Relaxed Performances - how are other theatres/companies welcoming all their potential audiences?

Nicky Taylor, 4 October 2012

Who attended? Nicky, Ben, Phelim, Siobhan, Tessa, Nick, Claire, Isla, Anthony, Tim, Mark, Richard (and some others whose names we didn't collect - sorry!)

West Yorkshire Playhouse initiated the first Relaxed Performance in 2009 - adapting a mainstream theatre show to enable a new audience of young people with learning disabilities to attend. This can include sound and lighting changes, extra wheelchair spaces, extra staff and front of house arrangements, detailed pre-show information and most importantly a tolerant, relaxed attitude form all audience members, cast and staff to people enjoying the show in whatever way they choose - vocally, moving around, etc. Since then Relaxed Performances (RPs) come as standard on our Christmas Courtyard Show and we have adapted studio shows and touring shows as RPs.
Across the UK, other theatres are now taking this model and making it work for their audiences. West Yorkshire Playhouse will be hosting a conference on RPs to share practice and learning and to attempt to set an industry standard for RPs so that audience members can expect a certain experience when attending an RP at any theatre.

There was lots of discussion about how RPs work at WYP and the logistics and

responsibilities venues have when introducing RPs. The need for staff training, a confidence and honesty in communicating with audiences on what to expect, promoting a sense of tolerance. Continually revisiting what we offer and why, in response to direct feedback from audience members.

The responsibility of the cast to embrace a different kind of audience - this was identified as difficult for some performers - how can we help cast members prepare for the unexpected - consider this at casting stage - do drama schools cover the needs of diverse audiences when training actors - or could they? Practical problems of not hearing cues if audience sound levels are high. Perfromers enjoying family performances as they get more direct feedback - example given of ballet where audience rarely stray from conventions of applause at given times.

Discussion on whether ‘mainstream’ audiences can appreciate RPs and is crossover between mainstream audiences and RPs possible. How flexible are theatres in accommodating ‘non-mainsream’ audiences in general shows - is the opposite of a Relaxed Performance a Tense Performance?

Cost implications of RPs - WYP has sponsorship from Irwin Mitchell which makes it possible to not sell every seat and offer companion seats.Theatres worry they won't make money out of RPs!

Some theatres' physical space makes RPs very difficult. Discussion around uncomfortable options such as people being asked to sit in glass booths to prevent noise transfer - when do pragmatics lead idealism? If we don't do what we can, are we excluding people anyway?

Standard policy at WYP mainstream shows is to move the person who complains rather than the person being complained about. The idea of being very quiet in a theatre is a fairly modern one - is it time to revisit an audience that interacts with the performers? Is there time when contemplative moments in theatre need to be experienced as they are intended? How do we signal to people that it's time to contemplate? Is there an argument for commissioning more work that lends itself to the RP model?

Standardising RPs - is there a gold, silver, bronze standard or similar that could help people make a decision on whether the show is suitable for their needs?

Similar work going on with family friendly and baby friendly shows and screenings in theatres and cinemas.

What are the ethics of RPs? Are they ghettoising an audience who are seen as a problem, or accommodating new audiences? Should we encourage ‘squirmy’ audiences across the board? At WYP many RP attenders are first timers who would not have contemplated that theatre was for them before. Some mainstream audience members book specifically for RPs because they enjoy the expereince of a different audience. How can we facilitate this flexibility so it's not an either/or situation? Is it time for theatre to relax in general - not just on specific performances - how do we communicate this to audiences?

There will be an access focused D&D co-hosted by the Unicorn Theatre in January for further discussion of this area of work.

Contact [email protected] for details of the WYP conference and how to get

involved in this dicussion


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