her daughter has always had a little stage-fright in front of crowds but also is interested in theater. Toward the end of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the Mysterious Man (played by veteran local actor Patrick Livingston) has a rap number that provides significant story exposition. Livingston forgot a line early in the song and had to start over – twice, in fact – but he played it off like it was part of the performance. It drew the biggest laughs of the evening.

“I think that was my daughter’s favorite part,” Knight said. “Even when you make a mistake, you just keep going.”

Ainsley Huckins, left, and her sister, Jordan, both 8, clap at the end of a scene with actors Ciara Neidlinger, left, and Noam Osher. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Huckins said his daughters already have asked about going back to another show.

“Seeing plays like that and being able to interact, it’s more than a movie, you know,” he said. “They really liked the interaction before the play started.”

Huckins said he still remembers going to the movies when his girls were younger and how loud and stressful it was.


“It’s nice to have this offering for … for kids like my kids,” he said.

There have been sensory-friendly shows at theaters in Maine in recent years, but they have mostly been one-offs.

Some Theater Company in Orono partnered with the Maine Autism Institute in 2019 to host a sensory-friendly performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” based on the book by Mark Haddon, which features a boy with autism as the lead character.

In 2018, Lyric Music Theater in South Portland offered a sensory-friendly performance of the holiday classic “White Christmas.”

The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine does feature sensory-friendly performances regularly, but those aren’t professional-level shows.

Clark said Maine State Music Theater will continue to offer shows each season, as long as funding allows.

Dionne, with the Autism Society of Maine, praised the theater for its efforts at inclusivity.

“There will be a day that it becomes automatic,” she said. “And that’s the day I’m looking forward to.”

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