Senior’s ‘Green Light Project’ aims to make theater more accessible

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 21, 2023 – University of Rhode Island senior Melie Hayes caught the theater bug early—and it happened right here at URI. At the age of 12, she came to campus to take in a performance of “Singing in the Rain” in the Will Theatre.

“I saw the performance,” she said, “and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”

And that she did. She’s about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in theater. And for a senior research project, she’s working to make the theater a more inviting place for all. Her “Green Light Project” brought the first “sensory-aware” theater performance to URI.

For people with autism, epilepsy, sensory processing disorders, anxiety disorder, ADHD, or other conditions, the theater can be a difficult place. It’s a darkened room where there may be sudden loud noises, flashing lights, people yelling, maybe some theatrical fog, and other potentially distressing stimuli. But in recent years, many theaters have made efforts to be more accommodating. One approach to doing that is a sensory-aware performance—one that includes subtle cues letting people know when a potentially distressing stimulus is coming up.

Hayes, who is from Charlestown, first learned of sensory-aware theater through Trinity Rep, where she currently works as an intern in the education and accessibility department. Trinity’s sensory-aware performances include two small lanterns on either side of the stage that glow just before strong stimuli. A printed guide lets patrons know what the lanterns are for and what types of stimuli they warn about.

As soon has Hayes heard about this type of performance, she wanted to bring it to URI.

“Theater is such a community space, and I think more people deserve to be included in it,” Hayes said. “Sensory-aware performances are a simple yet effective way of giving people the autonomy to protect themselves—to have agency over their own body and experience. That’s a really simple way to make theater more accessible, which is something I’m passionate about.”

Working with the Initiative for Opportunities and Networking in the College of Arts and Sciences, Hayes applied for and won an Undergraduate Research and Innovation Project Grant to get the project off the ground. The grant enabled her to purchase signal lanterns for Will Theatre and work with a consultant to identify potentially distressing stimuli and URI’s performances of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods.”

Two performances of the play presented in April included the lanterns, equipped with soft green bulbs (hence the name Green Light Project). Hayes intentionally chose a lighting system that would be noticeable for the people who need it, yet unobtrusive for those who don’t, in order to seamlessly incorporate sensory awareness into the production.

Hayes also worked with URI’s Office of Disability, Access, and Inclusion to reach out to students who might be interested in a sensory-aware performance, in the hope of drawing people to the performance who may have previously shied away from the theater.

The goal of these first two performances was to gather some real-world data on how well the system works. All attendees received a survey asking their thoughts on the system. Hayes hopes to find out from people who have sensory concerns whether the system was helpful, and to find out if those without sensory concerns found it distracting. That feedback will fill a critical gap.

“There’s really not a lot of literature on this,” Hayes said. “We’d like to try to get some literature into the world, so more people can think of this as an option.”

Hayes hopes that sensory-aware performances will eventually become commonplace at URI and elsewhere. Ultimately, she thinks projects like this will bring more people into the theater and enable more people to be inspired like she was at that first performance she saw at URI.