Tomorrow Jess Mabel Jones (AKA Chopin) and I will be performing our stage show Backstage In Biscuit Land (BIBL) for the first time this year, and like every other, it’ll be a ‘relaxed performance’.
Relaxed performances extend a warm welcome to anyone who might find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre etiquette.
I’ve been thinking, talking and writing about this concept a lot recently as it’s becoming an increasingly established practice in theatres here.
Last month Chopin and I held a session about ‘relaxed performances’ at Devoted and Disgruntled (D&D). This event brings together creative people to debate issues about theatre. It uses an open space approach, which is a lively way to have discussions about all sorts of issues. At an open space event anyone can run a session about anything, and anyone interested in that topic can come and join in.
During ours an idea emerged that I’ve thought about a lot since. It came out of a discussion about the term ‘relaxed performance’. There was a concern that the term itself didn’t adequately describe what it should and that it was open to misinterpretation by audiences. It was proposed that ‘extra live’ would be a better description.
I really like ‘extra live’ as a term and I definitely think it’s a good way of describing BIBL, but I do have some concerns about it being used more generally. To help clarify my feelings I’ve made a list of my pros and cons for each of the terms:
1. It gives a clear description of what the atmosphere will be like during the show. The responsibility for being ‘relaxed’ is shared by the audience, venue and performers.
2. It’s an established term into which a great deal of research, work, and thought has already been put.
3. It’s the term which many theatres and performers are already familiar with.
1. It’s heavily associated with children’s performances and with specific conditions like Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
2. It doesn’t convey the potential for a more dynamic theatrical experience for everyone.
3. It could be misunderstood to be just for a specific audience, rather than inclusive of everyone.
4. It may be interpreted by some theatre-goers as indicating an inferior performance.
1. It’s a more positive term that’s likely to intrigue people and prompt them to find out more.
2. It emphasises the potential benefit to the whole audience – that everyone gets ‘extra’ from such performances.
3. It feels less rooted in a charitable model of theatre in which access provisions are something to be apologetically grateful for rather than being something that can enhance a show.
1. It could potentially undermine the work that’s already been done to develop relaxed performances.
2. Introducing new terminology could confuse disabled and non-disabled theatre-goers alike.
3. It could give the impression that disabled audience members are expected to provide the ‘extra live’ element. (Some of the times when I’ve felt least comfortable at live performances have been when it’s felt like I’ve stopped being a member of the audience and become part of the show just because of my tics.)
4. It doesn’t extend the same warm invitation to the audience.
5. It has the potential to be imply that access considerations are only worth being concerned about when they benefit everyone or heighten an experience, and that just giving access to a particular group isn’t enough.
As much as I like ‘extra live’, I don’t think there’s that much wrong with ‘relaxed performance.’ To me, lots of the reasons to change the terminology stem from the public’s unfamiliarity with the concept, or their assumptions about what it means.
Something similar happens with Tourettes – doctors are sometimes reluctant to diagnose a child as having Tourettes Syndrome because of the negative perceptions of the condition and instead choose to call it a ‘Chronic Tic Disorder.’
I’ve always felt you’re better off changing an assumption rather than a name. Ultimately this is how I feel about ‘relaxed performance’ vs. ‘extra live’.
To me relaxed performances are useful because they send a clear message: ‘We have thought of you and we want you to see this show’. But they’re only part of the solution. Making theatre inclusive and accessible on equal terms needs a more holistic approach, which includes:
• Making sure that inclusion is part of the education that theatre makers and performers receive.
• Making sure that theatres, makers and promoters understand the potential business benefits of ensuring their work is accessible. Remember, a fifth of the UK population identify as disabled, so it’s not a niche issue.
• Building the confidence of disabled people around accessing theatre, particularly with those whose conditions might make them expect to feel unwelcome.
• Continuing to imagine and discuss new ways of making inclusivity a reality, and to increase the expectation that all work will be noticeably accessible – not just tucked out of the way on a Sunday morning or Tuesday afternoon.
• The nurturing and promotion of work by disabled creators, performers and producers and the creation of more integrated and disability-led companies.
One idea to emerge from recent discussions that particularly interests me is the concept of ‘relaxed venues’. This describes a theatre that would commit all its shows to taking a relaxed approach and offering a warm welcome to everyone. This excites me because it could address several issues at once – introducing relaxed performances to more people, building and sustaining links with new audiences, and developing confidence about access issues amongst theatre companies. Just imagine being able to look at a theatre’s programme and knowing you can book tickets for any show without having to call ahead and explain your condition.
I started writing this, unsure how I felt about these two terms. I’m ending it feeling certain that things are moving in the right direction and that continued discussion is key to increasing accessibility in a sustainable way. But I’m not sure that my personal liking for the term ‘extra live’ is enough to make it worth trying to promote more widely.
While I don’t think ‘relaxed performances’ need a new name, I do think they need redefining. And this is where ‘extra live’ feels most useful. For now I’m going to keep using the term ‘relaxed performance’ and I’ll use ‘extra live’ to describe the incredible experiences such performances can create. Please share your thoughts and ideas about this in the comment section below.
Now though, it’s time for me to stop writing about it and get ready to make it happen. Tomorrow afternoon Backstage in Biscuit Land will be on at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. There are still a handful of tickets left so do come and join us if you can – we’ll make it extra relaxed if you do!