Words: Sarah Munday
“Forever learning and adjusting”: you have no idea how reassuring those words were!
They were written by Jenny Maddox, Head of Access and Communities at the Unicorn in London, the UK’s leading professional theatre for young audiences. The Unicorn has been holding relaxed performances for some time now and it was only natural that I should go to them, and in particular, the lovely Jenny, for advice.
Our first relaxed performance (RP) is next month (6 January), and will be for Aladdin – an obvious choice, or was it?
So many questions needed to be asked and answered before we fully committed to the RP, which came about as a natural progression to our access programme (audio-described, captioned and signed performances), and our desire to make The Marlowe a “people’s theatre” and truly accessible to all.
For those who don’t know, a RP is a specially-tailored production for customers with a range of disabilities, including those on the Autistic Spectrum.
Several adjustments are made: loud bangs, pyrotechnics, smoke and flashing lights are removed from the show, the house lights are left dimmed and not turned off, and a chill-out space is there for all to use.
Theatres like the Unicorn, Polka Theatre (another children’s venue in London) and West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, have been providing RPs for years.
In 2011 an Autism and Theatre Conference was held, followed in 2012 by the Relaxed Performance Project, a partnership between The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, The Society of London Theatre, and Theatrical Management Association.
The project was collaborative and brought together theatre staff and volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and interests in the participant theatres, and partners such as national and local charities.
From November 2012 to June 2013, the project engaged with a total of 4,983 audience members at eight theatres across the UK with an average audience of 622. The total audience comprised 42% families living with autism, 33% community groups (eg autism specific community organisations; SEN schools), and 25% others (eg individuals and families).
Interviewed during and/or surveyed after an RP, 60% reported they had never been to the theatre before as a family, 30% had never been to the theatre, and 90% had never been to an RP.
The project developed a model of best practice for dissemination at both a national and international level, in order to share its learning outcomes with audience members and theatres across the UK and beyond. Importantly, it provided a new example of how theatres – and their programmes – might impact upon those critical social issues of access, inclusion, tolerance and understanding.
And so we started to think about an RP at The Marlowe Theatre: there wasn’t a “eureka moment”, just a “dipping in and out of” the idea period until the time was right to say “let’s go for it!”.
Of course, we realised it would take some planning and so programmed it for more than a year in advance.
As The Marlowe’s unofficial access “guardian”, I was charged with doing the homework: , it has been challenging, interesting and I’m sure, ultimately rewarding.
As those who know me will verify, I’m no good with manuals. I don’t have the time or patience for them and my ethos is to simply switch things on, fiddle around a bit, and hope they work (which inevitably, they don’t).
How I have longed though for an RP manual: a document detailing how to run an RP, from A to Z!
But, I’ve learnt that as RPs become more common place (you may see them referred to as autism-friendly performances), everyone is learning as they go along. Hence the words from Jenny at the Unicorn: “forever learning and adjusting”.
Along with two colleagues, I experienced an RP at the theatre (1001 Nights, by the rather wonderful – and now Kent-based – Transport theatre company). Jenny emailed me afterwards to say that on reflection, they didn’t quite get the lighting right but they would know better for next time.
I have asked questions of many people (and probably made a pest of myself in some quarters) and I am grateful to everyone for their help. I have gradually pieced together the jigsaw that will be our first RP, and while there has been much more to do – and learn – the warm reaction from the people who will benefit from the RP has filled me with confidence. I am sure the show will be one to remember – and not just for those in the audience.
Thanks (in advance) to the cast of Aladdin, and our Front of House and technical teams for the part they have played/will play. And special thanks to Heather Wildsmith, Cultural Development Manager at the National Autistic Society. Her recent visit to us was absolutely invaluable and inspirational – and has filled me with confidence and excitement.
Jodie Mills, of Canterbury, is someone else who has been invaluable in her support and guidance. She is mum to six-year-old Stanley, and Thomas, who is five and who is autistic.
Jodie is passionate about giving Thomas the same access and opportunities as Stanley and other children: “Some people are lucky enough to get that enjoyment from standard performances, but all of us are different and to have other needs considered, such as sensory and social skills, makes the difference between having that opportunity and sadly not.”
Aladdin will be Jodie and Thomas’s first Relaxed Performance and she believes they will both benefit from it: “It will be a positive experience for me – I’ll be supported just by the simplicity of it being focused around the potential and varying needs of my child.
“I’m hoping for a much more relaxed Thomas, less pressure on him to conform is just one way he’ll be able to cope with his anxieties and other issues. Thomas will get the chance to enjoy something he wouldn’t ordinarily be able to even try.”
We’ll also be taking our experiences and learning into our next Relaxed Performance for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs on Tuesday 5 January 2016.
So come along, enjoy, and do let us know what you think!
Aladdin is at The Marlowe Theatre until Sunday 11 January. Tickets for the Relaxed Performance (Tuesday 6 January) are available by calling 01227 787787.