Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Cleveland’s Playhouse Square understands importance of sensory-friendly productions

During his job interview with Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Daniel Hahn was asked about programming he wished to initiate. He then pulled from his valise a framed photo of two boys — his son and his son’s best friend — hamming for the camera.

“I want my son’s best friend to be able to enjoy live performance at Playhouse Square. I want sensory-friendly productions,” Hahn said. As he explained that his son is a typical learner and the friend is on the autism spectrum and nonverbal, Hahn choked up and thought he’d blown the interview.

Luckily for Northeast Ohio, Hahn’s passion for a population previously not served by Playhouse Square sealed the deal. He has served as its vice president of community engagement and education for the past six years.

What does it mean to have a sensory-friendly event and why is it important?

Until this past year, we could not take our daughter, Lyra, who has Down syndrome, to the movies. As soon as the lights went down, she’d try to race up the aisle and leave the theater. Other people with sensory processing issues may shout out when something excites them, or need to move around or, conversely, lie down in a quiet, dimly lit room.

What are sensory processing issues and who has them?

According to Dr. Jessica Foster, the director of Akron Children’s Hospital’s Department of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, sensory processing disorder is not a medical diagnosis, but a condition typically seen in conjunction with other diagnoses. Some of these diagnoses include autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome, as well as dyslexia.

Sensory processing disorder involves a heightened sensitivity to sound, light and touch. Lyra does not like loud environments, even at fun places, such as an aquarium we visited in June when several busloads of children were also there.

Processing behaviors can make a variety of public events difficult, if not impossible, for many families. But in the last 10 years, sensory-friendly accommodations have begun popping up like flowers after a spring rain. Such events minimize triggers — loud noises, bright or flashing lights — while providing a number of ways to assuage sensory overload.

In Akron, Summit Mall has sensory-friendly times with Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Akron Soap Box Derby has an annual inclusion day. Next weekend, Akron will host the first-ever sensory-inclusive marathon. (Akron sure gets a lot right.)

But those events are held in open public spaces where a variety of behaviors are more easily tolerated. Not so with a live theater production. Like the best friend of Hahn’s son, the unpredictability of Lyra’s responses often rules out our attending live performances. It’s just too stressful.

However, since 2014, after Hahn was hired, Playhouse Square has presented nine sensory-friendly, one-hour plays. Each year, they provide one performance for school groups and another for the general public, all at the very affordable price of $10 a ticket.

These sensory-friendly productions have welcomed thousands of sensory sensitive individuals and their families.

Leif, Max and Lyra eagerly await “The Lion King”

Last month, Playhouse Square presented its first big kahuna, or rather “hakuna,” as in “Hakuna Matata”: a sensory-friendly, full-length performance of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

When the play began, the lights did not go down, the audience did not become quiet, children did not sit still in their seats. Seated on her father’s lap while large-as-life puppets of African animals paraded down the aisles to the stage, Lyra flapped her hands with excitement.

For each sensory performance, Playhouse Square rents pipes and curtains to create sensory-deprivation rooms for kids who need to decompress from sensory overload. One little boy ran in circles for a few moments in one of the created rooms. Others jumped up and down or stomped.

These behaviors are described as “proprioceptive input” in which the larger joints of the body are impacted. The impact on the large joints increases serotonin and dopamine levels, thereby helping the overstimulated person to calm down.

Playhouse Square also hires volunteers from the Cuyahoga County Developmental Disability Board. Strategically placed, the volunteers hand out headphones and fidget toys to kids who need them.

The “Red Coats,” as the ushers are called because of their scarlet blazers, arrive in the morning for a two-hour training session and a lunch provided by Playhouse Square.

Sign language interpreters Merry Beth Pietila and Erin LaFountain from the Theatrical Interpreting Services of Cleveland provided dramatic and engaging sign interpretation throughout the performance.

Finally, in order to reach as many families as possible, Playhouse Square deeply discounts the tickets for sensory performances. Which is to say, this is an expensive endeavor for a nonprofit organization, underscoring Playhouse Square’s commitment to providing sensory-friendly productions.

In fact, it is because of generous donations from people like Denise and Norm Wells that Playhouse Square can fulfill its mission to provide these performances that allow Lyra, and many others who’ve previously been excluded, to enjoy live theater.

Please note: Never buy tickets from a ticket broker, i.e., professional scalper. Two delightful young women seated next to us did not know they were coming to a sensory-friendly performance.

In an effort to get tickets to the appropriate audience and provide essential accommodations, a questionnaire accompanied the purchase of tickets to the sensory-friendly performance of “The Lion King.” Clearly a ticket broker had falsified answers and then resold the discounted tickets, at a profit, to the women next to us.

During the first act of “The Lion King,” Hahn stood at the back of the theater with his board’s president, Amy Brady, her husband and other staff members. It was not the play that they watched, but the audience. And each of them, to a person, wept with joy at what they saw.

Stay tuned: Playhouse Square is working to bring another sensory-friendly Broadway Series performance next August. If and when it is finalized, I’ll be sure to write about it.

Upcoming sensory-friendly performances at Playhouse Square include:

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 22, 2019.


September, Peaches and the Beatles

I savor Northeast Ohio’s distinct seasons. The snow-covered hush of January reflects the welcome quiet after the holidays. In April, snow gives way to mud and delicate flowers. June softly opens sweet summer before the dog days of July and August heat up.

But when the cricket song turns up and the humidity in the air dials down, my favorite month is upon us, September. Biting bugs begin to thin and poison ivy turns red, making it less noxious. School resumes, both for my children and me, bringing welcomed structure to our days.

This past weekend, I had 40 papers to grade, just under 250 pages to proofread, lessons to plan and a column to write. But September is also peak harvest season for many crops, so on Labor Day I canned peaches and made syrup from the skins and stones.

Self-employed people never have a day off, especially creative professionals. I would like to have a clean car (Hugo recently got in my van and said, “Ah, the smell of wet dogs that Mama’s cars all eventually smell like!”) but can’t justify the time when there are so many words waiting to be written.

Canning, however, is a worthy detour. I spent hours peeling and slicing a half bushel of the pitted fruit while reflecting on the people in my life, gardens in high bloom and the miracle of a ripe peach.

I did this all while listening to the Beatles. Every Labor Day weekend, Sirius XM plays their top 100 songs, as chosen by listeners, on The Beatles Channel.

All my children are Beatles fans. In the fourth grade, Hugo sang “Hey, Jude” when he auditioned for Miller South School for the Visual & Performing Arts. At 11, when he gave his first live performance, Hugo played guitar and nervously warbled, “Eleanor Rigby.” Today, as soon as 9-year-old Leif buckles up in the car, he asks for The Beatles Channel.

My appreciation for this British Invasion band has not diminished from repeated listening. Perhaps because one of my children is now an accomplished musician, I appreciate the complexity of the Beatles’ arrangements, the poetry of their lyrics, the sheer diversity of the canon — mostly written when the boys of the band were just that, lads in their 20s.

I also feel a personal connection to the Beatles. I did not see my dad, stepmom or sisters for 10 years after my mother kidnapped me. Nor did I have any photos of them as my mother attempted to erase my dad from my memory.

Holly, her father, stepmom and little sister

During that 10-year separation, I saw the face of John Lennon when I thought of my dad. It’s all I had and, as it turns out, was fairly accurate. When I eventually reunited with my father, I learned that he strongly identified with Lennon and the Beatles.

“I was driving on the Dan Ryan when I heard “Rocky Racoon” on the radio for the first time,” he told me. “It was a bizarre song. But then the announcer said it was from a new Beatles album and I thought, far out!”

In the years we lived together, my dad and his roommates called me his funky monkey. When “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” was released, it was like our theme song, though I have no memory of this.

The response to Lennon and Yoko Ono’s marriage was often negative (and the basis for “The Ballad of John and Yoko”), which echoed the reaction some people had when my dad took in my stepmom. Yet, in the end, my stepmom was far better for my dad than he ever was for her.

I give my children a movie musical every year for Valentine’s. In 2008, I bought both the DVD and soundtrack to Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical, Across the Universe. The talented Ms. Taymor is also responsible for the stunning stage adaptation of The Lion King and the film Frida, based on the life of Frida Kahlo.

Jules, who came home from college for the holiday weekend, said, “I wish the soundtrack to Across the Universe had all the tracks from the movie, they are all so good.” Indeed. This year, another musical based upon the music of the Beatles was released. It’s no secret that next year’s Valentine will be the film Yesterday.

Even though the top 100 Beatles songs played on continuous loop all weekend, I kept missing the final 10. As several jars of golden preserves cooled on the counter and peach skins and pits simmered on the stovetop, I proofread while waiting to hear the number one song. A perfect mash up of Lennon and McCartney pieces, “A Day in the Life” was deservedly chosen for the second year in a row.

There is a poignancy to September. As beautiful as it is, it heralds a death. Tomato plants have become spindly, the grass (thankfully) is growing a little slower. In a few weeks, a killing frost will smite flower beds, placing this summer in the past with other memories. Our Ohio earth will sleep, visible life pausing until next spring when life will burst forth anew.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Sensible gun laws are long overdue

When I moved from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to 22 Green St. in Dayton the spring I was 19, it felt like a homecoming. My peripatetic childhood included 10 schools, but between the ages of 9 and 14, I lived in a rural community just north of Dayton.

Like Akron, Dayton is a smaller city just 30 minutes from a bigger city. Both have wonderful housing stock, beautiful rivers, lovely architecture — including old YMCAs — and art museums with dramatic expansions.

In the ’70s, the manufacturing industry sustained Dayton’s working middle class. Both parents of my friends next door were factory foremen. Their large house, with an in-ground pool, was new, as were the cars they drove. Every summer they took their beautiful boat to Canada for several weeks.

Like Akron, Dayton’s factory jobs poured away in the final decades of the last century.

One difference between the two cities of my Ohio heart is leadership. While Mayor Don Plusquellic successfully steered Akron through its hardest decades, Dayton had a series of mediocre and even outright abysmal mayors. Until now.

Mayor Nan Whaley has long impressed me with her intelligent guidance of and passion for Dayton and its citizens. In the weeks since the shooting on East Fifth Street, she’s become my hero.

The trolley taking the wedding party and guests to the reception. August 31, 1985.

My first summer living in the Oregon District, I planned my wedding and worked at a vintage clothing store on East Fifth Street. In August, after my wedding at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a trolley took the guests down East Fifth to the reception at Stouffer’s hotel.

A short walk from the duplex we rented, my husband and I regularly met friends at venues on East Fifth for drinks, to play pool and hear live music. I enjoyed living, without fear, in the Oregon District — a delightful neighborhood — for two years.

Second Amendment rights and limits

A former student of mine received his first rifle on his fifth birthday. Learning how to safely shoot, clean and store his gun taught him responsibility at an early age. He became a Scholastic champion in the sport of shooting and was offered scholarships by several colleges with rifle teams.

It may surprise you that this young man’s desire for sensible gun legislation is as strong as his love of shooting. Like many his age, he’s grown up under the shadows of mass shootings. He experienced a lockdown in his high school after a student credibly threatened to kill as many students as possible.

David Jolly, a former congressman who recently switched his party allegiance from Republican to Independent, wrote in an article in USA Today after the Dayton and El Paso shootings:

“It’s not because of mental health. It’s because those who suffer from mental health challenges have easy access to firearms in the United States.

“It’s not because too many today subscribe to platforms of hate. It’s because those who espouse hate have easy access to firearms in the United States.

“It’s not because youth are exposed to violent video games. It’s because youth who are exposed to violent video games have easy access to firearms in the United States.”

Plenty of other developed countries have young men with mental illness, white supremacists and people who play violent video games. What they don’t have is easy access to firearms, nor endless mass shootings. When defined as four or more people (not including the shooter) shot in one place at one time, from Jan. 1 to July 31 of this year, 248 mass shootings have occurred in America.

Anything else that killed that many people a year would marshal a call for research by the Centers for Disease Control, but not here. In 1996, the NRA pushed for the successful passage of the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the CDC from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” The CDC’s articles on suicide prevention are bizarrely written in code-speak as they cannot directly mention the significant role firearms play in the number of Americans who take their own lives.

If cars killed lots of people each year, everyone would be required to register each and every vehicle they own and pass a licensure test before being allowed to drive. Oh, wait. They are. And yet we don’t expect the same for deadly weapons, including those designed for the battlefield, which can kill scores of people in seconds.

This is not sensible. Thirty years ago, the chance of being gunned down in the Oregon District never crossed my mind. Today, children cannot enjoy that same sense of safety going to school. Nor can their parents.

In the weeks after the Marjorie Stone Douglas High School shooting, my friend Cris, who is also a teacher, threatened to take away her daughter’s cellphone. But when Cris dropped her child off at high school, she thought, “What if today there’s a shooting and the last time I talk to my daughter is when she calls to tell me goodbye?” Her daughter kept her phone.

Last year, I met with several former classmates in Dayton. Not for a class reunion, but a funeral. Samantha Howard Freels told her husband she was leaving him, walked out of their house and got in her car. Her husband of more than 30 years chased her down in his truck, forced her off the road and shot her.

Days earlier, Sam had taken her three grandchildren to a diner for breakfast. In the photos she posted on Facebook, Sam had used an app to sprinkle hearts around their faces.

After she died, I learned that her husband had broken her leg years ago when she’d tried to leave him. He promised their four sons he wouldn’t lay a hand on their mother again if she stayed.

Would red flag laws have saved Sam’s life? I’ll never know. But it’s time to implement them. It’s also time to close all loopholes on background checks. Every gun purchased or gifted should require registration and a background check for the new owner. Most gun owners also agree with these reasonable measures.

Such laws are little to require when the failure to do so has caused the murder of so many innocent children, women and men.


This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 25, 2019.