By Marty Hughley
Ezra Weiss is an accomplished Portland-based jazz musician with half a dozen albums as a bandleader, a strong reputation as a collaborative sideman and a handful of national awards as a composer.
But more importantly, he’s a dad.
That’s why the monthly show he’s presenting at Cedar Hills United Church of Christ, where he works as music director, is on Saturday afternoons at 3 p.m.
“Just after nap time,” he notes, “I wanted to take my boys out to hear music and not have them just camped out in front of the TV all weekend.”
Weiss’ perspective as a parent, his experience as an educator and his work with Northwest Children’s Theatre also got him thinking about ways to create a more welcoming environment for families with special needs children.
The Saturday afternoon concerts feature a “sensory-friendly” format, designed to make the experience more comfortable for those with autism spectrum disorders or other sensitivities, and also likely to help with the garden-variety restlessness familiar to any family.
“For a little kid [the theater’s] probably the largest room they’ve ever been in, with more people than they’ve ever been around before,” Weiss says. “We just try to make the transition from normal life to the stage as easy as possible.”
That means keeping things like volume and lighting levels on an even keel, making sure there’s plenty of seating but also room to get up and moving around, and keeping the performance short and sweet—about an hour long.
The series resumed in January with singer Julianne Johnson-Weiss (no relation to Ezra). Though he’s deemed his own group “too fiery” for the format, Weiss is starting with the jazz musicians he knows, then branching out to styles like bluegrass, classical and world music.
“I’m looking for musicians who come from a very heartfelt place, not so much a cerebral approach. Not a lot of bashing, nothing abrasive, but some nice, swingin’ music.”
Gospel-steeped singer Marilyn Keller knows well what balm music can be. Her autistic nephew is now a young adult, and Keller calls the music in his life “a soothing factor.” She kicked off the series in November with a sweet, simple aim: “I’d like to see kids falling asleep — that’d be the cool thing! To see everyone getting just so relaxed.”
Johnson-Weiss, who often has autistic students in her choir classes at Portland Community College, says it’s important for performers “to breathe with the experience,” to pay close attention to the audience and adjust accordingly, “finding out how you can lead the conversation without dictating where it goes.”
Not dictating also means allowing, and that might be where sensory-friendly shows have their greatest value.
“If you go to a symphony concert, your kid had better be quiet,” Weiss says, pointing out a perpetual sticking point between the performing arts and families. Or, as a patron of Northwest Children’s Theatre told artistic director Sarah Jane Hardy, “When you’re a parent of a kid with special needs, you spend your whole life leaving.”
Weiss has written three marvelously witty, jazzy musicals for Hardy’s company, and it was the director who introduced him to the idea of sensory-friendly performances. Northwest Children’s Theatre first tried the approach in early 2014 with two specially-adapted performances of Goodnight Moon, and will feature a sensory-friendly show of The Little Mermaid (4 p.m., May 10), with free tickets thanks to support from the Oregon Cultural Trust and Umpqua Bank.
Hardy calls the Goodnight Moon experiment “the most moving experience I’ve had working in children’s theatre. I was overwhelmed by the response from families, how thankful they were—on the way in! What’s working is the invitation, the knowledge that they’re welcome.”
Hardy says her company gets a lot of interest from parents looking for classes for special needs children, noting that “there’s a lot of overlap between theater education and occupational therapy” in addressing communication styles and impulse control. Sensory-friendly strategies for theatre are gaining attention around the country, she says, and work on the concept at the Kennedy Center helped shape her own choices.
“For a lot of kids on the (autism) spectrum, preparation is key.”
For Goodnight Moon, Northwest Children’s Theatre kept the house lights halfway up during the performance. They trimmed the show and omitted the intermission, capped ticket sales at 250 instead of the usual 400, and introduced costumed cast members before the performance. They gave the ushers glow sticks to wave as warning when any dramatic change was about to occur. They even sent out pictures of the theater, its lobby, ushers and so on, so audience members would know what to expect.
“For us, it’s not a ridiculous amount of work,” Hardy says. “It’s not as if we have to rethink our mission or take the theater down to the studs. It’s a small but very practical step toward inclusion.”
Weiss also takes the notion of inclusion to heart, recalling a time several years ago when he worried he hadn’t done enough to make a career in New York City. Acclaimed pianist Darrell Grant—who’d left a thriving New York career for a happier life in Portland—pointed out how valuable Weiss’ work was to building his community here.
“That really changed my way of thinking about my role as a musician,” Weiss says. “And even though this concert series isn’t about me playing, I think it’s as important as anything I’ve done as a musician.”
“But,” he quickly adds, as if embarrassed by his altruism, “it’s partly selfish. I just want a place to take my kids on a Saturday afternoon.”
This article was reprinted with permission and originally appeared in Artslandia at the Performance.