ST. LOUIS – If you ask for the time at the new Zack Theater in Grand Center, they'll tell you it's show time!
The curtains come up on the Ignite Theater performance of "Annie".
Sixty-four kids are putting on this exclusive production, but what makes tonight different is that it's inclusive.
"We believe in creating great people first and great performers second," Ignite Theater's Executive Director Libby Pedersen said.
The Ignite Theater company is a youth theater company that started about three years ago.
"We have performers from Mascoutah, Illinois to Fenton to North County. Everywhere," Pedersen said.
"They welcome everybody. They really make you feel at home," 10-year-old Ginger Cox said.
Like sports, Ignite gives kids ages 4-18 a chance to exercise. Only in this case, they're building their muscles of compassion and creativity.
"What makes me happy is that I get to see other people's faces light up when they see me do something funny or they see me do something cool," 8-year-old Riley Adams said.
"And it's really fun like at the end of the day like you have your school friends and then you can go to theater and be with your theater friends," 10-year-old Paige Cuddihee said.
After three long months of rehearsals, the performers got some last-minute advice from an Ignite veteran.
"I told them if there are people who are talking in the audience, they shouldn't fret," 13-year-old Joshua Gross said.
You see, opening night was a little different from other nights. It was a sensory-friendly production.
"The lights stay on. There's less microphones. Our performers use soft sole shoes," Pedersen said.
Reduced sounds and brighter lights help to make this musical autism-friendly.
"Everyone deserves to go out with their family and do something that's so fun together," Pedersen said.
It's said that 1 in 68 U.S. children has an autism-spectrum disorder and many parents never bring their autistic child to the theater. But here, there's even a space called the "wiggle room" for the kids in the audience that need to get up and move around.
"I think sometimes, we unintentionally create barriers for people," said Megan Meier who brought her son. "They want to be able to enjoy concerts and parents feel they're embarrassed if their child is going to make a noise."
"Liam has autism and it's so nice to be in an environment where he can be comfortable," said Anne Williamson, Liam's Aunt.
The musical "Annie" is a story of triumph and positivity. And after tonight, that's a message not lost on the audience or the performers.
"Most of these people don't usually get to go out and see performances and this performance is giving everybody a chance," Riley Adams said.
"They can come here and not be judged and do whatever they want while watching the show," Paige Cuddihee added.
The reviews are in. "Annie" is the toast of the town.
"Oh, it's wonderful," Williams said enthusiastically. "I'm singing along to all the words, it reminds me of being a kid."
The Ignite Theater Company. Taking empathy and entertainment and bringing them center stage.