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School of Music Offers Its First Sensory-Friendly Performance

“Art needs to be for everyone,” said Amy Scurria, the composer of “A.L.I.C.E.” The U’s afternoon performance of the opera on April 13 aims to accommodate all theatergoers.
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(Photo via the Daily Utah Chronicle Archive)

 

The University of Utah’s School of Music will have its first-ever sensory-friendly performance Saturday, with U Opera’s matinee showing of “A.L.I.C.E.”

“This performance is for children and adults with sensory sensitivities or for anyone who may benefit from being in a more relaxed theatre environment,” reads the “A.L.I.C.E” ticket page. “Theater is for everyone.”

Accommodations for this performance will include adjusted stage lighting and sound. The house lights in the theater will remain on at a low level for the entire performance. Audience members are welcome to move freely during the performance and can leave their seats, talk and use fidgets and cell phones as they please.

“My hope is that it’s going to be a space where kids can see something they may never have seen, and parents can just relax and know that no one is judging them,” explained Kim Councill, the School of Music director. “We’re all here for the musical experience.”

In addition to the adjustments within the theater, the performance’s intermission will be extended. Snacks like Goldfish and pretzels will be provided. Attendees will also have the chance to meet members of the cast before and after the performance.

Accessibility in Music

Before coming to the U’s School of Music, Councill spent years as a music teacher in public education. Specifically, she worked with kids with a variety of exceptionalities and created a music outreach program called Musical Understanding in Special Education, or MUSE.

“We kind of preach in education, ‘We are inclusive,’ but that’s not really the case all the time,” Councill said. “We say, ‘Oh, we have a student who’s nonverbal and they’re in a wheelchair and we’re putting them in the music room. Isn’t that enough?’ And I push back on that — no.”

Councill admitted she’s not sure what to expect from this performance, but she’s excited to work on creating a safe and accessible experience for children and adults with any sort of need.

“I am a believer that the arts are for everyone, but we do leave people out of artistic experiences all the time,” Councill explained. She expressed admiration and gratitude for the cast and crew of “A.L.I.C.E.” and their willingness to explore this kind of programming.

“I feel very, very proud to say that I think everybody in the School of Music, obviously the administration and the professors, but the students are really excited about this opportunity, as well,” said Alex Harrelson, who plays the Mad Hatter and White Rabbit in the show.

“There’s a lot of ways to make it so that our art is relevant and important in the 21st century, and that requires us to fight back against people who want to make it an exclusive thing,” Harrelson said. Making classical music and opera accessible is a vital part of accomplishing that.

Self-discovery in ‘A.L.I.C.E.’

“A.L.I.C.E.” is an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’sAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” but it’s also a story of self-discovery and self-acceptance, said the opera’s composer Amy Scurria and her partner and librettist Zane Corriher.

Scurria was late diagnosed with autism when she was 48. Looking back on what she’d created in “A.L.I.C.E,” it became clear that Scurria’s experience living with autism informed how she composed the work, even if she didn’t know it at the time.

“This is an opera written for anyone. We put a universal story into it,” Scurria said. It also explores “the autistic experience — which was my experience, we just didn’t know the word for it.”

The couple explained “A.L.I.C.E.” has always been an autobiographical work, at least to some degree. Their desire to grow and learn and discover more about themselves was part of what drew them together, said Scurria.

“I feel like a lot of our adulthood together has been figuring out who we are,” Scurria said.

So, the idea of exploring identity and self-realization in “A.L.I.C.E.” felt natural as Scurria and Corriher developed the story together.

“It aligned with a lot of how we have lived our lives together, just the quest for figuring ourselves out,” Corriher said.

Art Needs to be for Everyone

Scurria felt a mix of emotions when she figured out she was autistic.

“There was intense grieving — intense grieving — and an intense feeling of freedom, a feeling of feeling understood for the first time in my life,” Scurria explained. “The grief comes from being able to look at my past with — for the first time in my life — a deep understanding that I didn’t have growing up.”

She said she always felt like there was something wrong with her. She was too different, had to try too hard but was still somehow getting it wrong. So, to have this name for what she’s felt her whole life, and to be able to connect with other people in the community, was extremely validating.

When she was growing up, the criteria for diagnosing autistic children was historically based on white boys, Scurria explained. Late diagnosis for people assigned female at birth is not uncommon.

“My decision to be very public about my diagnosis has largely been driven by the fact that I know that AFAB autistic people don’t have much representation,” Scurria said. “Not that I represent all autistic people, but I just felt like that openness might make other kids feel supported or validated.”

Scurria expressed gratitude that the U is providing a sensory-friendly performance as a part of the School of Music programming, especially for “A.L.I.C.E.”

“Art needs to be for everyone,” Scurria said. “I feel like that’s the message that this university is giving is, ‘Hey, we’re opening the doors and offering this for you, so that if you feel like this isn’t for you, we’re going to try to make it welcoming for you,’ and I’m just so grateful for that.”

 

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@JosiHinds

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About the Contributor
Josi Hinds
Josi Hinds, News Editor
Josi Hinds is in her second year at the University of Utah, majoring in communications with a minor in both gender studies and Spanish (for now). She grew up in Bozeman, Montana, and moved to Salt Lake in hopes of venturing out in the world and meeting new people. She joined the Chronicle out of a love for writing and meeting new people, and she hopes to share stories that broaden both her and others' perspective on the world

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