What are Relaxed Performances? Who are they for? And why do they matter? Tom Middleditch from A_tistic Theatre gives us the lowdown
First, some history, without any facts
It’s hard to imagine anything important happening in the past decade without there being documentation, photography and people arguing for and against it. Even so, it’s difficult to pin down exactly when Relaxed Performances began. I know that it originated in the UK, where it was designed with autistic children and their parents for autistic audiences, but I cannot find a person putting up their hand to claim that they did the first Relaxed Performance. Maybe that’s me being a poor researcher, but more likely it’s because breakthroughs in marginal communities only get marginal attention.
But what exactly is a Relaxed Performance? Originally referred to as Autism Friendly, a piece of theatre was made accessible to autistic people through a number of strategies. The show had elements of its design removed that would cause sensory overload; a space was created in a theatre for those who needed to be away from the noise; and staff were trained in effective mental health and autism awareness. All very exciting stuff!
Often parents could also access a document called a Visual Story. This was a booklet that explained everything that was involved in going to see the show in question, including traveling to the venue, pictures of the theatre and staff, the stage and set, the actors and costumes. It would involve a photo montage that explained the story about to be told, to allow children who felt unsafe with surprises to engage with a show that they understood.
Enter the writer
I should clarify that these thoughts stem primarily from my own experience as a white man diagnosed with ASD and ADHD. They are the product of working on many projects throughout 2018, and while they have been shared with the members of the company with which I work, A_tistic, I’m speaking only for myself.
My first proper experience of Relaxed Performance was a Victorian Opera show a few years back. I watched a rendition of Cinderella performed in the traditional Italian from the upper floor of the auditorium, looking over an audience that had at last been granted access to theatre.
What I saw was an audience engaged in a way that I had wanted to engage in theatre for a long time. They were moving around, copying lines back to actors. The lights were up enough to see where they were going. It felt joyous, relieving. The show continued as it would have otherwise, but the way it was received was distinct and immediately comfortable.
As I left the theatre, I tried to think of a specific moment that defined the experience. Nothing came to mind at first, no concrete moments, no tableaux to illustrate my point. No wonder I’m not an illustrator. As I pondered, I realised this was because the power of a Relaxed Performance is not in any one part. It’s in the whole.
There is a point at the start of a show when a metaphorical blanket comes down over the audience, a blanket of anticipation which transforms a group of people into an audience. All the rules of the theatre are adopted, silence reigns and respectful eyes reach for the blackness in front of them, ready to have some art done at them.
I love this blanket. And I also hate it. It changes people: it can make them callous and rigid, unable to be happy without perfect conditions, and unable to think of themselves as anything other than passive spectators. Even worse, only those who are unaffected by the mechanics of the show, those who perform being audience the best, are considered to be worthy to comment on these shows, as if these people have transcended the reality of sitting in an air-conditioned room with strangers in their Friday’s Best, watching art that supposedly makes them better people.
That blanket never came down in this show. Its absence was visceral. What else, I wondered, could benefit from resisting this blanket of expectation?
Having a crack at it
In 2017 I got my first chance to relax a show of my own. After consulting with Arts Access Victoria about the rules a Relaxed Performance might need, a relaxed showing of my show Alexithymia was scheduled as part of the Poppy Seed Theatre Festival. I worried about what might go wrong, but assured myself that it would turn out fine.
On the day, rains harder than I can remember came thundering down. We had lowered the volume of the show, but we had to raise it so it could be heard over the crashing on the roof. Every time a car passed by, water flowed through the front door of the theatre. At about the half way point, the Stage Manager decided to cancel the show because the stage had started to flood, near electrical equipment. The audience couldn’t leave as the rain had isolated us in the venue. I’ve walked out of movies with better disaster plots than that.
Despite this, nothing related to the relaxing of the show caused any reported distress. If anything, as disappointing as it was that the show could not go on, it seemed that removing the blanket meant that the audience was more receptive to unplanned changes.
We went on to relax Jean Tong’s musical comedy, Romeo is not the Only Fruit. The success of that led to another Relaxed show being programmed for the Melbourne Comedy Festival in the Malthouse. I learned then that there was a burgeoning interest in relaxing work, but people felt hesitant about how to respond when things went wrong. Because I had already experienced everything going wrong and it still being ok, I had the confidence to put myself forward as a Relaxing Consultant.
The year is 2018. It is the future
I entered 2018 with a renewed determination to open up the theatre, not just for children, but for an adult autistic audience that had been denied access on sensory grounds. I kept to the rules from AAV, but started letting my autistic instincts respond in rehearsals and tech runs. I started editing shows step by step with the creatives. I also began to write Relaxed Packs, adult versions of the visual stories produced by British theatres. These focused on communicating complex information rather than providing an illustrated journey through the work. They slowly turned into Relaxed Guides, a kind of enriched ingredients list of everything in the show and how to get there.
Even though I knew a relaxed performance for adults was an obvious next step, I was surprised by the reactions. During The Talk at Darebin Arts, a scene about the lead character revealing heart-twisting information about her life was accompanied by a baby in the audience smashing banana into the seating. No one gave it any mind. People knew the show was relaxed, that these things happen; they didn’t need perfect theatre conditions to give the performer their attention. So the toddler mashed banana while the performance mashed our souls.
That was when I properly began to conceive of what a relaxed performance could be: not merely as a form of aesthetic access (or an excuse to use that “mashed our souls” line in this article): it could be a new way for any audience to see theatre.
What could this be?
First and foremost, a relaxed performance is designed for autistic people. It changes social expectations, removing hidden social curriculum. It shifts the lighting and sound, so it is non-intrusive to heightened autistic perceptions. It creates space for emotions that are considered socially unacceptable, and for those who need to detox and relax. Through and through, these are autistic allowances, no ifs or buts.
But these things are also ideal for many other people who would not consider themselves autistic.
Relaxed social rules allow people who feel alienated from theatre, for reasons of class or a hesitancy about intellectual pretensions, or people who don’t want to just sit still and be enraptured by a show. Lighting changes and content warnings in the guides mean that people who have different emotional experiences of the world, from depression, anxiety or PTSD, are able to feel safe because they know well in advance what the show will bring.
It also permits people who feel things are just too loud or too bright feel that they don’t have to feel weird about this, the show will be available to them too! If you have an emotionally demanding job and cannot take a certain bit, or just need to get out of the theatre without being judged or being thought disruptive, a chill space and open door policy can be a blessing, especially if it has a live feed of the performance so patrons don’t miss out.
There is also a large population of autistic adults who might be interested in something other than a fairy tale opera for children. Their options are currently severely restricted: many kinds of theatre don’t even consider them as part of their audience. Frankly speaking, it is money left on the table and patrons left out in the cold.
But wait, there’s more!
When the audience is at ease, the creators get to have a unique experience. Actors might find a more vocal audience a useful tool for developing their performance; an energised audience is a very different experience. Not only are you certain that the audience is actively engaged in your work, and that you are having impact; also, in many cases, the requirement for verisimilitude to make your audience accept your fiction disappears. We are reflexively conscious this is a performance – look, there’s a baby over there enjoying a banana! And we can accept both things, and more easily find joy in both. The actors I have spoken to after a relaxed show are often excited by the unique reception of a Relaxed Performance.
Back stage artists get to see their work in a different light. Set and costume designers have their work displayed under clearer lights, and the photography for the guide, when done well, will allow viewers to properly sink into the design as it is, without actors being in the way or story to distract. Lighting and sound teams tend to worry the most, as loud lights and bright noises are more than plentiful in the live performance scene. What I have found is that they quickly realise that because this is usually just a single show; their work is on display in the other performances. Because they have to strongly justify their intense effects, or have to find softer ways to create the same effect, it can bring a new subtlety to their work, or they can discover new styles and flourishes of design that are immediately appreciated by a newly exposed audience.
The playwright and director are also given a new lens to examine their work. They examine their content, considering each element that requires warning, asking what its effect is, learning about its weight in a new way. They think about direction that involves surprise, shock and overwhelm, and ask what they really are asking their audience to emotionally undergo. For one night in a season, it gives them an opportunity to pare back everything so that the show shines on its own. When I was working on Moral Panic, I overheard someone comment that this process made one really consider if the show stood on its own feet, without bells and whistles. It demands a new kind of confidence.
Between these two groups – a creative team with a renewed self-awareness, and an audience with delightful permissions – something new can form. A Relaxed Performance has a clear role for its audience: it helps them to successfully navigate the performed fiction, experience it comfortably, and to feel safe and open in the process.
And it goes even further! Site specific, immersive performance, long form Theatre, live music performance, haunted houses; there is no end to the possible reach of Relaxing Performance. Recently, I relaxed a disco, using both my instincts on relaxing, and some tactics used by Autspace to relax their gatherings. Relaxing is an art, and the form will keep growing as long as people ask me to work with them.
This is ultimately my aspiration for Relaxed Performance. It’s not just access for autistic audience members. It’s a radical reappraisal of the role of the audience in a work of theatre, stemming from the profound yet simple premise that if you want your audience to get the most out of your show, meeting some audiences halfway is a logical and compassionate step.
A glimpse of what’s to come, if I get my way
Once there was no dip in the pavement kerb. Once the TV had no captions. Both of these things were installed to give access to disabled people, but they were also adopted by everyone else as an essential and useful part of a functioning society. This is known as the “Curb Cut Effect”. The benefits extend well beyond the realm of disability.
I’ve tried to put forward my case for why I believe Relaxed Performances are possibly game changing in how we think about the act of going to the theatre, but I have no idea what the end of that conversation will look like. Mostly because I’m still engaged in doing it, in making those shows and working with others to have their shows translated along these lines.
For now though, here are the things that I believe are the most important, while this form continues to roll itself out and flower.
The market needs to be recognised. At the moment, the market is autistic adults who have no reason to see your show, and the various people who do not feel safe watching it, or do not feel smart or cultured enough to see it. This is your audience. They need to be understood on their terms, in a manner we haven’t considered before. This possibility needs cold hard cash to hold it down, or it will fly off into the wind. It needs producers and artists to make a concerted effort to see how their work can be transformed for audiences who are otherwise unable to see it. Most importantly, we must not forget the autistic people who want to be included: they are the centre of this. We are the people who can help you to make it possible for us to see your shows.
And while we are striving for a better world, can we have more science fiction plays please? Preferably about a future with solar panels and hope. We need more of those things right now, too.