Lion King performance appeals to theater fans with sensory sensitivities

Two people smile and one holds stuffed animal
Ben Thelen (left) stands with Gina Brady of Fraser in front of the stage at the Orpheum Theater's Lion King on April 20.
Heather Thelen

The theater production of the Lion King is many things: iconic, awe-inspiring, exciting and overwhelming for people with sensory differences and disabilities. Hennepin Theater Trust partnered with Fraser, a local non-profit for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to put on a sensory-friendly version of the show.

Its changes include lower sound levels, freedom to get up and move around the theater, sensory rooms and trained staff. The performance is Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Orpheum Theater in St. Paul.

Heather Thelen and her son Ben plan to attend and she joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

TIMON: (SINGING) Hakuna matata

What a wonderful phrase

PUMBAA: (SINGING) Hakuna matata

Ain't no passing craze

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I'm sure you recognize that song. The theater production of The Lion King is many things-- iconic, awe inspiring, exciting, and overwhelming for people with sensory differences and disabilities.

Hennepin Theatre Trust partners with Fraser-- that's a local nonprofit for folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities-- to put on a sensory-friendly version of the show this coming Saturday. It includes some helpful changes, like lower sound levels, freedom to get up and move around the theater, some sensory rooms, and trained staff, just to name a few.

Heather Thelen and her son, Ben, are planning on going to the sensory-friendly Lion King this weekend. Heather is joining us on the show. It was good to hear from Ben during a pre-recorded interview. Welcome to the show, Heather. How are you?

HEATHER THELEN: I am well. Thank you so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Good. I'm glad you're here.

BEN THELEN: Hi, everybody. My name is Ben Thelen, and I'm 26. I have autism and complete--

HEATHER THELEN: Complicated.

BEN THELEN: Complicated.


BEN THELEN: Epilepsy.

CATHY WURZER: We want to hear from Ben. Heather, thank you for being here with us, and along with some cuts from Ben here. How excited are you and Ben for The Lion King?

HEATHER THELEN: Oh, we're so excited. We're so excited. He's watching the video, of course, and he's even watching the next one, which is Lion King 1/2, which Pumbaa and Timbo do it. So, yes, we're very excited.

CATHY WURZER: I think it's great that there's going to be a sensory-friendly production of this, at least a showing of this. Why is that so important?

HEATHER THELEN: Well, I've been a Hennepin Trust Theatre member for over 10 years now. I've been able to go see all the musicals and everything, and now I get a chance to share it with my son, Ben, which just brings a whole other level of joy.

CATHY WURZER: You asked Ben what he's most excited about, and he told us this.

BEN THELEN: Sing animal costumes, the song "Hakuna Matata," with Timon and Pumbaa.

CATHY WURZER: I bet he's very excited about that. So--


CATHY WURZER: But it can be kind of hard for Ben, right? I mean, and for other folks who, if something's too loud or it's just too, too much. Can you talk about that a little bit?

HEATHER THELEN: Certainly, yeah. So for Ben, he likes to move a lot. He needs to move. It's hard for him to sit down, especially when he's excited. Also, the loud sounds and the music can be really hard for him sometimes. So he wears headsets, and he has some fidget toys. But the movement is so important for him. He needs to move, and he'll be on the side, singing along with every song. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: So, in terms of making it, it's hard in terms of having loud music, that kind of thing, do you know what's going on at that point for folks like Ben?

HEATHER THELEN: You know, for Ben, I think he's emotionally overwhelmed. He is having the best time, and his heart is singing so much with joy and love. And he can't express it verbally, so he does it physically.

So he's a little grumpy right now when we talk about this. But by Saturday, he will be-- and we will be watching this video for the next three to six months. He will be so happy and so full of joy and love and happiness. It's just overwhelming for them to get there and to get set up and to get ready for this. It's a lot of work for them.

CATHY WURZER: Have you had the ability to go to more-- to go to sensory-friendly events like this before? And do you think they're becoming more popular?

HEATHER THELEN: Yes, they certainly are. On Sunday, this past Sunday, April 14th, Fraser helped set up the St. Paul Saints game, and it was a sensory-friendly event. And Ben got to throw out the first pitch. And then he got to hug Madonna, which is the mascot. And then he got to do YMCA. And this child was on cloud nine, oh, for the whole weekend. He still is. He thinks every time he goes to a Saints game, he's going to throw out the first pitch, which we will need to discuss. Yes.


But yeah, just the joy and the happiness that these kids bring is amazing. It's really fun.

CATHY WURZER: And I also want to mention, we're talking about kids like Ben, but older folks who may have, say, forms of dementia-- I think of my dad, who had some issues with loud noises and certain things. Can folks who might have issues like that also attend?

HEATHER THELEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. So we go to the Guthrie, and the Christmas Carol every year has a sensory-friendly. And all are accepted. All generations, all people with sensory needs are there. And if they need to get up and move, they do. If they can't stay the whole time, that's fine. It's just becoming super popular. And more and more places are just seeing how much joy it brings to all generations and all people. It's really fun.

CATHY WURZER: Say, I want to hear from Ben one more time here. We asked Ben what he wishes folks understood about his autism.

BEN THELEN: I wish other people knew breathing slowly helps me. I like to move. I want friends to come and hang out with me.

CATHY WURZER: I hope you will go hang out with Heather and Ben Thelen. Heather, thank you for joining us. I appreciate it.

HEATHER THELEN: You're so welcome. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Our best to Ben, too. They're going to go to the sensory-friendly Lion King, which is at 2:00 PM this Saturday at the Orpheum Theater. And tickets are still available for the show.

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