Tiffany Sparks-Keeney
Tiffany Sparks-Keeney

Seattle Opera is prioritizing inclusivity with a sensory-friendly performance of “Earth to Kenzie” at 11 a.m. Sunday.

“Earth to Kenzie” is part of Seattle Opera’s summer programming designed to appeal to youth and families, but for Sunday’s sensory-friendly performance, Seattle Opera hired sensory friendly consultant Tiffany Sparks-Keeney to make “Earth to Kenzie” accessible and enjoyable for children with different sensory needs.

Sparks-Keeney is an occupational therapist and OT professor at the University of Puget Sound who has consulted with Seattle Children’s Theater on sensory friendly performances in the past, most recently “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”

“As a sensory-friendly consultant, I help make theater and arts experiences as accessible and enjoyable to as many people as possible,” Sparks-Keeney said.

When she is asked to consult, Sparks-Keeney said she comes to a theater, watches a performance and identifies aspects of a performance that create heightened sensation — bright lights, loud or tense music or background noise, emotional content — things that may affect people with greater sensitivities. She notes what measures can be taken to address to those certain issues, such as keeping the house lights on at half or reducing the sound in key moments, which she shares with theater production staff. She also develops a plan that accommodates individual needs, such as creating an area where children can walk around as they watch or establishing a separate space for children who need to disengage from the crowd but still watch using technology.

Sparks-Keeney also writes a story guide outlining what the audience can expect during different points of the performance to reduce surprises. Lastly, she’ll create a physical layout guide identifying where everything is located in the theater to eliminate guess work.

“It brings down some of the anxiety so their experience is more enjoyable,” Sparks-Keeney said. 

She said through her consulting work she has developed a universal sensory-friendly design model that can benefit everyone but specifically improves the experience for certain people.

“I think the main thing, the most important thing we do is to welcome people and say, ‘Hey, this is your show, and it is set aside for it to be a safe space for everyone here,’” she said.

Sparks-Keeney said not only are sensory-friendly performances beneficial to the children, they also make parents feel comfortable because they are judgment-free zones. 

“What we’re trying to do is build community and bring people who don’t always get to participate in activities and welcome them in,” Sparks-Keeney said.

Sparks-Keeney said, while she primarily consults for children’s theater, she hopes more organizations incorporate sensory-friendly performances as part of their regular programming.

“Any theater in the area can do a sensory-friendly performance, and I would love it to see it expand to adult performances,” she said.

Sparks-Keeney said her background in dance and musical theater as well as her masters degree in occupational therapy and doctorate in educational leadership have all helped her create a successful model. 

“It’s really just the perfect combination of all my skills coming together,” she said.

She said her work as an occupational therapist dovetails nicely into her sensory-friendly consultant work because of the way occupational therapists analyze and break down from an occupational lens, the types of activities people want to participate in and come up with tools they can use to make them successful.

Sparks-Keeney said now she is taking those tools developed in the clinic and applying them to a community setting.

“I kind of think of the whole audience as my client,” she said.  

Seattle Opera is showing four performances of “Earth to Kenzie,” at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. June 4 and June 5. The first performance Sunday is the sensory-friendly one. The 2 p.m. performance will include an American Sign Language interpreter.