By Michelle Sosa-Mallory, Corporate and Foundation Manager
On their first visit to the Lone Tree Arts Center last May, the Mastroiannis were noticeably excited to see Broadway star Lea Salonga’s sold-out performance. Aleia walked quickly toward the Main Stage doors, while Eric hurried to keep up with her.
As the manager on duty, I was in the lobby to welcome the young couple and remember being delighted by their enthusiasm. After all, this is the kind of joy we hope all patrons experience when they get the chance to engage in the arts.
“I had an opportunity to use these tickets through work, and asked Aleia if she wanted to go,” recalls Eric. He figured she would, with her rich background in the performing arts. Only, he hadn’t realized that as a ‘theater gal’ most of her life, Lea Salonga was one of Aleia’s artistic icons and inspirations. So, without hesitation, she responded ‘yes’ – of course she wanted to see the show!
Reflecting on the evening Aleia readily admits, “I was totally ‘fan girling’! Lea Salonga is the face of musical theater!” As the parents of three daughters—Lilliana (Lilly), 11; Sophia, 9; and Juliet, 7—a night together at the theater is a rare event, even with Aleia’s passion for the arts. She was professionally trained as a performer and taught theater to high school students when they lived in California.
“My love of the arts is one thing I want to share with the girls,” Aleia offers. “Unfortunately, it’s challenging for our family.” She explained that their youngest, Juliet, lives with autism, which affects her in many ways. For example, she can be sensitive to sounds and lighting effects. She is also prone to behaviors, such as vocalizing, which is typical for her condition, but not well understood, and often not well received, by audiences at a live performance.
Aleia shared that their oldest, Lilly, who is discovering a love of performance, recently had a part in her first school musical The Addams Family. They decided to attend as a family to support Lilly’s stage debut. But within a few minutes, Juliet felt distressed in this setting. She and Aleia had to leave the auditorium to avoid disruption, missing most of Lilly’s performance. According to Aleia, the experience reinforced their ‘fear factor’ about planning a future outing to the theater.
RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
Listening to their story, I immediately realized the moment of serendipity, and couldn’t help but smile broadly and announce, “Oh, you are definitely in the right place!” further explaining to Eric and Aleia that the Arts Center not only presents exceptional performers such as Lea Salonga, we lead the way in sensory friendly programming aimed at welcoming families in similar situations to the theater. That was probably not what they expected to hear, but seemed pleasantly surprised, and I hoped, reassured that other wonderful opportunities awaited their family at the Arts Center. With sensory friendly literature in hand, the couple settled into the theater for Lea’s show.
While every family’s story is unique, the Mastroiannis illustrate why they and many others in our community need and deserve the nurturing and judgement-free environment of our sensory friendly programming to experience the arts together. Our sensory friendly series is woven into our season, but more important, it is part of our place in making the arts inclusive for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
OPEN DOOR TO SENSORY FRIENDLY ARTS
Like most busy families, the Mastroiannis constantly juggle and align their days. Eric explained that between school and many therapeutic needs, Juliet is scheduled seven days a week. In addition, Lilly and Sophia are involved in creating art, gymnastics, and working with media and technology.
Even with their full lives, they wanted to discover what the Arts Center could offer them as a family. As a starting point, they made room on their calendar to attend the Arts Center’s second annual Sensory Friendly Open House and Resource Fair on September 8 and hoped that Juliet would have a good time and feel welcomed and included. The free event gave them a chance to become familiar with the space, meet staff and volunteers, and explore the venue at an unhurried pace. From trying on costumes, to learning about props and staging, and testing out the lighting and sound technologies, the family made the most of the afternoon.
“What an awesome experience for our whole family!” Eric commented as they made their way around the interactive stations. The event seemed to be delivering on the promise.
However, the magic happened on the Main Stage, where a typically apprehensive Juliet let go of her worry of being in a new place. She danced and discovered a violin on a table set up as an instrument petting zoo to encourage musical exploration. Aleia braced for the instrument to get broken, but soon relaxed, as the charming Juliet revealed some of her own inner ‘theater gal.’
“All of a sudden, I heard the most beautiful voice coming from the stage,” remembers Lisa Rigsby Peterson, the Arts Center’s executive director, who was leading the Main Stage tour at the open house. “Then I noticed it was a mom singing to her daughter. It was Aleia!” In this moment, Aleia fulfilled her heartfelt wish to connect with Juliet through the arts.
PAVING THE WAY FOR REMARKABLE EXPERIENCES
With growing confidence in our sensory friendly cultural experiences, the Mastroiannis are slowly getting to know the Arts Center. Later this month, we’ll welcome them to a sensory friendly performance of our annual tradition Home for the Holidays. Maybe this will be the start of a new tradition of celebrating the season while experiencing the arts as a family. Just a short time ago, Eric and Aleia didn’t think this was possible.
Through a wonderful twist of fate, we embrace the Mastroiannis as part of the Arts Center’s community. However, the Arts Center’s role in providing sensory friendly experiences is more than coincidence. Nearly seven years ago, we intentionally set out to create such a program that now paves the way for Juliet, her family, and many others to engage in the arts. The same mindful approach is true for our Community Impact programs that help us reach students, seniors, young children, and those experiencing early memory loss.
With your gifts of support to the Lone Tree Arts Center, these programs have flourished and enabled thousands to connect through accessible, inclusive, and affordable performing arts. Thank you for helping us make remarkable arts happen for everyone in our community!
Give today to the Arts Center: https://www.lonetreeartscenter.org/give