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How theatre is adapting to relaxed performances

Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones in Backstage in Biscuitland. Photo: James Lyndsay
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Every performance of Jess Thom’s show Backstage in Biscuit Land is a relaxed performance. Thom, who has Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological condition that causes an array of verbal and motor tics, is the co-founder of Touretteshero, an organisation whose mission is to reclaim Tourette’s from the assumptions that surround it. On her Touretteshero blog Thom has written about visits to theatre in the past where she has not felt welcome; during one particular visit to a major London theatre, she was asked to sit in a sound booth in order to isolate herself from the rest of the audience.

So when it came to making her own work, she wanted to create a show and space that was open to everyone and where no one needed to worry about making extra noise. Relaxed performances are designed, says Thom, “to extend a warm welcome to anyone who might find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre etiquette.”

This type of performance is an increasingly established concept and many venues and productions offer them, including Ambassador Theatre Group theatres, which offered 13 relaxed performances last year. ATG also works in partnership with Disney to deliver an autism friendly performance of The Lion King.

“Relaxed performances,” at ATG, according to Karen Townsend, head of learning and access, “are primarily designed for patrons who may be concerned about attending a regular performance and may find visiting a theatre daunting. They are informal performances that are designed to benefit patrons with additional needs, especially those on the autistic spectrum, those who may make involuntary noises, or anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed environment.”

People need to take responsibility for their own needs, but not at the expense of someone else’s needs

Townsend continues: “Depending on the show, slight alterations are made to the performance, though the overall content will not change.”

House lights are normally left on low and strobe lighting may be removed. Loud noises or explosions are either taken out entirely or reduced. The audience is free to go in and out as needed and latecomer rules are relaxed. Making noise during the performance is not discouraged. There are additional staff members on hand to assist as required and the cast and crew has awareness training before the performance. Chill-out areas are provided for anyone who may become overwhelmed by the performance. The house opens earlier. In some performances a cast member will speak to the audience before the show, welcoming them.

“We are finding that the audience for these performances builds year on year,” says Townsend, “but we cannot market in the usual way, it is very much through family support services, national organisations, charities, and schools. I think audiences are just beginning to understand the concept, and we hope that the work we are doing in this area along with those of our industry colleagues means awareness will continue to build.”

Recently there has been some discussion about the terminology surrounding relaxed performances. During a Devoted and Disgruntled (an open forum for artists to discuss pressing issues) meeting in January, it was suggested that the term didn’t fully convey what a relaxed performance could and should be and it was proposed that ‘extra live’ would be a better description.

Mousetrap Theatre Productions present a relaxed performance of Shrek at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
Mousetrap Theatre Productions present a relaxed performance of Shrek at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Thom, however, doesn’t think shifts in terminology are all that helpful. “I think as a term we have come to understand [relaxed performance] to have a much broader meaning than just relating to any particular condition or type of performance,” she says.

“I think terminology changes a lot around things people feel uncomfortable about, and I think the fact the terminology around disability changes so much is reflective of a level of uneasiness,” she continues. “I don’t think changing the terminology is the answer. That said, I think there is something exciting about extra live as a way of explaining the type of experience that can happen if you do a relaxed performance well and the offer is made for everyone to relax.”

It’s this element of excitement, of pure theatre, that appeals to Stewart Pringle, artistic director of the Old Red Lion fringe theatre in Islington. He likes the term ‘extra live’. “When we welcomed Max Barton’s production of Piranha Heights to the Old Red last year, I was incredibly impressed by their dedication to accessibility, and knew it was something we wanted to prioritise going forward.”

While the building has its limitations, he’s keen to make “every show at the Old Red as welcoming and relaxed as possible”.

“We’re not a ‘Theatre Charter’ venue,” he says, in reference to last year’s campaign to create a charter addressing ‘bad audience behaviour’, “but hopefully this just makes it all a little clearer and more approachable for everyone. I prefer Andy Field’s version of the Theatre Charter: ‘Come see our shows, don’t be a dick’. We’re still not wheelchair accessible, and that’s something I want to solve as soon as possible (hard in this strange old building). But until then, I want to do everything we can do to open it up to more audiences and make those audiences feel more at home.”

This idea that all forms of theatre should be open to everyone is central to Thom’s thinking around the issue.

“At ATG, when programming,” Townsend says, “we have to ensure that the production is appropriate for an RP. A quiet drama would not be suitable, for example.”

This is something Thom would challenge: “I’ve heard theatres say we haven’t done a relaxed performance yet because we haven’t had the right type of work, and I think that idea needs to change. People should be thinking about making all their work accessible to diverse audiences.”

“One of the things that came out of that discussion at D&D was the idea of venues having a house style of relaxed performance. There need to be some core principles about what you can expect but the ethos of the theatre can be reflected through their relaxed performances.”

We also touch briefly on Susan Elkin’s recent online column for The Stage, where she brought up the issue of potential disruption to other audience members. “I think about the balance to my rights to access and other people’s rights to experience something without interruption a lot,” says Thom. “The idea that theatre can only be enjoyed in one way is something that I find problematic.”

“I think relaxed performances are useful because they offer a certain kind of invitation. It’s a shared responsibility between the venue, the audience and everybody to relax. People need to take responsibility for their own needs, but not at the expense of someone else’s needs.

Thom thinks our ideas about inclusivity that should be evolving, not the language. “I don’t think relaxed performances are the only answer. I want to be able to go to the theatre when it works with my schedule and with my friends, like anyone else.”

She mentions a recent visit to the Roundhouse, to see Hopelessly Devoted, the play by Kate Tempest. “I told them I was coming and it essentially became a relaxed performance. They made that happen. I’m really interested in the idea of relaxed venues, venues that are committed to taking a relaxed approach. As an audience member who needs that as an access requirement, the idea of just being able to go to a show without having long conversations beforehand is amazing, but also I think it works towards embedding inclusivity within theatre, in terms of both what audiences expect and how people are creating work.”

Backstage in Biscuit Land is at Battersea Arts Centre, London, from May 11-23. There will be an Extra Live! Performance of Lardo at the Old Red Lion on March 28

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