The Relaxed Performance Project: theatre for all


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.

The Art of Food


Food & Drink Festivals are popular fixtures of the social calendar, and in the course of my travels, I have partaken in events such as La Fête du vin (Bordeaux), Vijazz (Vilafranca del Penèdes), Manchester Food and Drink Festival, Toronto’s Winterlicious and Summerlicious – and possibly a few more that I don’t remember.

These are mostly business-led festivities, offering opportunities to sample wine, beer or food at reduced prices. Food (and drink) being the quintessential social binder, this type of festival is likely to be pleasant and convivial, as well as leaning towards the commercial and touristy side.

Food can also get eventful in large-scale gatherings, such as le Dîner en Blanc™ or celebrations organised by the French “fooding” movement. The convivial factor is also high up there, and the crowd is as much a part of the spectacle as what they consume.

If the art of food can be the subjet of a festival, what can an arts festival do with food? I’m not going to foray into Food Art for now, although for some interesting examples, I recommend a visit to La Milk Factory, a French dairy industry-sponsored creative lab run by a distant cousin of mine, or the work of Polish artist Milena Korolczuk, who carves out of bread small heads in the image of Marina Abramovic, Lenin, Jay-Z or Sartre, or else the dreamy Edible Vistas of Canadian-Hungarian artist Eszter Burghardt.

Instead, I want to feature three very different projects that have in common a playful yet experimental attitude to food. Two of them were recently presented by multidisciplinary arts festivals, and the third one is prime material to be expanded to a wider scope.

1. Future Chefs

Toronto-based Luminato Festival has offered a food-focused weekend for several years now, creating a street food market atmosphere by inviting local chefs to set up stalls and offer $5 portions to visitors. In 2013, they partnered with Mammalian Diving Reflex to revamp this traditional model and throw a few kids into the mix.

Mammalian Diving Reflex is self-described as “a culture production workshop that creates site and social-specific performance events, theatre-based productions, gallery-based participatory installations, video products, art objects and theoretical texts”.  They often work with children – such as in previous projects Haircuts by Children and These are the People in your Neighbourhood – to reverse social hierarchies and disrupt stereotypes.

Future Tastes of Toronto – At the Kids’ Table involved over 20 Toronto chefs and six classes of grades 4-6 students, meeting for workshops in the weeks leading up to the Festival. During the 2-day ‘performance’, kids promoted “their” chef to the public in attendance and animated the Kids’ Table, a large communal eating space.

2. Future Communities

In 2011, Manchester International Festival started Alpha Farm, an experiment to transform a disused 1960s office building into a vertical farm, with the help and for the benefit of the local community. This project was located in Wythenshawe,  Manchester, ironically one of the original “garden city” planned housing estates which would now probably qualify as a food desert. Hopes for a forthcoming urban harvest were high, and this 2011 video produced by ethical communications agency Creative Concern features experts from different fields drumming up the excitement about the project.

As the building proved too challenging to convert, MIF has taken the lessons learned to start the Biospheric Project in a derelict mill in Salford, right next to Manchester. The focus has now switched from vertical farm to agricultural lab, and the community engagement is even deeper, with many school visits, workshops, talks and open tours to introduce local residents to the innovative growing systems developed by the research team. The project is described as “part farm, part laboratory and part research centre, all embedded in the heart of an existing community”. According to this 2013 Guardian article, it is also intended to be a “legacy commission that will continue its work for at least ten years.” Salford’s Mayor describes the socio-agricultural experiment as a “flagship project” for the city, which is hoping to lead the way in new food growing systems.

The project is supported by Urban Splash, a developer that has led the urban regeneration in Manchester with its iconic warehouse conversions, and is meant to be a resource for the local community, with a wholefood shop that will eventually sell the Biosphere produce. Outside the mill, 70 fruit trees have already been planted, and a worm farm provides another bond to the local community, as worms are sold to fishermen at a low price in exchange for their compost. Inside, diverse growing experiments are ongoing, such as aquaponics (combining fish farming and hydroponics), and the roof top features beehives and chicken.

Project Director Vincent Walsh introduces the Biospheric Project (as part of an interview series):

And here is a quick rooftop tour by local journalist and tour guide Jonathan Schofield, with city views:

3. Future Tastes

It is anticipated that in 2050 the world’s population will exceed 9 billion people. The expansion of the world’s foodprint that is expected to accompany this population increase may exceed the tolerances of our planet’s ecosystems, activating unknown environmental and economic tipping points, and result in extreme food shortages. HOW WILL WE FEED EVERYONE WHEN THE TIME COMES?

By eating bugs, of course.

In 2011, Mammalian Diving Reflex and a host of collaborators presented a Toronto Nuit Blanche installation entitled Farmers’ Market 2050 offering the food of the future: micro-crops and micro-livestock, or, in plain English, algae and bugs. This vision of the future is based on the work of Third Millenium Farming, who are conducting research into cricket farming.

3MF has now partnered with Alimentary Initiatives to disseminate this research in a series of events called Future Food Salon, featuring live music and art installations, cricket-based food (such as burgers made out of chick pea and cricket flours) and a lively presentation by lead researcher Jakub Dzamba exploring urban and home-based cricket farming as a future alternative to current intensive agricultural practices.

This 3-minute video introduction does a good job of presenting problems and potential solutions:

And here is a video trailer for Future Food Salon, presented by Alimentary Initiatives’ founder Aruna Handa:

Finally, here are 5 reasons to eat crickets taken from Alimentary Initiatives’ blog:

  1. Nutrition. Crickets are nutritious. Cooked weight protein rates, gram for gram, are comparable to chicken and beef. They are also rich in omega-3 fats and high in iron.
  2. Sustainability. Cricket farming is more sustainable than 20th-century-style livestock rearing. Cricket rearing is less taxing on water resources, land resources, and produces less methane. Because insects do not produce fur, bones or hair, their ratio of feed to protein produced is excellent.
  3. Distribution. Cricket farming can be managed in a decentralized way. With Dzamba’s farms, which sit on a single square metre of land, and with his new counter-top prototypes, every household could become a producer, feeding their crickets kitchen scraps.
  4. Environment. Crickets are found throughout the planet, so the risk of an environmental disaster through the escape of crickets represents little threat to existing eco-systems.
  5. Ethics. Crickets can be euthanized in a humane manner by freezing them, which causes their metabolism to slow down, so that when they are cooked, they are asleep.

Review: TURF, July 2013


I love going to festivals, but, too often for my own sake, I tend to be unduly critical and to let the lack of signage – or any other event planning flaws – come in the way of my enjoyment. It’s called déformation professionnelle in French, and it (i.e. I) can get very annoying.

That’s why I’m so happy to report that I have thoroughly enjoyed the latest festival I attended, TURF.


Let’s start with the name, with the help of the website Fest FAQ section:

Q – What does TURF stand for?
A – Toronto Urban Roots Festival

Q – Are you guys aware that not every band on TURF is specifically Americana/Canadiana Roots?
A – Really, well that’s why the word ‘Urban’ is in the title
A – It’s just not your grandma’s, or father’s roots music festival, we’re hoping it’s 2013 specific

Or maybe someone in the festival team can’t resist a bad pun – in any case, that should make the festival name rather memorable.

The early bird 4-day tickets were $125, and I got mine at the normal $150 price – not bad for nearly 30 bands, and highlights including Camera Obscura, Frank Turner, Yo La Tengo and Belle and Sebastian (which I missed because of the torrential rain, though the show went on). The tickets are “all-in”, inclusive of all charges, fees, processing… which is noted in the FAQs as being innovative (and should definitely be the norm).

The venue is the Garrison Common, basically a nice grassy field with trees (and shade) adjacent to the historical Fort York, and here’s the pretty site map that you get handed on arrival (with the line-up on the other side):

TURF Site Map

(This is also where Toronto-based label Arts & Crafts held their 10-year celebration 1-day festival, Field Trip, earlier in June).

It’s an “urban” festival, so easily accessible by public transport, and there was ample bike parking provided, with lots of cattle gates lined up just outside the festival fence.

Wristband collection

On the way to the box office / wristband exchange, there was a free coat-check tent, which was storing dozens of umbrellas and where I could leave my bike pannier. The wristband itself was a nice fabric ribbon with a plastic one-way sliding ring – so much more comfortable than vinyl for prolonged wear. As this is Canada and you must be over 19 to drink alcohol, I also got a flashy 19+ wristband, to renew every day.

On the beverage and food front, the two bars were staffed by Lee’s Palace, a local live music venue, wit beer and cider provided by Molson. There was also a free water refill station courtesy of Event Water Solutions. Rotating food trucks, in true Toronto fashion, included Australian meat pies, poutine, Greek and Persian cuisine, wood fired oven pizza, fish and chips and a mobile espresso bar.

There were quite a few kids around, and even a few new-born babies. The festival policy is to let under-10 go free – which is bound to create a family-friendly atmosphere, and they also provided an unsuervised kids’ area in a quiet shaded corner of the field, fenced by colourful ribbons, with a few low-tech activities for all ages – blackboard and chalk, low table for drawing… a very nice touch to give kids some respite and attention if it gets a bit much in the main “adult” area.

To finish with the housekeeping section, there were plenty of portaloos, one set for each stage, and the picnic tables were a big plus to have a rest in the shade and eat messy street food in a dignified manner.

Sets were alternating between the two stages in a perfectly smooth and timely manner, and it felt really resting to the eye to be able to see bands without any logo whatsoever in the background.

Contact details on the website are limited to general and media enquiries, but with a bit of digging I found this pre-festival interview by a Guelph University student magazine with TURF’s founder, Jeff Cohen, owner of indie promoter Collective Concerts and of Lee’s Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern. The line-up and the beer tent logos suddenly made a lot of sense, and he makes interesting claims about the festival value – namely “the tax base generated from the newly created jobs and ticket sales revenues”, “easy access to live entertainment” and bringing commercial revenue and a new audience to Fort York (to which $3 per festival ticket is donated). On the job creation front, there was a small army of security staff, and even the uniform-wearing cleaning staff was duly employed – no signs of volunteers anywhere.

West Stage

West Stage: Frank Turner getting the crowd to sit down (before he gets them to star jump)

East Stage

East Stage: waiting for She & Him, watching the cars go by on the flyover.

And for this inaugural festival review, here are the very first Art of Festivals awards: 

Signage: “Restrooms” sign (special mention for the bike parking)


Bicycle Parking Sign

Free bike parking comes with a

Food & Drink Vendor: Manual Labour Coffee for pretty much everything, from their cutesy vintage pod-like caravan to their COFFEE star-studded sign and other sweet touches.

IMG_5100 COFFEE sign Liquid Sugar Bear

Performance: Frank Turner who mentioned Toronto a record numer of times and clearly played for the crowd (and got the love back) (special mention to Whitehorse who sounded amazing, but it started raining heavily so I left to shelter my camera).

Chris Reed, Artistic Director

5 questions to...

Small Print Toronto stages creative writing workshops and literary events for children and young people. Their programming is designed to inspire them to explore a vital question: How do stories work?

My ‘5 Questions’ explore the no less vital issue of how festivals work, and hopefully provide some answers to that dreaded question: what do festival people do the rest of the year? Chris Reed, founder and Artistic Director, is sharing insights into his daily tasks, learning curve and working style.


1. Hi Chris! Totsapalooza was in February, CAKE took place last weekend and The Little City Festival is on June 16. What’s a typical day right now?

One of the best parts about the Small Print Toronto project is that none of my days are ‘typical.’ Things are in a state of constant flux. I’m always juggling concerns that loosely fall into different baskets – future programming, promoting our current programs, stage management, growing the organization, funding (or lack thereof) and so forth.  And I’m fortunate to be surrounded by talented folks with whom I can develop creative responses to such concerns.

2. You’ve been organizing Totsapalooza for 5 years now. What gets easier with time? And what doesn’t?

Our track record with Totsapalooza gives us some insight into what to expect in terms of audience behaviour and ticket sales. Importantly, though, we are constantly discovering better ways to do things next time around. And even though the show has started to sell out in advance, I still fret about our guest authors and musicians having to perform to a near empty hall.  Those worries stay the same.

3. Before, during or after the festival – what’s your favourite moment, the one that makes it all worth it?

My favourite moments of any show are usually at the end; comparing notes with my teammates and audience members, and then looking at the photos. Despite the fact that I am surrounded by a remarkably capable crew, I become too consumed by that old stage manager’s dictum – ‘what needs to happen next?’ – to fully enjoy the show while it’s in motion.

4. What other festival would you love to attend as audience member?

I’d probably explode with joy taking part in Roald Dahl Day at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire, UK, as an audience member. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, mind you.

5. What are the specific challenges – and rewards – of programming events for children? And what about the parents?

The most rewarding and challenging aspects of programming for children are one and the same: their reactions tend to be brutally candid. Kids will start talking, and even get up and run about if a presentation does not engage them. Conversely, they are quite willing to suspend their disbelief about the most ridiculous premise for a story if you present it to them with sincerity and a sense of respect. By and large, the parents in our audience provide us with constructive feedback about our programming choices. And they are wonderfully supportive of the Small Print TO project as a whole.

– – –

Small Print’s next event is Rhyme Stew Crew, a rap-poetry workshop for children age 8-12. The tagline says it all: “Where Dr Seuss meets Dr Dre”. It’s free, and it’s on Sunday, May 5th – 2-4pm – at the Lillian Smith Library (239 College Street, Toronto).