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Children with disabilities treated to a ‘Circus of the Senses’ in Peabody

Lyndsey Hayford, 11, left, and Samara Chaires, 11, both of Pittsfield, are all smiles as they meet Ringmaster Stephanie Monseu. (Spenser R. Hasak)

PEABODY — Eight-year-old Sophia couldn’t stay seated as trapeze acrobats sailed through the air under the big top at the Big Apple Circus.

“I loved it so much,” she said. “I especially loved the part when they were flying. My sister loved it, too, I could tell.”

Sophia and her 9-year-old sister Adrianna, who has Down syndrome, were among more than 1,400 guests of the circus which came to the Northshore Mall for a four-week run.

Thursday’s performance of two dozen acrobats, comic jugglers, aerialists, and an Australian shepherd that can catch a frisbee followed by a backflip on command, was a special treat for children with disabilities.

“Circus of the Senses” is an enhanced version of the show which provides circus fans who have vision, hearing, or cognitive challenges with a way to enjoy the performing arts experience.

“I thought the show was absolutely fantastic,” said Odilia Proulx, the girls’ great aunt. “Adrianna so was intrigued by what she saw, and her sister, Sophia, who initially said she was not interested, went into another dimension over the show.”

Michael Santana, a teacher’s aide who accompanied a group of 9- to 11-year-old children from the Beverly School for the Deaf, said the tailor-made circus was perfect.

“The kids have been looking forward to this for weeks,” he said. “This inclusive show gives our kids a chance to enjoy the range of entertainment they don’t often see.”

Ringmaster Stephanie Monseu, a New York native who began performing as a fire eater 25 years ago, said the enthusiastic response from the “Circus of the Senses” audience is the same as with any crowd.

“But in this show, we’re really tuned into the different ways the special needs audience interact with the performance,” she said. “We all come into it knowing how to reach people a little differently.”

There’s a pre- and post-show opportunity for children to enter the ring, meet the performers, and try their hand at juggling, and climbing a freestanding ladder used in the show.

There are sign language interpreters for the hearing impaired, headsets for the blind so they can listen to a live description of the events unfolding, and Braille and large print programs. In addition, the lighting and sound has been modified to create a comfortable atmosphere for children with challenges.

One of Monseu’s challenges, she said, is how to pronounce Peabody.

“I’m still struggling with it, but I think I’m getting there,” she said while enunciating Pea-bod-ee.

Lisa Lewis, the circus’ community program director, is credited with making the special needs performance a reality. The idea to create the show started 40 years ago, she said, as a way to make the circus accessible to everyone.

“At first it was just for the blind, and we used radio announcers to do the audio,” she said. “But as time went on, we added a way to assist the deaf, and then we realized autism was growing. It’s all based on not what the kids can’t do, but what they can do.”

Marc and Annette Epstein of Sharon contributed $2,000 so 200 special needs children could see the show at no cost.

The couple’s 10-year-old son, who had Down syndrome, died in 2015 following complications from epilepsy.

“Paul loved the show and this is a legacy event in his memory,” he said. “He was very sick but he was always a happy kid.”

 

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