As a disabled theatre fan myself I’m passionate about making sure that theatre truly is for everyone. For a while the conversation around accessibility in theatre has centred around physical accessibility. However, over the past few years there has been more conversation about how we can adapt performances to make them relaxed, and therefore more accessible. We’ve begun opening the arts industry to a whole new audience.
Relaxed performances were initially designed to support autistic people and learning disabled people to go to the theatre, but we now know that they allow a wide range of disabled people to interact with theatre. Relaxed performances typically involve the house lights staying on during the performance, as well as a quiet area being provided outside of the auditorium for if things get too much. Sometimes theatres will send out a social story prior to the performance to walk people through what to expect when they arrive at the theatre, helping to ease any anxieties.
Loud noises and harsh lighting will often be removed from the performance or lowered to a more suitable level, and a guide might be given on when to expect any loud noises or lighting that remain. Every theatre will adapt their show to a different level so it’s important to find out what ‘relaxed’ means for each theatre and production when booking. These performances foster a supportive environment and encourage people to interact with theatre however they want. You’ll be able to freely make noise and stim (a repetitive movement or sound that can soothe neurodivergent people) without fear of judgement, and come and go from the auditorium whenever needed. It’s the kind of performance where you wouldn’t feel alone in wearing ear defenders, or using a fidget toy during the performance. Anything that supports you to enjoy the show is encouraged!
Pantomimes in particular tend to be overstimulating with a lot of light, colour and sound used throughout performances, so relaxed performances are more important than ever to provide for them. The Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield has a Detailed Access Guide on the AccessAble website and is putting on a relaxed performance of Beauty and The Beast on 14th December 2023. The theatre has step free access, blue badge parking and an accessible toilet. During their performance you’ll be able to move freely around the theatre, the house lights will stay on and the lighting and sound will be softened.
The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is also putting on a relaxed performance of it’s pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat on 10th January 2023, and they also support other access needs too as every performance is audio described. In their Detailed Access Guide you can see that they also offer an access table in their foyer with a large print programme, visual story and a visual display of the set.
We’ve seen a rise in the number of theatres putting on relaxed performances over the past 5 years, but there’s still a way to go. Theatre is magical and relaxed performances allow people who wouldn’t usually go to the theare to experience this. It’s so important to support and fund these performances, and to let people know that they are happening! If you think a relaxed performance might help you then book yourself in, they are for anyone and everyone who might benefit from the accessibility and supportive measures they offer. And when in doubt, always reach out to the theatre if you have any questions about the performance.