The show must go on
How San Antonio's Tobin Center is making all live performance more sensory-friendly
Attending a show at a venue like the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts can be a thrilling experience. From the moment a guest enters, they notice the sky-high, lofty lobby ceilings. Those lead to the expansive auditorium, where sound travels with ease from the front of the stage all the way to the rafters.
However, while that can be exciting for some guests, it can be downright overwhelming for others with autism, dementia, PTSD, and other similar conditions. Thankfully for these audience members, venues and touring shows are becoming more savvy.
In order to make a visit to the Tobin more accommodating for guests with sensory processing sensitivities, it has partnered with venue certification nonprofit KultureCity to ensure that the venue takes the right steps to becoming fully "sensory inclusive."
The Tobin already had some performances that were altered for sensitive guests, but this partnership adds blanket provisions so that even the unaltered shows will be more comfortable. This way, visitors don't have to wait for certain showings — they can join at any time with the right tools.
According to Medical News Today, sensory overload occurs when "the brain struggles to interpret, prioritize, or otherwise process sensory inputs. It then communicates to the body that it is time to escape these sensory inputs. This message causes feelings of discomfort and panic."
The first step was training Tobin Center staff. Medical professionals showed workers how to recognize if a guest has sensory needs and next, what to do should a sensory overload situation arise. These trainings will be updated annually.
To make the Tobin itself less overwhelming, the venue will have KultureCity Sensory Bags onsite, which include noise-canceling headphones, verbal cue cards, and fidget tools. Guests can find them at the Patron Services Desk, to the right when entering the Tobin from the main entry.
Employees and Tobin Center volunteers inside are always happy to guide guests in the right direction, but one tool makes it easier to assess needs and ask for help without increasing distress by having to directly engage a stranger. The KultureCity app (which is worth downloading before visiting) features interactive tools like the Feeling Thermometer, which asks the user if they're feeling angry or terrified, silly or worried, happy and calm, or sad, tired and bored.
The app also has a "to-do" list for guests that reminds them of the locations to find headphones and the KultureCity bags, and to not be afraid to ask for help if they need it. It's essentially a visual preview for guests, so they have a general idea of what to look for before they even make it downtown.
There is also now a designated quiet area at the McLaughlin Rotunda, where guests can go if the concert or show they're attending gets too loud for them to process.
In getting certified, a venue can either be a sensory inclusive performance, or a Valero sensory friendly performance. When CultureMap San Antonio reached out to the Tobin, the venue provided a specific list of details that encompass a Valero sensory friendly performance:
- Shortened production time
- Lower sound level
- Lights remain on throughout performance
- Flash or strobe lighting reduced to a pulse
- Relaxed house rules
- Reduced audience capacity
- Judgment-free zone
- Calming Center with a peaceful place
- Sensory paths
"The Tobin Center has always been proud to offer our Valero sensory-friendly performances," says The Tobin's director of marketing, Lauren Keck. "Our partnership with KultureCity to become Sensory Inclusive is a natural progression of that commitment. It's about making sure that everyone, no matter their sensory needs, can fully enjoy the magic of the performing arts. This new certification takes our dedication to inclusivity one step further, ensuring that every event in our venue is a welcoming place for all."
Only some programs at the Tobin Center are designated as a Valero sensory friendly performance, so always check www.tobincenter.org for full details about each show.