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‘Sensory-friendly’ Nutcracker performance makes magic for the Regional Center of Orange County

The Nutcracker faces off with the Rat King
The Nutcracker faces off with the Rat King during an abridged performance of Festival Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” for adults and children of the Regional Center of Orange County on Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Orange County families filed into the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Dec. 10 for an abridged performance of Festival Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” during a holiday open house for the Regional Center of Orange County.

“Can I ask you a question?” a young man said to Larry Landauer, executive director of the center. “What’s the rat’s name?” He was referring to the Rat King, a character in the ballet.

The RCOC serves children and adults with disabilities in Orange County, which Landauer said can range from intellectual disabilities and autism to cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

“When we get an opportunity for an event like this, look at how excited they are to come and do something similar to normal,” said Landauer. “That can be really hard sometimes.”

Loud questions and other behaviors sometimes make it challenging for families with developmentally disabled members to visit a theater where they have to sit quietly or where loud noises and bright lights might be common.

Cast members perform "The Nutcracker" for the Regional Center of Orange County at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
Cast members perform during an abridged performance of Festival Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” for adults and children of the Regional Center of Orange County on Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“This is going to be a sensory-friendly performance,” Craig Springer, executive vice president at the Irvine Barclay Theatre said in his announcements before the program. “We will leave the house lights up a little bit, and if you feel you need to get up and move around a little bit, feel free to do so. Typically at performances you are asked to remain silent. That is not going to be a problem here today. Anything you feel you need to do to feel comfortable here, we want you to do that.”

The holiday open house has become a beloved tradition for both the Barclay and the RCOC.

“This event really has been popular; it sold out real fast,” said Landauer. “We are really thrilled the Barclay can make these accommodations.”

The holiday open house was skipped in 2020 due to the pandemic, but in 2019 the costumed dancers participated in a meet and greet in the lobby after the show, giving guests a chance to have their photos taken. This year, the theater was unable to continue the close-contact tradition due to COVID-19 safety regulations but was happy to offer the event with safety measures in place.

Besides the abridged Nutcracker performance, the holiday open house also included holiday carols sung by the University High School choir, which, under the direction of Rob Blaney, sang “Carol of the Bells” and featured performances by Maya Breen (“Once Upon a December”) Caitlyn Yu (“River”), Chloe Schiffman and Jacob Schiffman (“This Christmas”) and Hannah Norman (“The Christmas Song”).

University High School choir members sing holiday carols at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
University High School choir members sing holiday carols during a holiday open house for the Regional Center of Orange County on Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Dozens of Nutcracker soldiers of all sizes stood at attention in the Irvine Barclay Theatre lobby, which was festooned with Nutcracker-themed Christmas decorations.

“Did you have a favorite part?” Rhea Hinojosa of Mission Viejo asked her 7-year-old daughter, Amara.

“All of it!” Amara replied.

Hinojosa is a mother of 4 and said two of her children use speech therapy services at RCOC.

Rhea Hinojosa, of Mission Viejo, sits with her son, Raizo, 5, right, and daughter, Amara, 7, at "The Nutcracker."
Rhea Hinojosa, of Mission Viejo, sits with her son, Raizo, 5, right, and daughter, Amara, 7, at “The Nutcracker” at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Jerry Mandel, president of Irvine Barclay Theatre, Salwa Rizkalla, artistic director of Festival Ballet Theatre and Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, who is on the Irvine Barclay Theatre board of directors, also attended the performance.

Landauer said the great thing about events like the holiday open house is they are opened to the developmental disabled and their families as well.

“This is a family event. Sometimes there are day programs or different things, but this event is for the whole family,” said Landauer.

Full performances of the Magic of Festival Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” will continue at the Irvine Barclay Theatre through Dec. 24. The show is under the artistic Direction of Rizkalla and includes Tchaikovsky’s iconic score. Evening and matinee performances are available.

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