The Relaxed Performance Project: theatre for all

Programming

In 2011, a “Wicked Discrimination” story was widely reported in the UK media: an autistic 12-year-old boy was accused of causing a “disturbance” during a performance of the musical Wicked at the Apollo Victoria, a West End London theatre. The family were “offered the chance to watch the show from behind a glass partition or squatting on a flight of stairs and watching through the banisters.” Complaints were not coming from other audience members; instead, staff mentioned a “precious sound engineer”. The family finally left the theatre, cutting short an experience that their son had been “hugely enjoying”.

Following this incident, the ATG theatre group – the largest in the UK – reportedly reviewed its staff training with the help of user-led arts organisation Shape. Its access policy – rather detailed but unfortunately buried deep into the website, nowhere near the homepage – states that they have a dedicated “Access Champion” in all of the group’s 39 venues, who offer orientation visits and other bespoke services, such as seat service during the interval; and one of their London theatre also took part in the recent Relaxed Performance project.

What are “Relaxed Performances”?

Relaxed Performances are creative, safe and inspiring public theatre performances for children with special needs, including Autistic Spectrum Conditions and/or learning disabilities and, crucially, their families. Performances are specially designed to give those who otherwise might feel excluded the chance to experience live theatre.

Led by a partnership between The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and Theatrical Management Association (now UK Theatre), the Relaxed Performance Project pilot scheme ran between November 2012 and June 2013 and presented 8 Relaxed Performances in theatres across the UK, with a conference held in September 2013 to share best practice with the theatre sector.

The full executive summary is available on the Include Arts website, alongside an evaluation report and case studies; here are the key points taken from the report.

Who took part?

• The pilot project engaged just short of 5,000 audience members (adults and children), with an average audience size of 622.

• Of these, 60% reported they had never been to the theatre before as a family, 30% had never been to the theatre at all, and 90% had never been to a Relaxed Performance.

How does it work?

• A visual guide was compiled and posted to each family prior to the performance.

Autism-specific training was delivered to 300 staff of all partner venues.

• Advice was given on how to engage with potential audience members or how audiences were found.

• A press consultant worked with theatres to promote the performances in local and national press.

• Every participating theatre adjusted light and sound levels during the performance to suit the needs of the audience.

Designated ‘chill-out’ areas were prepared for audience members to use should being in the auditorium become overwhelming. These lessen stress, subsequently promoting feelings of ‘relief’ and ‘acceptance’ amongst individual family members.

Most theatres also offered a reduced ticket price for these performances.

What happens next?

One of the plays presented as a Relaxed Performance was The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, modified for people with autism, learning disabilities and sensory or communication needs.

Mark Haddon, who wrote the novel on which the play is based, said in the Guardian he was delighted by the special performances. “It is important to emphasise that this is about inclusivity, not targeting. These performances are for anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed performance environment, including people with an autistic spectrum condition, sensory or communication disorders, or a learning disability.”

In the same article, Jeremy Newton, chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, said the plan was to make such performances part of the mainstream: “We’re hoping to start an attitudinal shift within theatres to a point in a year or two where the printed programme will say, ‘Tuesday night, signed performance for the hard of hearing; Wednesday night, relaxed performance for families with children on the autistic spectrum’.”

Finally, here are 10 Tips for putting on a Relaxed Performance:

1. Choice of Production:

Think about it! Is a pantomime the best choice? They can be considered to be challenging due to noise, lights and the uncertainty. Well-known shows might well sell better as they already have more profile.

2. Scheduling:

Work out with your local audience when the best time for them would be to come to a show.

3. Funding:

Can you fund the discounted tickets yourself? Will you have enough budget for marketing the show. On the day you will need extra people front of house.

4. Marketing & Press:

Building audiences for Relaxed Performances takes time. ‘Word of mouth’ and personal recommendation’ and building a personal relationship between a staff member and local groups proved a more effective means of marketing the programme than advertising. Several theatre staff reported that marketing through their ‘traditional routes’ was not effective in this instance. Press worked wonders.

5. Partnerships:

In order to build an audience for a Relaxed Performance it is imperative that you speak to community groups, schools and individuals and listen to their needs and work with them.

6. Advocacy:

Whilst this will take time, it will be worth it in the long run as it will build your community relationships and work as a good advocate for your theatre.

7. Preparation & Information:

Is absolutely key. If audiences know what to expect, there is less for them to worry about. It is difficult enough getting to the theatre so clear and comprehensive information is imperative – “The visual guide was  absolutely fantastic … the reassurance about the story line was really helpful in preparing us for the shock of it”.

8. Training & Understanding:

Take time to understand what a family might have to encounter day-to-day to understand how important this is and train your staff as it will pay dividends. “We trained the cast and front of house staff for today and with autism awareness training. They all felt incredibly honoured and really thrilled to be doing something special.”

9. Environment:

Make people feel comfortable and secure. “Having the relaxation room for the interval was really brilliant … he needed to blow out and I didn’t need to stress about him being too loud or being too fidgety in the show”.

10. Future:

“We would totally come again”. Build on your success. All theatre partners in the project have programmed a further relaxed performance.

Access Toolkit: Outdoor Events

Tools of the Trade

Now that we know all about organising a street party, courtesy of the several excellent resources I featured in a previous post, it’s time to make it fully accessible – and here again, help is available. The Independent Street Art Network offers a free Access Toolkit downloadable from their website with the goal of “making outdoor arts events accessible to all”. It’s co-produced with Attitude is Everything, a UK charity that works towards improving Deaf and disabled people’s access to live music, and it’s a London 2012 legacy project.

The Access Toolkit is a comprehensive guide to identify and remove barriers to access for all types of outdoor events. Practically, it can help outdoor festivals – from live music in a field to busy street carnivals – to meet the standards outlined in the Attitude is Everything’s Charter of Best Practice:

Bronze

  • Accessible toilet(s)
  • Level access
  • An emergency evacuation plan
  • An accessible booking system
  • ‘2 for 1’ ticket scheme
  • Viewing area(s) / platform(s)
  • Staff can describe access
  • Accessible publicity and access information
  • Induction loop / infra red system
  • Accessible signage
  • Disability Equality Training for staff
  • Accessible Campsite (Festivals only)

Silver

  • Go beyond the legal minimum level of physical access
  • Have an early entrance option
  • Backstage/stage access
  • An accessible and diverse recruitment policy
  • An ‘Access Address Book’
  • Extend Disability Equality Training
  • Access to the performance
  • Extend access policies to partners

Gold

  • Become an Ambassador for Best Practice in Access
  • Long term commitment
  • Track effects of accessible recruitment and measure diversity

 

The Toolkit provides information, tips and checklists to help event organisers think thoroughly about barriers to access and how to remove them, in three main sections:

 Why: the many advantages of making an event truly inclusive and accessible, including complying with the legislation and reaping economic benefits. This can help

Before the event: this is perhaps where the biggest shift in attitude must occur. Inclusive marketing and efficient outreach will help attract more people; staff and volunteers recruitment and training are also crucial to the success of the inclusion efforts.

At the event: there are many adjustments that can be made for free or at a small cost. The toolkit is very practical, with clear recommendations, checklists and specialised suppliers contact details. Areas covered include:

  • information and communication, from steward training to signage and announcements;
  • accessible toilets, seating, viewing platforms;
  • crowd management for large street parties such as carnivals;
  • making performances accessible, through the use of sign language interpreters, captions or audio descriptions.

Several case studies conclude the toolkit, highlighting the importance of planning and training.

The Access Toolkit can be downloaded here, and Attitude is Everything provide further resources on their website, including a set of practical guides to improve communication, create a viewing platform or establishing a 2-for-1 ticket policy for disabled people and their Personal Assistant.