Relax and….Action!

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Susan Whiddington enthuses about the benefits of Relaxed Performances for children with SEND.

They are a feature of many theatrical productions now, but theatres in the UK only began trialling Relaxed Performances in 2006, when Polka Theatre in Wimbledon presented the first “autism-friendly” show, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. This production made sensory adjustments to the show in order to make it more accessible for an autistic audience. 

In 2012 we hosted the first Relaxed Performance in the West End at Shrek the Musical at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.  Since then, we have offered twelve Relaxed Performances in the West End, most recently Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures’ Nutcracker! at Sadler’s Wells in January 2022. These performances enable families of children with SEND to attend the theatre as a family. Our particular model is to purchase the performance, so we can reprice the tickets (£5 – £20) so that all families, many of whom have severe calls on their income, can attend.  

In addition to our own Relaxed Performances, we offer consultation for theatres and production companies on how to host a Relaxed Performance. We keep an updated list of families with children with SEND who have attended past Relaxed Performances, sending them a regular newsletter, as well as making this list available to those theatres/venues hosting a Relaxed Performance. Thankfully, Relaxed Performances have become much more common as theatre companies and venues place more emphasis on ensuring that theatre is accessible for everyone.

Who are Relaxed Performances for?
Relaxed Performances are ideal for neurodivergent individuals who feel uncomfortable or excluded from mainstream theatrical performances. Additionally, the relaxed environment can be beneficial for those with additional needs or parents with babies who would benefit from a space where they won’t need to worry about noises or behaviour that might be distracting to a regular theatre audience.  It can be a huge relief to be in this environment for those who experience anxiety in formal or restrictive environments. In fact, some people just enjoy Relaxed Performances more because of the chilled out setting. In the UK, 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of the population) are neurodiverse, so there is a real incentive for theatres to ensure that they are providing an environment where performances are accessible for everyone. In fact under the Equality Act 2010, theatres have a legal duty to ensure they are taking all reasonable steps to make their service accessible to disabled people.

What is a Relaxed Performance?
Relaxed Performances do not advocate for segregated audiences, as that is exclusionary, but rather encourage audiences that are inclusive of everyone. However it is important that the audience is fully aware that the performance will take place in a more relaxed environment, which may be noisier and busier than a normal performance. In the same vein, it is important that Relaxed Performances don’t take place at unusual times, in order to avoid ‘othering’ the individuals who need to access them. Instead, Relaxed Performances should occur at standard theatrical times in order to frame them in a positive and inclusive way that is accessible to all. (However we often begin an evening Relaxed Performance at a slightly earlier time to respect families’ travel time and the children’s bedtime.)

The core principles of Relaxed Performances are that audience members are free to move around and make more noise than in mainstream performances. There are also subtle changes to the production, but not in a way that affects the integrity of the show. Frequently, theatres will keep the house lights on as dark spaces can feel overwhelming. Similarly, the volume of music, sound and performer microphones is lowered to minimise sensory overload and improve the audience’s experience.  Special effects, such as fast transitions, strobe lighting or haze may be minimised, slowed down or removed for the comfort of the audience. There is usually a specified area in the venue where audience members can visit any time during the show, if the experience becomes overwhelming or distressing and they need a break. 

Part of the preparation for a Relaxed Performance is to train the theatre staff on what to expect from this audience.  It is also important to meet with cast and crew members prior to the performance to explain what a Relaxed Performance is and to let them know that often this audience is louder, more boisterous and engaged than a regular audience.  However in our experience, these performances are always the cast members’ favourite show, as this audience is so responsive, joyous and they can see how much fun everyone is having! 

Susan Whiddington
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Susan Whiddington is the CEO and Founding Director of Mousetrap Theatre Projects. For more information about Mousetrap Theatre Projects’ Relaxed Performances

hello@mousetrap.org.uk

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