A debate about whether actors with learning disabilities are reached by celebrated inclusive initiatives such as Ramps on the Moon has been triggered by a new paper.

Photo of Hypothermia
Hypothermia, a play written and directed by paper author Vanessa Brooks

The staging of ‘relaxed performances’ in theatres has come under fire in a new paper which claims they segregate audiences and provide a “lacklustre” artistic experience to audience members with learning disabilities.

Author Vanessa Brooks also expresses concerns that the arts sector’s focus on funding and programming ‘disabled-led’ art is an obstacle for actors with learning disabilities, who simply “can’t work in this way”.

The paper has prompted debate, with the critique of relaxed performances rejected by Maria Thelwell, Creative Engagement Officer at West Yorkshire Playhouse, who said they can help integrate audiences and foster understanding when offered alongside other initiatives and “are not designed as one-size-fits-all”.

Separate Doors

Separate Doors 2 is written by Brooks, who is the former Artistic Director of Dark Horse theatre company and pioneer of the ‘Silent Approach’ to rehearsing, a non-verbal method that aims to integrate actors with and without learning disabilities.

The paper examines training, casting and representation for actors with learning disabilities in UK theatre, including a detailed look at her research into the Silent Approach at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

In the report, Brooks criticises Arts Council England’s call for arts organisations to simply ‘embrace the creative case’ by working with actors with learning disabilities as, she says, this “isn’t going to result in a positive or even a collaborative outcome”.

She told AP: “We don’t expect technicians to run tech rehearsals without training, we shouldn’t expect producers, playwrights and directors to work with learning disabled actors without support and insight.”

Brooks is positive about inclusive initiatives such as Unlimited and Ramps on the Moon, but warned that they have not addressed the specific needs of actors with learning difficulties.

“Trained actors with moderate learning disabilities have had decreasing exposure as their work sits between two stools – it’s not disabled-led, it’s collaborative, and they are unable to work to a traditional language-based rehearsal process due to cognitive difference.

“They’ve fallen between two stools and can’t work in either of these initiatives.”

Segregation

In addition, the report says there’s “no reason” why integrated, audience-facing work cannot happen at the same time as work framed specifically for learning disabled audiences, and “for one form to exclude the other isn’t right”.

The idea that all people with learning disabilities need adapted lighting and sound, and a reduction in ‘pulse-quickening content’, Brooks warns, is creating “a theatrical autocracy and lacklustre offer for adults with learning disabilities, who like their drama as well-buttered and ramped up as the next person”.

“Relaxed performances suggest this group of people is considered to be other,” she adds. “[They] also offer audiences who prefer not to experience theatre in the company of groups of people unlike themselves an opportunity to elect do so and I’m not sure how comfortable we should be with that idea.”

Reaction

Brooks’ comments have been backed up by some people in the sector. Joyce Lee, Resident Director of learning-disabled theatre company Mind The Gap, agreed that some venues programme work featuring learning disabled actors in a different space from the main programme and “aim for and/or assume it is for a different kind of audience” to other work.

She said: “I sometimes feel there’s a reverse ‘trickle-down theory’ being adopted by venues: let’s start with programming learning disabled shows in broom cupboards, then gradually maybe the main programme could be influenced.

“Ramps on the Moon and Unlimited are successful in challenging this to a certain degree. But so far these initiatives haven’t engaged extensively with learning disabled artists, and I don’t see it working any time soon.”

Thelwell defended relaxed performances, telling AP that they were “just one way” theatres such as West Yorkshire Playhouse address long-standing barriers to participation.

“Learning disabled audiences are welcome to and do attend a range of performances at the Playhouse regardless of whether they are adapted or not,” she said. “Indeed hundreds of people with learning disabilities, sensory and communication needs, access all kinds of shows all year round here in Leeds.

“But relaxed performances can provide that first step for very marginalised young people to access the theatre and wider arts world and offer a valuable resource to learning disabled people and their families and support networks.”

She added: “Relaxed performances should only be one significant part of how we engage with learning disabled people – participation, casting, artist development and audience development should all form part of the landscape.

“Theatres need to continuously engage with learning disabled audiences, artists and participants to create and inform exciting and progressive opportunities in the arts.”

When asked if the introduction of relaxed performances was a mistake, Brooks said: “The concept of making work which appeals and engages people who need extra support to enjoy theatre is of course of value but I think many accommodations can be embraced into general theatre-making processes without taking this risk of segregation.”

Dangerous segregation or a valuable resource? Let us know what you think about relaxed performances and the sector’s support for learning disabled artists in the comments below or on Twitter, @artspro.

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Comments

I'm Kirsty Hoyle, Director of Include Arts and previously Project Manager of the Relaxed Performance Project (2013). We work across the UK, and abroad, promoting Relaxed 'Events' across the cultural sector, based on many years experience working with arts organisations and audiences with additional needs and are very proud of the work we, and others, have done to promote this service and increase cultural participation for learning disabled patrons. I think the article title is mis-leading as Vanessa Brooks doesn’t appear to ‘slam’ anything but simply to express her opinion based on her experience and research so this response is an opportunity to share our thoughts about Relaxed Performances based on our experience. Relaxed Performances are often misunderstood; they are designed to provide an environment for those who would benefit from the services offered, NOT a place for learning disabled audiences to watch a show away from non-learning disabled audiences. Relaxed Performances do not “... offer audiences who prefer not to experience theatre in the company of groups of people unlike themselves an opportunity to elect do so'', they provide an 'opt-in' for those who enjoy them. Of course, any patron is welcome to attend any show but some people prefer to attend a Relaxed Performance because it better suits their needs. They are also designed to work as a 'soft-landing', many patrons attend a Relaxed Performance as their first - less stressful - experience but then future visits will be to non-Relaxed Performances as they feel more confident and prepared. One of the elephants in the room around Relaxed Performances is the issue of audience noise; there is moral outrage among our arts colleagues at the suggestion of a patron finding noise from other people in an auditorium distracting or annoying. This is understandable but unrealistic and unhelpful when trying to effect change. We have worked on hundreds of Relaxed cultural events and there has always has been a diverse audience comprised of families and individuals with and without additional needs. Relaxed Performances are providing positive shared experiences which change minds and increase tolerance in a sustainable way, rather than attempting to force change by shaming audiences who prefer a quiet auditorium (which can and does include learning disabled people). Perhaps the addition of 'Quiet' performances would help to provide access for those who prefer? In response to the concern that RP's provide a 'lacklustre' experience I would suggest that those who have experienced many 'regular' performances and then the RP version would reject this as we stick very closely to what the director intended and the changes are usually minimal. The changes to the lights and sound in a show are the least important part of the process of 'relaxing' a show; extra staff, additional support materials, chill out spaces and specialist training are some of the elements which go into making these such a fantastic experience. However, some changes are absolutely necessary to those who have sensory sensitivities and without removing certain sounds (such as a loud balloon pop) many of the RP visitors would not be able to attend the show. Also, Relaxed Performances are intended for people who have sensory sensitivities - including but not limited to learning disabled people - so there needs to be clarity across arts marketing so that audiences attend Relaxed Performances (or not) based on their needs, not diagnosis. We now see places like supermarkets having ‘Relaxed’ hours and this is not to exclude or segregate anyone – they are a response to the physical and environmental barriers experienced by neuro-diverse people with sensory sensitivities every day in the same way Audio Description is provided for blind and visually impaired people. The question of whether the introduction of Relaxed Performances being 'a 'mistake' is baffling; they were developed at various venues in the UK (under different names including Autism Friendly) and we ran a national 'Relaxed Performance Project' in 2013 which had a full evaluation and case studies which showed RP's to be a positive step in diversifying audiences. Polka Theatre in Wimbledon started programming 'Autism-Friendly' performances in 2008/9 as a group of parents directly requested this as an opportunity for their families so these performances have been developed with audiences for audiences, they are not a random concept just dropped into the Assisted Performances programme. Since the 2013 project we have seen a huge uptake in RP's across the UK and we work with the British Council to promote our model across North America. We are really proud of the impact RP's have had across the cultural sector, both in terms of the experience for the audience of an RP and the impact on the organisations programming them. They can and should, as Brooks suggests, work as a broader disruption of who the arts are made by and who they are made for.