While we were touring in North America I was excited to be in touch with a number of theatre academics who are interested in the Relaxed Performance movement. Brilliantly Cameron Hunt McNabb, Assistant Professor of English at Southeastern University in Florida and a specialist in medieval and early modern drama agreed to write a guest post explaining her particular interest.
Relaxed performances may seem like one of the newest things to hit the theatre scene, but the conventions of what we now call a relaxed performance were actually the norm for going to plays for hundreds of years. It might be surprising to many that the earliest drama of England – the plays of medieval drama and even those of Shakespeare – were far more inclusive of disabled persons than the modern theatre is today.
For one, there were no rules about audiences sitting still or being quiet. In most cases, people were sitting on the ground or standing to see the performances, as is still possible as a Groundling in the Globe today, and thus they were often shifting or moving about as they saw fit. In fact, some medieval plays even ask their audiences to move from one stage area to another to follow the action! And sometimes, a dozen or more plays would be performed back-to-back all day long, so audiences were free to get up and leave or rejoin the performances whenever they wanted, even right in the middle of the show.
Not only were early plays relaxed about audience movement, they were very relaxed, by our modern standards, about noise. There was no “hushed reverence” as the play was showing but rather laughing, singing, cheering, and even booing (for the evil characters) were all encouraged. Also, many times, plays took place in very public spaces, like in the town streets or public yards, and these places would be filled with many other noises already. No one expected a backdrop of silence when they went to see a play.
Far from finding all of this movement and noise distracting, medieval and early modern actors incorporated these flexible and spontaneous elements into the plays themselves. As is common with modern relaxed performances, actors were very interactive with audiences and would improvise based on members’ participation. In fact, in one of Shakespeare’s theatres, audience members paid extra to sit on the stage and be part of the action! All of this was possible, too, because almost all of these early performances took place during the day, so not only could the audience see the actors but the actors could see the audience. No one was an anonymous starer in a dark theatre, as is the custom with much of modern theatre today.
These early plays also staged those with disabilities, in a variety of ways and not always negatively, as might be expected based on certain stereotypes about the period. More often than not, the disabled character in a play was the character the audience was supposed to identify with. And given the high rate of disabled persons during that time, those moments of identification in the theatre also meant identifying with one’s neighbours and even with one’s self.
These medieval and early modern conventions meant that the theatre was an inclusive environment, and it contributed to building up the local community rather than segregating it. The very act of experiencing a play together meant uniting rather than dividing. Relaxed performance in today’s theatre only seeks to do what was customary for drama hundreds of years before.
Excitingly many theatres are embracing Relaxed Performances. One of these is the Globe Theatre in London. If you want to see Shakespeare’s plays performed in a theatrical atmosphere he’d have recognised then grab your tickets for any of the fantastic upcoming performances here.