PHILADELPHIA — Sarah Gordin’s love for theater bloomed the moment she saw “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway.

At 4 years old, she stood up to watch the entire show through the balusters of the mezzanine, enthralled by the experience. The classic production inspired her to become a performer and later an educator in the world of theater.

Now, as an early childhood movement arts specialist at Germantown Friends School, Gordin, 23, relishes when her students are struck by the same magic she witnessed as a kid. But in the years she’s been a part of the local arts community, she noticed something was missing: a company fully dedicated to performances for children with disabilities.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“Every major city has a dedicated children’s theater, so I was shocked that Philadelphia didn’t have one,” said Gordin, a native of Livingston, N.J. “It’s really important for children to be exposed to theater. And this is the type of work that I want to create as an artist, and sometimes you have to create your own opportunities to do it.”

Gordin established Philly Children’s Theatre in November 2021 with the aim of making theater more accessible to children throughout the region.

Inspired by Oily Cart in Europe, Philly Children’s Theatre puts on “sensory-devised” performances that incorporate interactive elements tailored to young children with disabilities. The company offers pay-what-you-can for entry and brings productions to local neighborhoods to eliminate the cost and travel barriers some audience members may face.

Their first production, “Without Wings” by Ilana Zahava Abusch, included American Sign Language interpretation at one of its performances in July 2022. And assistant artistic director Erin Gaydos said the group’s next production, “Season’s Magical Adventures: A Sensory Play,” will include more interactive features to give kids a more direct hand in the production.

Ahead of the play’s premiere on May 6, children in grades 4-8 at the Julia de Burgos Elementary School are making the show’s set and props, which all have a sensory element to them. Props include buttons, fuzzy pom-poms, wax flowers, rainmakers, spray bottles and fans.

The props will be placed in a bag and given to groups in the audience at the beginning of each show. The characters in the production will guide each child using the sensory props as they appear, allowing them to help tell the story. Gaydos said there will also be original music, sing-alongs and guided dances to engage different senses.

“It encapsulates that immersive and interactive part where they’re going through and creating the show with us while it’s happening,” Gaydos, 23, said. “And that way, they are allowed to experience the show in any way that they want to or can. There’s no judgment.”

The prop and set-making are led by Julia Gutman, who heads art projects for the Creative Arts and Restorative Education Program. By helping children crochet, sew and weave the art textile pieces together, she said it’s building a deeper connection between them and the show’s story of the four seasons.

“It’s not just for children, it’s with children involved,” Gutman, 24, said of the play. “I just love how child-centered it is.”

Once the show’s spring run ends, Gutman said students will be able to take home the props they designed. The script will also be turned into a storybook by playwright Juana Parral, with Julia de Burgos students illustrating the story.

Through community partnerships, Season’s Magical Adventures: A Sensory Play will debut in a closed performance at the Center for Autism and the HMS School in April. Public performances will take place at the Wyck House, Abington Arts Center and Historic Fair Hill May 6-13.

Performer Jennifer Spencer, 24, said the theater’s desire to take the show to different neighborhoods in Philly is what drew her to the company, and she can’t wait to see how the children take in the experience.

“It’s important to reach people where they are because not everybody has the same opportunities as everybody else,” Spencer said. “I grew up in a program that allowed me to see opera from a young age, but other kids have never seen an opera or theater show. This is gonna be their first time experiencing something like that, and this is a great way to show them.”

Going forward, Gordin wants to continue securing funding and support from local organizations to introduce theater to children ages 1 to 5 and make sensory-based productions more accessible throughout the region.

“It sounds like a big goal, and it is, but we’re going to talk to community centers, hospitals, homeless shelters — wherever we can bring the show and bring joy,” she said.

© 2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.