Extra special performances

Kevin Berry
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‘Relaxed’ show stagings enable families of children with special sensory and communication needs to experience theatre in an environment where it is accepted – and expected – that audience members will make noises or walk around. Kevin Berry discovers the benefits are not one-sided

Gradually, more people are finding out about relaxed performances and a growing number of theatres are looking at introducing them. So what exactly is a relaxed performance?

“They are for families who have a child with special needs,” says Susan Whiddington, founding director of Mousetrap Theatre Projects, the theatre access charity. “It’s an evening at the theatre without any shushing from other people, without tutting‚ and without embarrassment for the parents.”

Children in a relaxed performance audience will have sensory and communication needs. They may make a sudden, involuntary noise or want to stand up or go out – but at a relaxed performance, all of that is accepted.

Subtle technical and performance adjustments are also involved. The house lights are dimmed slowly and ever so slightly. Sudden loud noises in the show are softened.

Katherine Usher, special projects manager at Mousetrap Theatre Projects, explains: “Children with autism and special needs are often much more sensitive to sound and light. They also tend to be sensitive to surprises. Lights suddenly going out and very loud bangs can be that bit more upsetting.

“A child who is cognitively more up to speed will see a dragon and expect a big roar. They will make that natural connection. Children with autism do not make that conclusion and it’s that much more of a surprise when it happens. That’s a sweeping generalisation because autism has such a wide spectrum. But that’s the general idea, really.”

Mousetrap recently took over the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane for a relaxed performance of Shrek the Musical. It was the first relaxed show in the West End, and it was a sell-out. Family groups in the audience included grandparents and cousins. For many, it was their first theatre visit, but Mousetrap had fully prepared them for the experience.

Since 1997, Mousetrap has been running Family First Nights, a programme that takes families identified by social service agencies and charities to the theatre. Six thousand families have so far benefited from the initiative. The families make their own way to the theatre but absolutely everything is planned to make their visit free from worry.

Specific information is given – explicit travel directions and what to expect, as well as details such as the cost of programmes and ice creams. Tickets are free for children and cost £5 for accompanying adults.

“We don’t want the families, when they get there, to feel overwhelmed or stupid,” says Whiddington. “Once they’ve gone the first time, we find ways of helping them go again, and they will go to anything, including dance and opera performances.”

Three years ago, Mousetrap arranged a performance of The Lion King that was filled with pupils from special schools. The relaxed performance for a family audience in the West End was a natural progression.

Usher went to see Shrek the Musical and talked through the script with the show’s production team. She mentioned light softening and other changes. The Shrek character usually ambles through the audience in the last scene, but it was felt that should be cut.

“About 75% of the children were on the autistic spectrum,” says Whiddington. “It was not as noisy as we thought it would be. We had spaces outside in the lobby where we put bean bags down for children who could not take being in the auditorium, and we had monitors to show what was happening onstage.”

Usher remembers how at ease and comfortable the parents were. “The parents relax and then the kids relax,” she says. That, in a nutshell, is how and why a relaxed performance works, and why the Shrek performance was not as noisy as expected.

“Every single person in that theatre had a solid understanding of, and empathy with, what it’s like to be a carer of one of those children,” Usher adds. “The fact it was subsidised [again, £5 for adults and free for children] meant that if a child felt the need to move around or go out it was no great financial bother.”

In the days subsequent to the Shrek performance, Mousetrap received hundreds of grateful emails expressing the same sentiment: “We never expected we could take our family to the theatre. Thank you so much.” Other West End theatres have consequently shown an interest.

Relaxed performances are not a new feature of theatre life, as the Mousetrap staff are anxious to point out. At the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, Nicky Taylor has been setting up relaxed performances since January 2010. Her pre-show information pack is exemplary, and includes the promise of “having your picture taken with the actors”.

At a recent relaxed Playhouse performance of Hiccup Theatre’s excellent touring show The Owl and the Pussycat, the mother of a severely disabled girl summed up just what this meant to her.

“It’s so very good that they are doing this,” she said, almost in a whisper. “I can come here with my daughter and we feel comfortable. You have no idea how that feels. People don’t look away when they see us, and I don’t have people recoiling if we brush past them.”

* Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse is planning a relaxed performance information and awareness raising event in the autumn. Contact Nicky Taylor on 0113 213 7296 or email nicky.taylor@wyp.org.uk

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