As December kicks off, Company of Fools prepares for its annual family-friendly Christmas program, which this year is Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s charming comedy “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” an unofficial follow-up to Jane Austen’s beloved novel “Pride and Prejudice.”
The play follows the long-overlooked secondary character of Mary Bennet, middle child of the five Bennet sisters. In “Miss Bennet,” she takes center stage and even gets to indulge in her own Austenian romance.
Since love and goodwill are in the air this season, it felt to Company of Fools like the ideal time to launch a new special offering: a sensory-friendly performance.
This evening preview performance, set for Monday, Dec. 9, at 7:30 p.m., will see the Liberty Theatre specially set up to accommodate audience members with autism and sensitivity issues.
House lights will remain up for this showing. There will be no blackouts, no lighting effects, no modified sound effects and “relaxed theatre rules” will be in effect so patrons may come and go as they please. Character guides and social narrative documents will also be available to help contextualize the piece.
Later on during the play’s run, Company of Fools will also reinstate the special “Parent and Baby” night, which began with the autumn production of “Cry It Out.”
“We talk about Christmas reflecting a spirit of giving that should be embraced year-round,” said actor Orion Bradshaw. “As a guest artist, I really appreciate what Company of Fools is doing with this show, the sensory friendly show, the parent and baby show. They’re building up community and embracing that spirit of giving all throughout the season, not just for the Christmas play.
“That’s a really good practice, and more theater companies should be thinking about how they can reach out to their community better,” he said. “A lot of theater companies are good at talking about it, but not really good at following up on it.”
This new sensory friendly offering aligns with the priorities and commitments of Company of Fools and its parent organization, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. They endeavor, as director Scott Palmer put it, “to be a cultural organization that is for everyone.”
Palmer spoke of the innumerable barriers that exist within the theater industry, listing exorbitant ticket prices, a certain condescension surrounding proper theatergoing attire, a general air of pretention. These, he feels, are entirely counterproductive to the true purpose of theater.
“The sensory friendly night is a really important one for us to continue that commitment to access, because people who have autism or spectrum disorders or sensory disorders often face this clear, right-off-the-bat exclusion from the theater,” he said.
“The rules are so strict—you can’t get up and leave, and if you make noise the ushers are going to shush you. That immediately means that a significant portion of our community is being told consistently, ‘You are not welcome at live performances.’ That offends my sensibilities. Certainly, I think that us doing everything we can to open these doors in the spirit of this show—which is about loving yourself, loving your family, really recognizing the importance of connection and community—it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.”
As actress Alexis Ulrich concisely put it, “Theater is for everyone, forever and ever. Amen.”
Company of Fools is presenting 15 performances of “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” between Monday, Dec. 9, and Sunday, Dec. 29. Of those, three are “pay what you feel nights,” including the sensory friendly and parent and baby nights, one is a reduced-price Throwback Thursday offering and one is an educator night. Visit sunvalleycenter.org for details and tickets.
With Thanksgiving well past, the holiday season is now settling into the Wood River Valley in earnest. To paraphrase actress Cassandra Bissell, “What could be better than a combination of Jane Austen and Christmas” to usher in goodwill, spread some cheer and see to it that all are welcome, no matter what.