Hosting relaxed performances requires thorough staff training and partnership working to target audiences, say Karen Townsend and Zoë Briggs.

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The theatre industry has recently seen a vast improvement in accessibility for those with learning and sensory disabilities, including children and adults on the autistic spectrum. Relaxed performances (sometimes called autism-friendly performances) are for families living with autism spectrum conditions, learning disabilities or other sensory and communication impairments. They support new audiences by adjusting the environment, both in the auditorium and on stage, to help make families feel at ease. The Relaxed Performance Project 2013 brought the practice into the spotlight, and collaborations between theatre organisations and experts such as the National Autistic Society, the West Yorkshire Playhouse (who pioneered this new approach), and the Unicorn Theatre have proven particularly successful.

Mutually sharing data allows us to build audience appetite and share best practice about the experience offered

Here at the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), we started programming relaxed performances in 2012, beginning with our pantomimes. While the already relaxed atmosphere in a pantomime auditorium may have given us a head start, negotiating the impact of evil baddies and pyrotechnics brings its own challenges. Now, each of our theatres has an Access Champion and a network of employees who host relaxed performances – given the right production, lead time and partners. Some venues are delivering their third year of relaxed performances and are in the early stages of development planning for dementia-friendly performances as seen recently at The Prince Edward Theatre.

Fundamental to the success of a relaxed performance is a robust and thoughtful training strategy. Training staff in marketing, digital, ticketing and technical departments, as well as customer-facing roles front of house allows us to tailor families’ experience throughout the customer journey. This encourages parents, carers and support workers to repeat the experience. Performers also need training and the key is instilling confidence in all involved to adapt their ordinary professional approach for a specific audience. Beth Morgan, Theatre Manager of the Lyceum Theatre said: “The training highlighted how stressful it can be for parents to take their family to the West End. For many audience members, it was their first trip to central London as a family, so it was important that they were met with a big smile and a friendly greeting, helping them to relax and enjoy the experience.”

A real bonus of hosting relaxed performances has been the benefit gained through partnership working with experts. Where we bring expertise in customer service and live performance, the National Autistic Society (NAS), local charities, parents and relations, and customers on the autistic spectrum themselves, have brought specialist support as we develop our programming. And we have found that collaboration works: for The Lion King in the West End, ‘voluntEARS’ from Disney and the NAS joined forces with our staff to form an army of eager and informed people who made the event a success. Cross-industry networks also provide an arena for sharing best practice, successes and concerns.

We are still learning about one of the most important and challenging aspects of hosting a relaxed performance: making sure the right people hear about it, and encouraging them to take the risk to book tickets. Tailoring our marketing and ticketing strategy to this new audience has taken research and patience, but we are gradually building communication and even finding a pattern of repeat bookers where the performances are part of our annual programming. We have found social media to be a useful tool, as well as working with local charities supporting families, special schools and colleges and adult learning groups. We have found huge benefit in working in partnership with other theatre organisations holding relaxed performances. Mutually sharing data allows us to build audience appetite and share best practice about the experience offered.

The result of all this is a new range of engaged customers, made welcome in our theatres in a way they may never have felt before. One customer’s blog expresses the depth of impact the experience had on her family. We have got a way to go before relaxed performances are a regular fixture in all of our theatres, but we are getting there. And the next step is to share our experience and knowledge with those in other cultural sectors to make the practice more widespread, so that families living with learning disabilities can access art and culture knowing with confidence that they will have a positive experience.

Karen Townsend is Head of Learning & Access and Zoë Briggs is Learning Partnerships Manager at the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG).
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