For more than 10 years, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has charmed crowds with its Pittsburgh-flavored rendition of the holiday classic "The Nutcracker."
Dancers portray characters with local surnames such as Heinz and Kaufmann and the sets contain familiar cityscapes, including the Downtown Macy's clock and the view of the Golden Triangle from atop Mount Washington.
The annual production will return to the Benedum Center, Downtown, for a three-week run beginning Friday. This year, even more families will be able to take part in the tradition when PBT presents an autism-friendly adaptation at 2 p.m. Dec. 27.
Among the first of its kind in the country, the performance will transform the theater into a safe haven by providing quiet areas and activity stations in the lobby and reducing loud sounds and special effects.
"It's not going to look much different on stage than what you would normally see," said Alyssa Herzog Melby, the company's director of education and community engagement.
Key production adjustments will include nixing flashes involved with magic tricks Uncle Drosselmeyer performs and turning off rodents' glowing eyes in the first act's Rat King battle scene. Dramatic light changes also will be toned down and booming parts of the Tchaikovsky score will have the volume lowered.
The house lights will be left at about 20 percent to encourage a relaxed atmosphere. Audience members will be free to stand up or move about as needed, and specialists will be nearby to offer assistance. Volunteers stationed throughout the crowd will hold up glowsticks to signal that a potentially startling sound or light change is coming.
In the lobby, coloring books, stuffed animals and other hands-on activities will be available, as well as places people can retreat to for some quiet time.
PBT worked with a focus group to help identify the elements of the show in need of tweaking to make "The Nutcracker" more accessible. Training also was provided for dancers, staff and ushers so they could learn what to expect and how to make the experience a positive one for those with special needs, many of whom have likely never been to a theater before. To help ease anxiety of the unknown, ticket-holders will receive in advance a guide familiarizing them with "The Nutcracker" and the layout of the Benedum Center. They'll also be invited to visit the theater during a "meet your seat" event.
The run of show will not be much different for the dancers, artistic director Terrence Orr said, although being able to see audience members, and perhaps hear them, could require some extra focus.
"It's just another variable that they had to consider that might surprise them otherwise if they hadn't had that knowledge," said Roger Ideishi, associate professor in the department of rehabilitation sciences at Temple University and an occupational therapist.
In addition to providing training for PBT, Mr. Ideishi has aided theaters and museums, including the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian Institution, with modifying their environments to better engage those with autism. These types of organizations have noticed an increase in calls from the parents of children with developmental disabilities inquiring about these kinds of modifications, he said.
"I think slowly we're hearing more and more people are doing this, and I think it's really driven by the families' desire to have these community experiences."
In Pittsburgh, similar needs are palpable, highlighted when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust brought an autism-friendly version of "The Lion King" to the Benedum Center in September.
"I think the fact that we were 98 percent sold out at 'Lion King' shows the need," said Luciana Randall, executive director of ABOARD's Autism Connection of Pennsylvania. "It improves the whole community's treatment of [people with autism] because we're bringing them together as equals. We can minimize that and emphasize the similarities."
"Lion King" has served as a road map for PBT as it readies for "The Nutcracker." Ms. Melby also has kept up on national trends for making dance and theater more approachable by attending conferences, such as the Kennedy Center Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference. This year, she received the conference's award for emerging leaders for her commitment to making ballet more accessible.
During her two-plus years with PBT, Ms. Melby has helped the company institute a number of accessibility initiatives. Braille and large-print programs are available upon request. This season also is the first time audio description is offered at select performances of each production.
Listening devices can be checked out with a photo ID at the guest services center for those with sight issues, or for those just wanting to learn more about the ballet. During the performance, a narrator will provide background on the ballet, description of costumes and sets and explain some of the choreography. This feature will be present at the 4:30 p.m. "Nutcracker" performance on Dec. 8.
This fall, PBT also started offering dance classes designed for people with Parkinson's disease, the result of a partnership between the company and the National Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania. Classes have live music and expose people to jazz and modern styles.
Regardless of people's backgrounds or needs, "The Nutcracker" likely will have something to delight them, Mr. Orr said.
"We're doing quite a few new prop and cue changes."
Audiences might notice some Pittsburgh sports references when penguin and pirate characters take the stage. The dragon in the second-act party scene also will amp up its presence with smoke billowing from its mouth.
"I hope that [the audience] comes away feeling warm and fuzzy and like the wonderful season that it is," Mr. Orr said. "I like being a part of people's lives and knowing that 'The Nutcracker' is part of that tradition."
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SaraB_PG.