• The public is invited to an April 6 ribbon cutting for Vroom! from 10-10:30 a.m. at OCP, 6915 Cass St.
  • To book Vroom! please contact the Mobile Theatre Coordinator at mobilesensorytheatre@omahaplayhouse.com.

Traditional theater presentations pose barriers to differently abled audiences. Accessibility advocates say it’s not enough to offer an isolated adaptation. Far better, they insist, is to design theaters for audiences with mobility, cognitive or sensory challenges. That’s precisely the mission of Vroom! – the new Mobile Sensory Theatre the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) is launching this month. The Playhouse is the first in the Midwest to offer a personalized theater.

It isn’t the metro’s first theater accessibility initiative, but the first to bring theater directly to individuals. Artistic Director Stephen Santa modeled it on the program Starshine! he devised at Jumping Jack Theatre in Pittsburgh, serving autistic children. Autistic kids are the initial focus of the Omaha iteration. A lead and support actor facilitate each 30- to 40-minute show.

The concept is rooted in the intent to remove roadblocks from audiences experiencing theater.

Jarron Devereaux Jr. and Anna Perilo (OCP actor & Vroom! Mobile Sensory Theatre Coordinator). Photo courtesy of Colin Conces.

“As we thought about ways to eliminate obstacles, we came up with the idea of creating a really immersive, interactive theatrical experience for one child at a time that can travel directly to their home,” Santa said. “Once we started doing the show we realized how revolutionary it was based off the feedback. We know the model works.” 

The Omaha show will go to children’s homes via a specially outfitted van whose “stage” is built for a K-6 audience. The scenic design is taken from the original Pittsburgh production, “but all crafted by our staff here at the Playhouse,” Santa said. The show is free to families who book it.

“The conceit of the show is that you are a Starkeeper in training and the actor is a Starkeeper,” he said. “The experience starts on the outside as you launch yourself into space on a trampoline and land on the surface of a star. Inside, you learn a star has lost its shine and to make it gleam again you have to give it some of your own shine. It’s a celebration of uniqueness and caring.”

One child and two parents or caregivers experience the show at a time.

“Caregivers and parents are impacted just as much as the children. It’s a really beautiful show that I can’t wait for people in Omaha to experience.” 

This inaugural show, which families can book April through September, will tour two years.

“As we keep reinventing what happens inside the van,” Santa said, “perhaps we create shows that serve different audiences, ages and needs. That aspect of it is really exciting because it feels like the sky’s the limit on what we can do and the audience we can serve.” 

Creating something for audiences with disabilities doesn’t typically happen. Even if a theater does, it still requires audiences to come to it.  

“A lot of theaters will do sensory-friendly performances that adapt the show for one performance by dimming down the lighting effects and sound cues,” he said. “But the difference here is we’re creating shows made for this audience. Families understand and appreciate that we’ve taken the time to create something just for them that addresses their needs and then brings it to their home.

“Just going to a theater involves a lot more effort for these families. The fact that we can just roll up to their house and make it easy for them is a game-changer.” 

Best practices are incorporated.

“All of the shows we built were researched and workshopped in autism support classrooms with children to give that population a stake in their creation. We worked with the designers and the actors to craft the show based off that feedback.”

Santa said the intimate, personalized show can be adapted to a child’s individual needs.

“When a family books a show we send them preview materials to walk through the experience with their child beforehand,” he said. “That way they have an expectation of what’s going to happen. It eliminates some of that fear of the unknown and change in routine.”

(Pictured front to back) – Katy Kepler, Jarron Devereaux Jr., Jarron Devereaux Sr., Ashley Devereaux, Anna  Perilo enter VROOM!  Photo courtesy of Colin Conces Credit: Photo by Colin Conces

Sensory moments may prove challenging for some. 

“There are moments where they taste something, smell something, touch something, where a light mist of water gets sprayed,” Santa said. “In a survey we have the family fill out, they can rate anywhere from 1, my child may not like that, to 5, my child would love that. Before the show goes out to a family the actors study the survey and use it as a guide to adapt the show to that child’s likes or needs. A moment rated 1 won’t happen.

“So it is highly crafted and adaptable to each family’s specific needs, triggers, accessibility issues or challenges. If a child’s in a wheelchair or has mobility issues, we adapt accordingly. It’s really important to us the family experiences the show however they want to experience it, as long as they’re safe. There’s no right or wrong way.”

In Omaha, a similar process will unfold, Santa said, “to create new experiences and shows in classrooms with autistic students, working with autistic artists on script development, musical compositions, some performing in productions.” OCP plans to partner with Ollie Webb Center and Circle Theatre, which create productions for special audiences, as well as Munroe Meyer Institute and Autism Action Partnership.

“It’s really important the population is part of the creation of our shows at all times,” Santa said.

It’s been a deliberate process getting the project on its feet here. “It was important to me that we didn’t rush to complete it,” he said. “We’re creating something really special and it needs to be done right and with care and compassion.” As in Pittsburgh, he’s sent this theater on wheels to test audiences for feedback.

“This is a show that never is set, it’s always changing, and we’re always learning from it,” he said.

Actors were also chosen with care.

Katy Kepler, Jarron Devereaux Jr., Jarron Devereaux Sr., Ashley Devereaux and Anna  Perilo. Photo courtesy of Colin Conces

“This isn’t something you can just throw an actor into because it is so highly interactive, detailed and specific. The child is six inches from you,” Santa said. “Anything can happen, anything can be said. To me, that’s exciting, but it may not be for some actors. You really need actors who can think on their feet, be calm, cool, collected. I sought actors experienced in working with children or children with disabilities.”

He found them in Anna Perilo, Katy Kepler, Kathleen Combs and Jessica Burrill-Logue. “They’re amazing performers,” he said.

If a property or street isn’t conducive to hosting the van, the mobile theater can set up in the Playhouse parking lot or in a discreet location close to a family. “There’s flexibility there.” 

Turning a cargo van into a functional theater required long labor. Embedded technology includes a generator running LED lights, fiber optics battery-operated props and a Bluetooth sound system whose cues run on a special iPad software program.

“It took a good deal of time for our designers to troubleshoot, problem-solve and create the show,” Santa said. “Once inside and the music starts and lights turn on you forget you’re sitting inside a van. All the outside sounds go away. It becomes this magical environment that is calming, beautiful and safe.” 

OCP Artistic Director Stephen Santa. Photo courtesy of OCP

The rolling venue meets accessibility standards, including a ramp. The flex seating is for a child and two guests, even a therapy dog. Seats can be removed to accommodate a wheelchair.

Though the experience is mainly intended to go to people’s homes, it can also go to nonprofits and festivals for weekends. Santa has a dream “of bringing the model to other theaters.”

“There are opportunities for community collaboration I’m excited to explore. If a theater wants to invest in this, we can give you everything you need to go out and do this. I hope we can bring this everywhere.”

When accessibility is added to diversity, equity and inclusion mandates, Santa said, audiences win.

“I envision the Playhouse as a space where everyone can experience theater and feel themselves somehow up on stage. This is an extension of that,” he said. “It serves a community that isn’t necessarily having theater created for them or that has its own space to experience art. This is a way for us to engage people with experiences uniquely created for them and thereby truly be a community playhouse.”

Thanks to Kate and Roger Weitz, the Weitz Family Foundation, Lozier Foundation, Immanuel Vision Foundation and the generous support of individuals and organizations throughout the community, there is no cost for families in the Omaha area to experience the show.

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