Don’t Relax Your Commitment

I love theatre, both as a performer and as an audience member, but as I’ve written and spoken about before, attending performances as someone with Tourettes isn’t always easy. It’s even harder at the moment because I’m Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) to COVID-19 and so being in busy indoor spaces with no COVID Related Access Provisions isn’t safe for me.

A digitally drawn image with Touretteshero at the centre in her blue and white superhero costume her arms open in welcome, audiences of disabled and non-disabled children and adults are visible behind her. The text reads: Do Not Relax! underneath in smaller text and in brackets it reads: [your commitment].

I miss theatre though, so I’ve started to look out for relaxed performances that I might be able to attend… and I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Instead of offering Relaxed Performances I’ve seen a number of venues and companies offering what they describe as ‘chilled’ or ‘relaxed environment’ performances. In my view these should be called ‘half-arsed relaxed performances’. To explain why I need to start by describing what I understand a relaxed performance to be, looking at it from my perspective as an artist, performer and trainer in relaxed performances.

Touretteshero defines Relaxed Performances as performances that feature seven key elements:

1) A Shared Understanding – Artists, staff and volunteers have a shared understanding about what taking a relaxed approach means, and a clear, positively framed way of explaining this to audiences or visitors.

2) Pre-Show Information – provided in advance about what to expect. This should include information about the sensory, participatory and thematic landscape of the show. It should be in plain language and use images or symbols to support the text. It could also include access provisions such as Sonic Stories, a tool developed by our Director of Research Dr Will Renel, which we can create for venues or artists. Sonic Stories show the sonic elements of a performance so that people can understand what to expect the show to sound like.

3) Staff Training – Staff who have received Disability Equality and Relaxed Performance Training and have the skills and knowledge to confidently support disabled artists and audiences. In our view, training should be disabled-led and provided by those with an established track record in inclusive practice.

4) A Pre-Show Announcement – that lets the whole audience know it’s a relaxed performance and explains what this means. This should include an invitation to move, make noise and go in and out of the performance space as required. Pre-show announcements should happen regardless of what information has been shared at the time of booking.

5) A Multi-Sensory Approach – that meets different types of access requirements and makes a commitment to providing information in a multi-sensory way. Consideration should be given to sound and lighting levels, taking into account sensory sensitivities and making adjustments where required. Information on the sensory landscape of the show should be included in pre-show information.

6) A Chill-Out Space – outside the main performance space where people can go if they need to. Ideally this is a separate, uncluttered area with a range of different seating and lying options. Where a separate space isn’t available, a sectioned-off or pop-up space can be created. The chill-out space should be clearly signposted, and all staff should be familiar with its location and the various ways it might be used.

7) A Clear Plan – for how any complaints from audience members will be managed.

From what I can work out, ‘Chilled’ or ‘Relaxed Environment’ performances tend to focus only on element four. Official London Theatre says: “Chilled performances take a more casual approach to noise and movement in the auditorium, but the performance itself is unchanged.” I’ve seen Relaxed Environment performances described in a very similar way. Both terms seem to describe shows where people can make noise or move in and out of the auditorium but where no other access provisions are made.

Historically ‘Relaxed Performances’ were associated with children’s shows like Pantos. These were often ‘special’ shows, just for those who ‘needed them’, rather than being equally inclusive of disabled and non-disabled people. This meant they were few and far between and lots of work was ruled out. I and many others called out this cultural curation, we even staged a relaxed version of Samuel Becket’s Play Not I to demonstrate how performances of intense, challenging or serious work could be ‘relaxed’.

While ‘Chilled’ and ‘Relaxed Environment’ performances do attempt to address the issue of cultural curation, by diluting the access provisions, they stop the work being genuinely inclusive.

This watering down involves excluding the ‘Multi-Sensory Approach’ element of Relaxed Performance. This element is about understanding that we all experience sensory inputs differently, and that many neurodivergent people are sensitive to sensory stimuli like sound or light. For me, understanding sensory processing, taking account of it, and making adaptations as necessary, is an important part of holding a Relaxed Performance.

I always encourage artists and venues to do what works for the art and to communicate this with their audience in accessible ways. We need more companies to engage with this and work harder to understand the sensory landscape of their work. We all experience sensory inputs differently, so I’d like to be given clear and precise information, rather than having to rely on the opinions of what (usually) neuro-typical people think is too loud, too bright, or too quiet.

Personally I don’t think that changing the name of performances is helpful, although there would be room for this were it carefully considered and led by disabled communities. In my view, ‘chilled’ and ‘relaxed environment’ performances don’t address a lot of the barriers but do add confusion.

I would argue that we should stick with one name, and that Relaxed Performance is the one we have, and lots of work has been done on it – I’ve written about this before when other alternative names were suggested.

Here are some suggestions that I think will help make Relaxed Performances more reliable:

• A commitment to providing Relaxed Performances including the seven elements given above.
• Investment in disabled and neurodivergent-led training for creatives (directors, designers, performers etc) as well as for front-of-house teams.
• For access responsibilities to be defined in contracts and artists’ briefs, so that artists and designers fully understand their responsibilities for creative decision-making and information-sharing with audiences.
• To build pre-show information and other access deadlines into marketing and production timelines, in the same way as they are for other elements such as ticketing, show images, or risk assessment.
• Pre-show information provided at the time of booking.
• A commitment to providing a wide range of access performances with runs of shows including: Relaxed Performances, sensory adapted performances, captioned performances, BSL interpreted or integrated performances, audio described performances and socially distanced performances.
• More support for artists so they can understand the creative potential of access and experiment with it within their practice.
• A commitment from artists, venues and supporting organisations to listen to the perspectives of disabled and neurodivergent people in sustained ways, valuing their time and expertise appropriately.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I wanted to make my concerns around ‘chilled’ and ‘relaxed environment’ performances clear as they have certainly made it much harder for me to work out whether a show is accessible, and safe for me to attend.

Making work accessible takes practice, understanding, and investment. In my view, this is an essential part of making thoughtful, engaging theatre for everyone.

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