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.
Work out with your local audience when the best time for them would be to come to a show.
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.
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.
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.”
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”.
“We would totally come again”. Build on your success. All theatre partners in the project have programmed a further relaxed performance.