Many theatres with inaccessible spaces exclude disabled people, says Jess Thom, who explains how relaxed performances make space for inclusivity and foster a more accepting, exciting experience for everyone
Hello, I’m Jess. I’m an artist, activist and part-time superhero. I also have Tourettes syndrome, which means I make movements and noises I can’t control, called tics.
Ten years ago I co-founded Touretteshero as a creative response to my experiences of life with tics. The shame and inadequacy I’d unknowingly carried with me for much of my life was lifting. As 2009 drew to a close I was beginning to realise that, far from being faulty, my neurology could be a source of creativity and joy, and that my perspective on the world was valuable.
A decade on and I am immensely proud of what Touretteshero has been able to achieve, in particular our recent work with Battersea Arts Centre on ‘relaxed venues’.
The reality for many disabled people is that we don’t have equal access to cultural spaces. A study from 2018 by disabled-led organisation Attitude is Everything into audience experiences of booking for cultural spaces found “73% of disabled people said they had felt discriminated against when trying to book access”.
Our surroundings send us messages all the time. For me and many others with access requirements, these messages are often: “You haven’t been thought about”, “You’re not welcome”, and “You’re a fire risk”. We urgently need to change this and make sure that across the sector our spaces, systems and people are confidently and clearly saying: “We have thought about you”, “You’re welcome here”, and “You’re going to have a great time”.
The exclusion of disabled people is often seen to be the ‘natural order’, but it’s not; it’s a choice we are making as a society. If we tolerate systemic oppression and don’t work to challenge it, we are all complicit in the damage it causes to individuals and communities.
Disability culture in the UK is rich and varied, and the art and activism of disabled people is something we can all feel proud of. But it’s essential and urgent that we keep looking for ways to make sure the cultural sector is responsive, representative and relevant to everyone.
As a teenager I used to love going to theatres and galleries, but the more my movements and noises made me stand out, the harder I found it to go. And I’m not alone. In 2014, when I started work on my first stage show Backstage in Biscuit Land, I Googled “Tourettes theatre” and nearly all the top results were accounts of people with tics being asked to leave theatres or sit separately. Do the same search now and you’ll find information about relaxed performances among the top results.
I created Backstage in Biscuit Land after a particularly distressing experience at a theatre in London when I was asked to move to the sound booth halfway through a show because of the noises I was making. As I sat sobbing in the booth, I promised myself I’d never set foot in another theatre again.
Thankfully that wasn’t a promise I kept. Instead I decided to occupy the one seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave – on the stage. As well as telling my story, Biscuit Land also promotes relaxed performances. This growing movement takes a flexible approach to noise and movement coming from the audience and extends a warm invitation to all.
Everyone can benefit from being at a relaxed performance. This might include autistic people, those with learning disabilities, movement disorders, dementia, babies, or just people with very loud laughs. When they’re done right these performances give the whole audience the freedom to relax, move about and make noise. This fosters a more accepting and exciting experience for everyone.
People seem to worry that relaxing the rules of theatre etiquette will lead to anarchy. It won’t. But it does make space for inclusivity. There is so much amazing work out there, and I don’t want anyone to miss out because of preconceptions about who it’s for or how it should be enjoyed.
But disabled people shouldn’t have to take to the stage just to feel safe in the theatre, and this is where our work with Battersea Arts Centre comes in. For the past three years we’ve been working with BAC on an Arts Council England Change Maker project. Together we’ve been exploring what a relaxed venue could be – a process that culminates this month with its official launch as the first ever relaxed venue.
Relaxed venues flip assumptions about theatre etiquette. Rather than demanding reverent silence at every show, it embeds a ‘relaxed approach’ across all of its spaces and programmes.
We’ve gone through a process of reviewing, creating, testing and embedding inclusive practice at BAC. We worked across teams with staff at every level to identify disabling barriers and develop creative solutions to them. We’ve developed a methodology we’re keen to share with other venues.
Early in the process, three guiding commitments emerged for what relaxed venues will need to make. These promises can radically improve disabled people’s experience of public spaces.
1. No new barriers. A relaxed venue understands that people with impairments are disabled by environments, systems and attitudes that do not consider difference in how they are set up. A relaxed venue commits to considering access at every stage of a project, and creating no new disabling barriers in its work.
This commitment is powerful and pragmatic. It understands that while you might inevitably inherit barriers that need time and resources to remove, you can make an impact straight away. This in turn means there will be fewer barriers for future generations to grapple with.
2. Equality of experience. A relaxed venue goes beyond being technically accessible to disabled people and understands that there needs to be parity in the services it provides. This doesn’t mean everyone has to experience exactly the same thing, but it does mean that thought is put into how experiences feel for all audiences, staff and artists.
3. Reduce fuss. Relaxed venues acknowledge the cumulative impact that experiencing barriers has on individual and community well-being, and therefore commits to reducing fuss around access requirements by ensuring they are understood, embedded and as seamless as possible.
These commitments are simple, yet they have the potential to radically change the experience of disabled people in our shared cultural spaces as audience, artists, staff and leaders.
Taking an inclusive approach doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s the difference between assuming that everyone does things the same way, and an understanding that we all do things differently. This shift in thinking goes beyond disability and is something we can all benefit from.
I used to think attitude change was a long, drawn-out process. Touretteshero has taught me it can actually happen very quickly. Access is an asset, and developing a strong inclusive practice adds value: socially, ethically, creatively and financially.
I’d like all venues to think about how the systems, structures and attitudes they create have the power to include or exclude. Small acts of inclusivity build into something positive rather than maintaining something negative. In a time of increasing division, it’s more important than ever that we think and act inclusively every day.