To create accessible performances for diverse audiences where everyone feels welcome
Host “relaxed” performances in which the audience is free to move about and make noise and performers can respond in real time
Training staff to be aware of audience needs, creating a visual guide for anxious audiences, having a chill-out zone for audience members during the show who need a break
Not everyone is on board (though they don’t need to be)
In 2011, when Jess Thom heard about Mark Thomas’s Extreme Rambling at the Tricycle Theatre in London, she was intrigued. Thom hadn’t been to the theatre in a while, in part because she has Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition characterized by involuntary movements and tics.
“It had become increasingly difficult for me to access performance,” she said over Skype. “Partly because of particular rules about public space and partly because of people’s reactions to my tics.”
With this in mind, Thom took a number of practical steps before booking tickets for Thomas’s show. She got in touch with the writer/performer himself, and she called the box office to inform them that she’d be attending the show. She attended the performance with two good friends. An announcement at the start of the evening informed audience members that Thom was at the show. But at intermission, the front-of-house manager asked Thom to move to the sound booth for the second half of the performance due to complaints about her behavior.
“It was deeply humiliating,” Thom recalled. Moreover, she found it deeply ironic, as Extreme Rambling tells the story of Thomas walking the Israel/Palestine border. “Here was a show about segregation, and I’m separated from the rest of the audience behind a glass wall in the sound booth,” Thom said. “What hurt the most was that other people’s right to be uninterrupted at the show had trumped my right to access the show, even though we had paid the same price for our tickets.”
After the experience at the Tricycle, Thom vowed to never go to the theatre again. But eventually that experience, combined with some positive outings to what are called “relaxed” performances, compelled her to create her own show Touretteshero: Backstage in Biscuit Land. (The Tricycle Theatre now offers relaxed performances as part of its programming). Thom performs in the show, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014 and is currently touring to venues in New York City, Toronto, San Francisco, and Los Angeles through June (check touretteshero.com for more details).
Thom met Jess Mabel Jones, her Biscuit Land co-performer, at a relaxed performance of Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser’s Beauty and the Beast, which had toured to London. Relaxed performances, designed to avoid the kind of ostracization Thom experienced at Extreme Rambling, are structured to allow for liveness: Audience members are free to move about and make noise. This loosening of constraints is not about giving audiences members a chance to pop off a text or order a postshow dinner from Seamless, but to welcome anyone who might benefit from a more free-form environment. While that may include people on the autism spectrum, or folks with a neuropsychiatric condition, like Thom, this approach can encompass anyone, of any age, who chafes at the hushed reverence of most theatre settings.
Kirsty Hoyle, who is director of Include Arts and who promotes the relaxed performance model in the U.K., described the steps that go into creating a relaxed performance. Include Arts trains theatre staff to be aware of diverse audience needs, from the box office experience to the design and accessibility of marketing materials.
“We also work with front-of-house staff to devise adopted policies for the relaxed performance,” Hoyle said. These policies include allowing for increased noise levels and more audience movement during a performance, as well as a “chill out” area where viewers can take a break during a performance if needed. The point of the entire approach is to meet an audience’s needs while also serving the show.
“We try not to make too many changes to the show,” said Hoyle. “I believe these performances should be as close as possible to what the director intended, but we will adapt moments which might cause more anxiety than joy: a strobe light, very loud sounds, or up-close audience interaction.” Ultimately, audience members are free to speak and move and enjoy the show in a way that suits them. “We often say it’s like the quiet carriage on the train—but the opposite,” added Hoyle.
For Thom, the idea is that “making theatre more inclusive makes it better—for disabled people and nondisabled people.” For example, she recounted how after a Biscuit Land performance, an audience member commented on how they had heard someone saying the name “Allen” as a vocal tic throughout the show (Thom’s word is, natch, “biscuit”).
“She told this moving story about how she had fallen in love with a man named Allen,” said Thom. “But he had passed away. When she saw the show it was like he was there with her, allowing her to fall in love again.”
Thom went on to describe how at a relaxed performance, audience members might laugh more heartily or cheer in unexpected places. “People have permission to enjoy themselves in a way that feels natural to them,” she explained.
For skeptics who worry about noise levels or unexpected movement from audiences infringing on their right to see or perform theatre in a more controlled setting, there’s an obvious answer: Relaxed performances aren’t for you. But, as Thom posed rhetorically, “Are you willing to list the people who aren’t welcome to be part of your audience?” Thom conceded that it’s a challenging and uncomfortable question, adding, “It’s also uncomfortable to be excluded.”
Disability is often hidden in communities, she noted. “People are fearful about it; it’s deemed as a negative thing.” And that’s where the stage can come in, she said. “Theatre has an amazing role to play in helping people feel more comfortable about seeing disabled people onstage, and also helping people feel comfortable in an audience that is full of difference.”
Thom gave three major reasons why relaxed performances benefit everyone, not only those for whom they’re expressly designed.
“For one, I’d like to see theatre more than once or twice a year, and I’m protective of my confidence, so it benefits me,” she said. “But I also think it benefits theatres who could establish meaningful relationships with groups for disabled people and actually build audiences.” Thom pointed out how a disabled person will often bring friends and attend performances in a group, so “it’s not just one ticket, it’s five or six or seven tickets.”
She continued, “I also think relaxed performances help embed access. It grows a theatre community that is thinking about accessibility, and then theatres can act as hubs for social change and potentially influence people in how they act in the rest of the world.”
To that end, Thom is keen on the idea of relaxed venues—places where relaxed performances are more the norm than the exception. “Often relaxed performances are thought about in relation to children’s theatre, but I’m an adult,” she said. “I want to see a wide range of work. It’s not about segregating performances; it’s about having a broad idea about who can benefit from a relaxed performance.”
Hoyle suggested that theatres that want to produce relaxed performances should create a “visual story” for the audience, which will provide a calming guide to attendees who might have some anxiety about what they’re going to see. The guide would show images of the venue and of the show so the theatregoers know what they will experience. She shared this and other tips last fall when she led a training, hosted by the the British Council, for New York theatres, including Lincoln Center, the Public, and Brooklyn Academy of Music. For other U.S. theatres interested in continuing this work, Hoyle will lead a training session at the TCG conference in Washington, D.C., June 23–25, as kickoff to a British Council-sponsored series of trainings at U.S. theatres over the coming summer and fall.
Thom has come a long way from feeling excluded at Extreme Rambling, and has come to view theatre’s liveness as integral to its value.
“I saw a relaxed performance of a Daniel Kitson show,” she said. “People brought their babies. Why should your enjoyment of art stop when you have a child? When the baby cried, Daniel incorporated the noise the child was making into his performance. He improvised and it made everyone feel okay. People felt welcomed, no one was ashamed, and we got to experience culture together.”
New York City–based playwright and performer Eliza Bent is a former senior editor of this magazine.