Little Angel Theatre’s Education and Participation Manager, Slavka Jovanovic, looks at how Little Angel Theatre are developing their “Access to Theatre” policy by presenting “Relaxed Performances” of their in-house productions. This blog first appeared in The Stage newspaper in June 2012, and has been updated to accommodate developments.

At Little Angel we have always had an open doors policy and try to create a welcoming environment to all people who come through the doors – whether it’s to see our shows or to participate in a workshop. However, over the past two or three years we have been trying out ways of making specific shows more accessible for different types of audiences, for example we introduced “Baby Friendly” shows, where we welcome families with babies or toddlers (under the required lower age range of the show) to bring them along to share the experience with the older sibling.

“Relaxed Performances” are for people of all ages. Basically they are designed for those who would benefit from a more relaxed environment, or are uncomfortable with sudden lighting changes or loud noises, including those with an Autistic Spectrum Condition, sensory or communication needs or a learning disability. On the whole the performance is delivered as usual, although for “Skitterbang Island” we have moderated the sound and lighting effects slightly to make it less abrasive for those with additional sensory issues.

With “relaxed performance” shows we also try to support the whole experience, starting with preparation at home by reading our 2 Visual Stories – one for the visit to the theatre and the other specifically for the production. These offer a pictorial introduction to both and aim to lessen anxieties by giving as much information as possible up front to the audience member.

On the day of the performance we have extra staff on board to support the audience and we run an “open doors” policy. This means that people, who are finding the performance or experience overwhelming, can leave and re-enter the auditorium when they want to. They can also talk during the show, if they need to (basically it’s a bit like the quiet carriage on a train – but the opposite!).

I know to some people this scenario might seem like hell but, as the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum, I can only tell you what a heavenly situation this offers. I have had many a dreadful experience where my boy has bolted from the auditorium because something has frightened him and we have been unable to return as the theatre policy is not to allow “latecomers”. Or he has needed verbal reassurance from me because he is having an anxiety moment during a play, and we have had to put up with the stares and tuts of the other audience members, or the theatre staff who may have to uphold a “no talking policy”.

My son and I have had “dirty Looks” on a many an occasion from other audience members, and in a variety of different settings. We were once at a contemporary circus show at a lively venue and the audience were obviously having a good time, clearly interacting with the spectacle and skill on stage. There was lots of clapping and whooping and general merriment. Whilst my son enjoyed the show, he also felt anxious at times, especially when 20 giant blow up balls appeared on the stage for the performers to bounce on! (My son has a phobia of balloons and of them popping). So he was chattering away nervously (in a low voice) and needing much reassurance. I was amazed that he didn’t run from his seat and out the door!

I was absolutely gob-smacked when a woman, two rows down, turned round and told us to “sssh! Be quiet!” It was awkward and embarrassing and confusing, especially since she had a kid on her lap, AND it was an interactive show. It made me so cross, and puzzled my son. We sat awkwardly though the last 20 minutes of the show, with me plotting what to say to her if she approached us at the end to tell us off! (and worried that her “Hulk” of a husband would flatten me!). It’s ok they left rapidly and I breathed a sigh of relief. My son kept asking me what the problem had been.

So, there you have it! A typical family outing gone wrong. Ok, so no one got hurt but it makes us feel horrible. It’s difficult getting out in the first place (coping with public transport, walking to the theatre, the on-going fear of thunder that my son has), without having the additional hurdles of dealing with difficult audience members and dismissive staff.

This is why I think that there is a place for “Relaxed Performances”. Some people might think it’s corralling a certain type of audience but for us, as a family, it’s a blessed relief. At least you know that you will be surrounded by like-minded people. Those who love going to the theatre but find sitting still a challenge. Or need to go to the loo several times during the course of the act. Or need to whisper to their mums for a bit of reassurance. Or who rock back and forth when they are enjoying themselves.

The funny thing that I find when I go to these performances is that the quirky behaviours that are presented when people are anxious in formal settings sometimes subside when the theatre adopts a “relaxed” policy. It means that parents and carers relax and then children relax, and we all breathe a big sigh of happiness. You should try it sometime…