On Friday, Bunny, Fran, Jolie and I saw an incredible piece of theatre, Hopelessly Devoted, at the Roundhouse in Camden. The play, written by Kate Tempest, is moving, funny and thought-provoking. The characters are brilliantly drawn and the performances totally absorbing – I’m so glad I saw it. The run’s finished now but you can watch it online here.
I’d been a little nervous beforehand because I hadn’t been to show at the Roundhouse before. I’d been in touch in advance with their access team and let them know about my tics, but I was still a little anxious about what the response would be on the night. I needn’t have worried though – I was made very welcome and my noises had been explained to the performers, so I felt very comfortable. Even though this wasn’t an official ‘relaxed performance’ the attitude of the Roundhouse team made it one.
For anyone who hasn’t come across this concept before, it’s basically a way of identifying shows that welcome people who might find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre behaviour. It means there’s a relaxed approach to any noise coming from the audience, and lighting and sound are sometimes adjusted slightly to take account of any sensory sensitivities. Performances like these are a relatively recent idea and have tended to focus on children’s shows, but this is changing. And I’m very proud that my show, Backstage In Biscuit Land (BIBL), has been playing a part in this too.
Three year’s ago I had a very upsetting experience at a performance of Mark Thomas’s fantastic show Extreme Rambling. While I sat sobbing in the sound booth after being asked to move because of my tics, I promised myself that I’d never go to the theatre again. Happily this wasn’t a promise I kept, and instead of it marking the end of one experience it marked the start of another – a journey that would eventually lead me to a seat on stage in my own show. When we created BIBL we wanted to prove that making theatre inclusive often makes it better. We took BIBL and it’s message about relaxed performances to the Edinburgh Fringe so that lots of people who make and enjoy theatre could see it.
Tomorrow I’m going back to the same theatre in which I had such a difficult experience three years ago. I’m going to see Mark Thomas’s new show Cuckooed there and I can’t wait. I’m full of excitement and anticipation and I know that the upset I had last time won’t be repeated because this performance is going to be relaxed. Mark decided to do a relaxed performance and also a captioned one partly as a result of seeing BIBL. I feel elated that things have come full circle in this way. The show tomorrow is sold out but keep an eye on Mark’s website for information about future perfromaces.
This doesn’t seem to be the only relaxed performance BIBL’s inspired. Comedian Daniel Kitson is doing one with his acclaimed show, ‘Tree’ on 31st January. Daniel’s shows frequently sell out instantly, so to make sure it’s accessible to people who’d specifically like to attend this performance it’s advisable to contact the theatre here.
I’m greatly encouraged by the increase in relaxed performances. It’s great that inclusivity and access are being considered more widely. In my view, relaxed performances send an important message to people who might otherwise feel excluded from the theatre by showing that they’re welcome and have been thought about. More generally, I think relaxed performances create a different atmosphere for the whole audience, giving everyone permission to relax and respond naturally.
Relaxed performances don’t need to be complicated either. From my perspective the important, but quite simple elements they should include are:
• Pre-show information giving a guide as to what to expect from the show
• A clear explanation for all audience members about what a relaxed performance is when they book
• Staff who take an inclusive approach from start to finish
• An introduction at the start to remind the audience that it’s a relaxed performance and to give permission to anyone who needs to move or be noisy the freedom to do so
• A clear plan of how any complaints from other audience members will be managed
Also there should ideally be:
• A quiet space outside the auditorium which people can go to if they need it
• Some consideration given to sound and lighting levels
All that being said, I don’t want to feel that relaxed performances are the only performances I can go. My experience at the Roundhouse on Friday showed that it’s possible for venues to be responsive and make adjustments as individual needs arise. But it does feel as if there’s a sea change at the moment and that theatre’s opening up – and that’s fantastic news for everyone.
Finally, on a personal note, this feels like a very happy ending to a journey that had a very upsetting start.
“Blue-sky thinking reindeers.”