Relaxed performances – the digital experience

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Lucy Askew, chief executive and creative producer at Creation Theatre, discusses ways in which they are levelling the playing field for the neurologically diverse.

Working in theatre over the past 14 years the team and I at Creation Theatre have done lots to make our work more accessible for children and adults on the autistic spectrum. In a pre-pandemic world this took the form of ‘Relaxed Performances’. Usually a single performance within part of a longer schedule of shows, Relaxed Performances are especially adapted to be more accessible, comfortable, and accommodating for a range of different audiences and have been a part of the theatre sector landscape now for nearly a decade. Keeping the house lights in the auditorium on, making the seating feel more welcoming and adjusting the show for very loud noises or music to be turned down are now thankfully a standard feature in the programming of most of the subsidised sector. These accommodations are done with audiences on the autistic spectrum in mind, but the result tends to be a catch-all environment in which many individuals and carers are more comfortable, rather than meeting the specific needs of the neuro-diverse.

Andy collage – Creation Theatre Education

Additional efforts we have made at Creation Theatre’s relaxed shows begin even before the performance itself. We provide a visual story to prepare audiences for what to expect when they visit us which covers everything from arriving at the theatre, to the performance itself and queueing for the toilets in the interval.

Our cast introduce themselves pre-show and explain which characters they will be playing. Extra ushers are on duty and the audience can talk, make noise or exit the space whenever they need to. We have a “chill-out” quiet area outside of the auditorium and the show is visible on a screen at a quiet volume that can be watched in a less overwhelming way.

At one of our Christmas performances, we introduced “Flappause” where the audience were invited to wave their hands instead of clapping to provide a quieter way to show their appreciation. Our Relaxed Performances have become a highlight of the Christmas season for our team. Often actors are nervous about what to expect from the experience, but the feedback afterwards is always that it was one of their favourite performances. It’s been wonderful knowing that we are providing a route for a wider audience to access our work, especially welcoming people who may feel uncomfortable with dimmed lights and the hushed formality often associated with the theatrical experience.

As years of producing relaxed shows have passed, the limitations of Relaxed Performances have become increasingly apparent. For a start one date in a schedule of four weeks of shows is incredibly restrictive, wouldn’t it be better if every performance could accommodate diverse needs? As a parent of two children with autism I also started to notice that even with all the accommodations in place I still felt reluctant to bring my own children along. However much the experience within the theatre itself may be relaxed, for my children I have found there are still multiple barriers and trigger points simply in leaving the house and travelling to an unfamiliar location.

A surprise advancement in the ways we can support neurodiverse audiences accessing our work has arisen as a result of Covid 19. Back in April 2020 we rapidly pivoted our work to connect with our audiences digitally. We started making shows in Zoom where both the audience and performers were live in the experience and able to interact, and also moved all our workshops online as “Creation Home Delivery”. We quickly started to notice some fascinating things about the new digital landscape we found ourselves in.

Firstly, we discovered it to be artistically a really stimulating medium to make work in, with endless possibilities to explore. Secondly, we found that by performing live with a live audience integral to the experience there was a real buzz and sense of occasion and community when watching the shows. Thirdly, and most interestingly, we found that digital shows were attracting new audiences and by their very nature were a medium that levelled the playing field for neurologically diverse individuals. The benefits are numerous but to list a few – you can watch in your own environment with whatever chair, lighting state, temperature you are most comfortable with, you can adjust the volume to whatever level you prefer, you can more easily turn away, make noise and fidget. Captioning can be offered for all performances easily.

The Tempest

With all of this there is a real joy in the fact that the experience can be adjusted at an individual level with no feeling of needing “special accommodations” and no limitations on when you will feel most comfortable watching a show.

Our Home Delivery workshops have demonstrated that teaching online has equally impactful benefits for neurologically diverse children. The digital experience for shows allows a level of personalisation and comfort that is challenging to create in a workshop space with potential triggers removed. What we are seeing emerge is that children on the autistic spectrum are engaging confidently and creatively with our methods of online teaching in a way that we were not seeing in an “analogue “workshop. They thrive and in some cases are demonstrating more comfort and confidence with the medium than some of their neurologically normative peers. Why this is we can only currently speculate on. It may be the reduced number of variables in the environment, even as far as the 3D negotiation of sharing space with others; or is being able to see oneself on camera a particularly helpful tool in exploring how to convey emotion and communicate with others?

Witnessing the impact this is having on the 180 children who join us each week, we are fascinated to find out more and are currently working with university academics to do some in depth research into the benefits of digital workshops. This research will help inform how we navigate supporting all our audiences’ needs as we move into a world where theatres re-open, but we are now fully committed to Home Delivery and digital productions being a key part of what we do for many years to come.

About the author

Lucy Askew is Chief Executive of award winning site-specific and digital theatre specialists

Creation Theatre. She has three children, two who have autism and one who also has ADHD.

creationtheatre.co.uk

@creationtheatre

Creation Theatre Company

@creationtheatre

Lucy Askew

Lucy Askew
Author: Lucy Askew

Lucy Askew
+ posts

Lucy Askew is Chief Executive of award winning site-specific and digital theatre specialists

Creation Theatre. She has three children, two who have autism and one who also has ADHD.

W: creationtheatre.co.u T: @creationtheatre F: Creation Theatre Company

Insta: @creationtheatre

Lucy Askew

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