Beauty in the Beast
On a crisp September day in 2009 I jumped on a bus and headed to Trafalgar Square. It was back in the pre-fit days when I was able to travel and be on my own a lot more, and I was on my way to Disability Arts Liberty Festival for the first time.
It was a day that played an important part in changing how I felt about myself, about my tics and about seeing live performance. I spent the whole afternoon enjoying acts in the comedy tent where the relaxed and inclusive atmosphere was noticeably different from other experiences I’d had at the theatre.
A key feature of this experience was the compère Mat Fraser, a writer and actor who has short arms as the result of Thalidomide. I remember very clearly when I entered the tent with my tics shrieking repeatedly he acknowledged them, made a joke about neither of us being welcome at the National Theatre, and moved on. This was the first time since my tics got noisy that I’d been able to watch comedy without feeling I was part of the show – it made me realise going to see live performances was something I could still enjoy.
Tonight I saw Mat perform again, alongside his wife, Julie Atlas Muz, and two other actors, Jess Mabel Jones and Jonny Dixon, in Beauty and the Beast at the Young Vic. If you’re assuming it’s a child-friendly pantomime, think again. It’s a stunning piece of theatre and story-telling – explicit, funny, thought-provoking, incredibly sexy. And it features the best simulated-sex with fruit and vegetables you’ll ever see.
The piece weaves the tale of Beauty and the Beast with the story of Mat and Julie meeting and falling in love in Coney Island, New York. Mat was in a sideshow and Julie in burlesque. The show is beautiful both visually and creatively, as is the story and message that it shares. I was blown away!
I was also relaxed, which isn’t something I’ve always been at the theatre. I felt particularly comfortable because tonight’s performance was ‘relaxed’. Relaxed performances are a relatively new idea in the theatre but they’re becoming increasingly popular. They’re specific performances where it’s understood that the audience don’t need to observe “traditional theatre behaviour” and where there’s a laid-back attitude to noise and movement. This means they’re more accessible to people like me who have conditions that make traditional theatre behaviour a neurological impossibility.
I’ve had some other very positive experiencesof the theatre recently and my confidence in seeing shows is increasing. Whenever I go to see anything I contact the theatre and ideally the performers beforehand, to let them know I’ll be in the audience and making noises and movements. But however amazing and welcoming they are, in the back of my mind there’s always an anxiety about the reactions of other people in the audience.
Two years ago I was asked to move to the production booth during a show because someone complained about my tics. There was a moment as I sat crying in the booth when I vowed never to go to the theatre again, but shows like Beauty and the Beast make me extremely glad this wasn’t a promise I kept.
On the occasion when I was asked to move, and on all the others since, my tics and I have been introduced at the start of the show. This means that everyone in the auditorium knows I have Tourettes and why there may be more biscuits than they’d expected. While it can be really useful to introduce me in this way, it does still put the emphasis on my difference. What was unusual about tonight’s relaxed performance was that the whole audience was invited to make noises if they wanted or needed to. Those who didn’t want to make noise were invited to go along with it, or leave.
Jess said afterwards that the audience had been much more enthusiastic and responsive than at some of the ‘un-relaxed’ shows, and that she felt this’d enriched the performance. I frequently find that making something more inclusive and accessible improves it for everyone.
The relaxed performance meant I was able to enjoy the amazing show fully without worrying about what would happen if someone complained. But I’d be concerned if theatres expected relaxed performances to be the only performance people with disabilities like mine could go to. Perhaps all performances should be relaxed with only the occasional ‘uptight’ matinee?
I’ve already mentioned how creatively impressive the show was, but beyond that, Mat and Julie’s story with ideas of difference and beauty at its core, resonated with me on many levels.
One of the things regular readers of this blog might have noticed is how devoid of sex and romance it is. In reality my life’s full of love and friendship, which is present in everything I write, but it’s been a long time since I had a more intimate relationship. I don’t think this is because I have Tourettes, but it does add some logistical challenges and potential partners might need a bit of vision to find all my biscuits sexy. Being open minded about beauty and being open to love is at the heart of this re-telling of Beauty and the Beast.
I strongly urge you to see this play if you can. And Mat, I think you might have been wrong about us not being welcome at the National Theatre: I’m sure you’d wow their audiences, and I know they sometimes have relaxed performances too.
Good theatre opens up new ideas and worlds – and it’s really important that this experience is open to everyone. It’s a beautiful thing.
“It’s a holly hype thing”
It’s always a challenge whether accessibility has to mean exclusivity isn’t it? For many people with autism and other learning disabilities, ‘relaxed’ sessions can be the only option, but it’s important also to work towards inclusion for all. I have also had negative experiences with my daughter at mainstream activities, we were shouted at by an angry man in the cinema because she was giggling, I have seen parents hold their children back away from my daughter in case she does something to them, and worst of all, unbelievable attitudes from public transport users when I have tried to use accessible buses which has the wheelchair space taken by pushchairs. So I can totally relate to the anxiety connected to mixing with muggles.
Most of the time we go to activities where it’s autism or disability exclusive, simply because it’s easier and stress free to go to places where we are accepted and understood. However, a recent experience was a positive one. We went, en masse, to the theatre with a large group of families with children who have various conditions, but the theatre was mostly filled with muggles. We went to see Annie, the musical, and my daughter absolutely loved it, it’s one of her favourite movies. It felt safe to be among our group, so even when she whooped and giggled, there wasn’t the panic that we would be singled out, because she wasn’t the only one, and the muggles had to suck it up. Still not sure I’d do it alone again, at least not yet, but it felt good to be able to do something that everyone else can do, and I took my 17 year old girl on a ‘night out’ too, something I’d probably have been doing as a matter of course by now if things were different.