Special/Signature Issues » Top 40 Under 40

Rachel Garmon-Williams, 33

Artistic director, CSz Richmond Theater


Leave it to Richmond to be the first place in the country to create sensory-friendly improv performances.

Rachel Garmon-Williams launched the performances in 2017 as part of an effort to find new ways to connect with audiences. “I wanted to create a space that would allow for enjoyment in different ways for children and adults with sensory-input disorders, autism, and other developmental or cognitive disabilities,” they explain, adding that families and caregivers are welcome. “That space didn’t exist in the improv world before.”

The Saturday afternoon performances have a low-cost ticket price, and the entire environment is geared to be sensory-friendly. There’s no expectation that the audience will remain quiet during the performance or even stay in their seats, so a “quiet area” is available with sensory-friendly toys for those who need a break from the performance. “We let people in early so they can get settled,” they explain. “The lights are dimmer and the volume of our speakers lower. Everyone needs a space to laugh.”

Post-pandemic, Garmon-Williams began looking for more ways to be inclusive and address the changes in performers and audiences: “The past year has been one of leaning into grace and empathy and growth in the theater and myself. It’s been about resetting and building from that instead of trying to do what we did before. The pandemic did a number on us all in many ways.”

One such adjustment is a new pre-class ritual of allowing time for attendees to talk before class starts, an acknowledgment that people are more inclined to seek connections now. They’ve also seen a big shift in the improv community with more intentionality in diversification. “Improv hasn’t always been a welcoming space for a lot of people,” they say. “Whether it’s how our space welcomes those in wheelchairs or people on the autism spectrum, I wanted to see how we could change that.”

Already, sensory-friendly improv performances have expanded to Chicago and are currently being set up in Houston and Portland. “I love being able to create a space for people to come and laugh,” Garmon-Williams says. “It’s all about finding new ways to connect.”