Sensory friendly cinema


Last year, Different Planet Arts’ Artistic Director Ariane Hadjilias sat down with Depot Lewes Director Carmen Slipjen and events manager Bonnie Macrae to talk about bringing our unique work to this wonderful Sussex Arts venue. Little did we know how successful and transformative it would be, and indeed how much work it would involve!

The conversation started around increasing the SEN audience at Depot, the hosting venue which is a Sussex cultural gem, offering a lovely cafe, courtyard and art gallery. Ariane was just the person to help with this. We at DPA know how difficult it is for families living with disabilities to access arts venues and events, for so many different reasons. We also know how significant some of these barriers are.

For a start there just aren’t many events that offer a truly accessible and inclusive experience. What we mean by this is making it count. Giving a family the safe space to participate in an inspiring creative activity together, to enjoy the arts together, to create opportunities for unifying family and carer time together. To go to an event without having to worry, to know that to be looked after and comfortable is a given, and to leave an event with life affirming positive memories. This means catering for everyone’s unique needs in varied, individual and bespoke ways. And also really taking good care of our audience and families.

Our challenge with cinema is that the entire experience can be utterly overwhelming. For someone who has sensory processing difficulties, every aspect can cause stress and anxiety, which in turn often causes stress and anxiety for the caregivers. Cinemas are busy, they are loud, they are full of anticipation and energy, they are unexpected, they are visually overloading, they smell different. Films are unpredictable, inaccessible and incomprehensible.

So we set about developing Sensory Friendly Cinema “Wild Weekends” – an innovative SEND offering, screened for one weekend every season at Depot Lewes. We wanted it to be an inclusive, immersive and interactive programme of films and animations for the SEND community, based around the natural world and delivered in an innovative experiential way.

The programme of films was jointly curated by Depot Director Carmen Slipjen and DPA Director Ariane Hadjilias who described the event; “We watched and experienced films in a unique new way, with specialist performers bringing stories to life through sensory moments, live music, activities, movement and play. We all see the world in unique and different ways, and sensory friendly cinema explores this. Our screenings brought the viewer into the film, with the help of specialist performers.”

sensory friendly cinema

Each film was accompanied by sensory integration moments to access the neuro diversities of the audience which included music, song, puppetry, smell, texture, taste. At each showing, deliberately small audiences were greeted by the performers and made to feel welcome. Among the magic there were games, puppets, props, special effects, lots of space to get up and move around, and a chill out room. Ariane was adamant that this was to be an inclusive family affair, for all the family and caregivers to take part in and enjoy together, and most importantly to have some fun in a safe, supportive, creative and celebratory environment.

To help reduce the anxiety involved in trying something new and visiting a new place we created a support film, trailers and a social story to prepare our audience for the event as much as possible, prior to attending. Beneficiaries and staff were given communication lanyards (PECS), and the venue was clearly labeled with bespoke signposting, with the running order of the day clearly demonstrated as a visual timetable. The sensory moments during the films were delivered by a specialist team of arts facilitators, drama therapists, musicians and actors, alongside a neuro-diverse team of performers and musicians.  Part of the project also involved specific inclusion training for Depot staff by DPA, and the venue has embraced this extremely successfully, so much so that we are in conversation with them about continuing the project later this year. So we really feel we have instigated a cultural change, and long may this continue.

We really couldn’t rate any of it highly enough, from the moment we arrived we felt it was enormously inclusive with the sign language, visual timetable and especially the lovely warm and welcoming approach of the performers,we loved the personal way that they asked the names of our children and included them in the music on entry and during the performance, the short bursts of different elements during the show were really well thought out for children that found concentrating for longer periods difficult, the sensory boxes were a lovely surprise and the puppets were such a lovely interactive part of the show. Mostly I would say that the understanding and simply lovely nature of the performers was what made it such a memorable day for us, very inclusive understanding and fun.” Parent

This initiative has been funded by Arts Council England, Awards for All National Lottery Community Fund, The Foyle Foundation, Bailey Thomas Foundation, the Wates Foundation, The Chalk Cliff Trust and Sussex Community Foundation. We believe in a world where arts are accessible to everyone, and thanks to these kind donations, we’ve been able to make this happen, and we really couldn’t be more happy with the success of this wonderful project. 

Winners of the Children and Young People Now Play Award

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Sensory friendly cinema