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‘Annie’ production is autism-friendly

Actors at a dress rehearsal for “Annie” by the Open Door Theatre. The community theater company includes people with special needs.

Photos by Jim Davis/Globe staff

Actors at a dress rehearsal for “Annie” by the Open Door Theatre. The community theater company includes people with special needs.

When the blue curtain opens at Open Door Theater’s Jan. 19 performance of “Annie,” the show will begin, a little differently.

The house lights will stay on, dimmed. Audience members will have stress balls to squeeze during the performance. They will be free to get up and move around during the show. And if the musical feels too overwhelming, they can escape to a quiet “chill-out” room down the hall.

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This matinee is the Acton-based theater’s first autism-friendly performance, modeled after similar shows on Broadway. Actors and other involved in the play received special training developed for them by the Autism Alliance of MetroWest.

“Bright lights and loud sounds and smells, for folks that have a lot of sensory issues, can be distracting and debilitating,” said Nannette Ohman, executive director of the alliance. “They smell more, sound is louder.”

The performance at Open Door, a community theater company whose cast includes people with special needs, is one of the first in the country. Other than the Broadway shows, Open Door directors involved in the special matinee could find only two other similar performances adapted for people with autism, in California and Montana.

AMC movie theaters around the country, including in Framingham, schedule monthly sensory-friendly movie showings, where the lights stay on and the sound stays low. AMC works with the Autism Society, and their slogan for the monthly shows is: “Get Up and Dance, Walk, Shout or Sing.”

Director Teri Shea got the idea for an autism-friendly performance after reading about Broadway productions of “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins” for audiences with autism.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Director Teri Shea got the idea for an autism-friendly performance after reading about Broadway productions of “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins” for audiences with autism.

Director Teri Shea first got the idea for an autism-friendly performance after she read last spring about Broadway performances of “The Lion King” and “Mary Poppins” for theatergoers with autism, reducing noise during the performance and leaving the lights on low.

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“They just modulate the whole thing so it’s less intimidating, less jarring,” said Rick Woods of Lunenberg, who plays Daddy Warbucks in the Open Door musical. His 22-year-old son, Lee, who is autistic, plays a servant; other actors in “Annie” have also been diagnosed with autism. This is the third Open Door production to feature both father and son as actors.

When Lee was 7, his parents took him to see a Disney on Ice performance of “Pocahontas.” Lee had been diagnosed with autism, but the performance seemed tame — until part of the story where shots are fired.

“My son was up the aisle and out the door,” Woods said.

In “Annie,” Shea eliminated Miss Hannigan’s shrill whistle-blowing for all performances, not just the autism-friendly matinee. The theater group also got special permission to shorten the play, said J. Samatha Gould, president of Open Door’s board of directors.

Members of the autism alliance also wrote a “social story” to help autistic theatergoers understand what will happen during the musical. The 24-page, step-by-step guide, with pictures of what will happen during “Annie,” starts with an explanation that the show is like a movie, except the actors are real people on the stage.

The story gives details about the performance — it is at the Raymond J. Grey Junior High School in Acton — and describes how ushers will help audience members find their seats.

The cast includes (from left), Rick Woods, Megan Kaye, Paul Jannke, and Lee Woods, who has autism.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The cast includes (from left), Rick Woods, Megan Kaye, Paul Jannke, and Lee Woods, who has autism.

“When it is time for the show to start, the theatre will get darker and everyone will get quiet,” the story reads. “I will try to be as quiet as I can during the show so that I can hear everything.”

The alliance created a training session for the cast and crew, telling them that they might hear audience members making sounds during the performance. The biggest change they notice may be seeing the audience, which is usually obscured by darkness.

“The lights should be up a little bit and not completely out,” Ohman said. “We would have folks who would have an aversion to the very loud noise sit away from the orchestra.”

Long before movie theaters began to offer autism-friendly performances, the alliance rented a movie theater and held movie nights.

At “Annie,” the audience may be noisier than usual, but Shea tells the actors that every show is different. Sometimes, she says, Friday night performances are quieter than Saturday night shows because theatergoers are tired from work.

“Because ‘Annie’ is so family friendly and children oriented, I was hoping some people would be more willing to bring their child to see the show if they knew that we’d be accepting of them doing that at this performance,” Shea said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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