Be prepared to make mistakes and consider reaching out to other organisations running relaxed events, says Kate Lovell.
A relaxed performance is one that has been specially adapted to meet the needs of people who may find it difficult to attend a more traditional performance. The usual rules of sitting still and being quiet don’t apply.
Relaxed performances have an informal atmosphere and allow people who may need to move around, make noise or take a break the chance to come to see a show without worrying. Often, people who have an autism spectrum condition, a learning disability or communication difficulties find these performances especially welcoming.
When considering programming a relaxed performance, it’s important to consider who your target audience is, and ensure that the timing of the show works for them. If you’re hoping to attract people who may use day centre services or live in supported housing, you could contact them in advance to find out whether they need to be back by a certain time for transport or other commitments. If you want to attract families, an evening or Saturday matinee performance may be best to allow for work and school commitments during the week.
If you can, include the show’s performers in any training
If possible, find out in advance what works for your audience, as organising a theatre trip for those interested in relaxed shows may require more careful planning than your already established audiences. It also helps you to start building a potential audience for your relaxed performance.
If it’s your organisation’s first relaxed performance, training sessions for staff are essential. At Theatre Royal Stratford East, we invited industry experts Include Arts to prepare our staff for our first relaxed performance. Their training included giving front of house staff the skills to run the show in a different way to usual and a thorough understanding of the atmosphere that we were hoping to create and the audience we hoped to welcome.
If you can, include the show’s performers in any training, but at least ensure that they are briefed about what a relaxed performance means for them, so they are prepared and comfortable during their performance.
It’s likely that you’ll need to make some adaptations to the show itself, so you’ll need to be in close conversation with the director and the technical team about elements of the show that may need to change. Often, for people with particular sensitivities, loud noises, bright lights, and flashing lights can be problematic and you may need to alter some parts of the show to make them suitable for your invited audience.
It’s also advisable to make sure that your method of calling the audience into the auditorium is appropriate. A loud bell could be alarming, so asking an usher to hold up a card to invite the audience to take their seats may work better.
Selling the show
It can be challenging to find an audience for your first relaxed performance, as some who may be interested are used to finding attending theatre a stressful experience or may have never considered it before. However, once people know it’s something your organisation offers, you may find you enjoy a loyal following.
It’s crucial that you make coming to the show as easy as possible. Contacting local special education schools, support and activity groups, and autism or learning disability-specific services directly is a good start. You could also link up with a local cinema that runs autism-friendly screenings or ask for advice from another theatre that has already run a few relaxed performances.
Getting to know you
Familiarisation with a venue is often valuable for a relaxed performance audience, and it can be helpful to offer a visit to the venue prior to the performance or an earlier arrival time at the venue to give people a chance to get to know the building.
Be prepared and willing to make mistakes and learn a lot
You can also create a visual story to accompany the performance, which gives details about the audience’s experience, beginning with how to arrive from local public transport, where things like toilets and the cafe are in the theatre itself, through to what to expect in the show itself. You’ll need to take advice from experts on how to ensure this is written in an easy-read format, with succinct and simple information, accompanied by plenty of pictures.
Making it work for you
Whilst there are some elements of a relaxed performance that are ‘standard’ across most venues, such as the ability to move around or make noise, you’ll find that it is beneficial to adapt the show to the personality and ethos of your own organisation. It may also vary according to the content of the show, for instance a relaxed performance of pantomime may allow for some more tailored audience interaction to suit the audience attending.
If you’re organising your very first relaxed performance, be prepared and willing to make mistakes and learn a lot. When we received our training, even the experts at Include Arts said they were still learning about how to run relaxed performances.
The people who may benefit are unique and the suitability of timings or certain elements of the event may work for some people, and not others. Mistakes are part of the learning process, but if we’re listening to the feedback from audiences and making adaptations for next time, then we’ll always be striving for best practice.
Kate Lovell is Agent for Change at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
The theatre's relaxed performance of Sinbad the Sailor is on Tuesday 10 January 2017 at 2pm.