Tree Chat

I spend a fair bit of time involuntarily chatting to trees, mainly the those outside my bedroom window who, along with the lamp-post, the TV aerial and the moon, get a lot of attention from my tics. Today though they chatted to a different tree, an indoor tree, and a tree in a theatre – and to be more precise – a tree with a man in it performing to an enthralled audience.

The man in question was writer and comedian Daniel Kitson who was performing his play Tree at the Old Vic, along with Tim Key (whose feet remained firmly on the ground).

The last time I was at the Old Vic I was a fifteen and on a school trip. I’ve got vivid memories of this, not because of the play I was there to see but because of how desperately uncomfortable I was throughout. It was one of the first times I realised how much I moved about involuntarily – and my classmates realised it too! They giggled and teased me for shaking and rocking during the performance. So my fifteen-year-old self left the Old Vic feeling that theatre wasn’t for me.

That’s not what I left feeling today!

The large tree planted centre stage was a consummate professional and remained completely unaffected by my excited comments:

“We need to talk about the elephant in the room, it’s a tree.”
“Don’t look at the tree, it’s self-conscious.”
“Tree, your acting’s a bit wooden.”

It wasn’t only the tree taking my tics in its stride, everyone else was too, because this was a ‘relaxed performance’.

‘Relaxed’ is a way of describing performances that extend a warm welcome to people who might find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre etiquette. When done well they give everyone in the audience permission to relax, respond naturally, move about, and make noises as they like. From my experience this can create an even more exciting theatrical experience for everyone.

This was the Old Vic’s first ever relaxed performance and I’m proud that my show Backstage In Biscuit Land (BIBL) played a part in making it happen. Daniel came to see BIBL back in September and was inspired to have a relaxed performance of Tree as a result.

The show was gripping, incredibly well written, beautifully performed and extremely funny. I feel very fortunate to have seen it, and because it was relaxed I was able to enjoy it fully, without worrying about my tics and other people’s reactions to them.

It’s exciting that relaxed performances are becoming more common, and it’s great news for both disabled and non-disabled people alike. Recently I’ve had lots of conversations about relaxed performances, and most people I’ve chatted to are really excited by the concept. But some do have worries, and here are the three most common concerns, (with my answers in response):

1) ‘I’m worried that if I do a relaxed performance some audience members might be put off, and the show won’t sell as well.’

It’s important to explain what a relaxed performance is, and to frame it positively. Performers and audience members benefit from the invitation to relax and the more people who experience it the less likely this is to be a problem.

2) ‘If someone’s making noises or moving about, will it distract me from the performance?’

Most people edit out background noise all the time, particularly when they know why it’s happening and are absorbed by something. If the performance is holding your attention, experience tells me you won’t get distracted.
People who’ve expressed this concern have often turned out not to have been to a relaxed performance at all; they’ve just assumed they’ll be distracted.
Conversely, people who’ve actually been to one often say the relaxed environment has enhanced their experience and increased the vitality of the piece.

3) ‘What if I do a relaxed performance and no one who needs it turns up?’

It doesn’t matter! Firstly, the reason why someone wants to go to a relaxed performance won’t always be obvious, nor should it have to be.
Secondly, just by having a relaxed performance you’re exposing more people to the concept.

Remember, there may be someone in the audience who thinks ‘Wow, my friend would’ve felt really welcome at that show.’

There was a great moment in Tree today when one of the babies in the audience was crying. Daniel responded brilliantly, seamlessly incorporating this noise into the story. I saw several tweets afterwards saying that this added to the show:

@dexterk First time at the Old Vic today for the “relaxed” performance of Tree. Made even better by the actor’s reaction to noise in the audience.”

If you’re a cynical reader you may be thinking ‘You would say they’re great because you make a load of noise yourself.’ But it’s just not me – I saw lots of positive responses, for example:

@History_Lauren #Tree at @oldvictheatre with #DanielKitson & @TimKeyPoet is flipping brilliant. ‘Relaxed’ performance felt particularly nice.”

I especially like it when I see messages that reveal a change of mind, like this series of tweets by @robbingham who went to a relaxed performance of Mark Thomas’s latest show just before Christmas:

1) “We’ve accidentally booked tickets for a theatre performance “suitable for those on the autistic spectrum and with other anxiety disorders.”
2) “And it was a great atmosphere too.”
3) “I had no idea about this before today. So pleased I went this evening.”

Theatre is joyous because it’s live and it takes us on a journey together. When we see a show we choose to share that experience with other people and we don’t want to be alone in the room. Likewise, there would be no pleasure for actors performing to an empty house.

So my question for directors, producers and performers who’re sceptical about relaxed performances is, ‘Are you willing to list the people who aren’t welcome to be part of your audience?’

It’s an uncomfortable question but being quietly excluded is an uncomfortable experience.

There’s so much amazing theatre out there and I don’t want anyone to miss out because of preconceptions about who it’s for or how it should be enjoyed.
I’m confident that had fifteen-year-old me been at today’s performance I wouldn’t have left feeling excluded and embarrassed.

Tree touched, inspired and intrigued me and I’m so glad I went to see it – you should go too if you get the chance. Daniel and Tim are back at the Old Vic in February so do go if you can – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

“You’ll be blown away like leaves by a hovercraft”

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