WICKED holds its first Relaxed Performance and I was there to share the experience

Approved_Wicked_DefyingGravity_FullStage photo by Matt Crockett_7510“A relaxed performance is about welcoming children with special needs (including Autistic Spectrum Conditions and/or learning disabilities) and, crucially, their families to the theatre to a performance where those needs are accounted for with a more relaxed atmosphere and some changes to the production itself if necessary eg: lowering of lights or sound at certain points of the show.” – Society of London Theatre

In March 2016 I wrote a blog: Is Theatre really accessible to everyone? How would you feel if it affected you? following a television programme I had watched about people living with Tourettes in the UK. I was shocked to find out that a condition like this could affect any one of us, at any time in our lives. I could walk into a shop to buy a newspaper, go up the the counter and start ticking (involuntary and uncontrollable noises being made). This thought really scared me because what would an avid theatre-goer like myself be able to do if I knew I couldn’t stay quiet during a theatre performance. I wouldn’t be able to ever go to the theatre again! Or would I?

Thankfully, back in 2013, the Society of London Theatre held the Relaxed Performance Project with eight theatres around the West End and those interested in working to make theatre inclusive to all. Since then, many shows like MATILDA and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME have been holding these types of performances. The Park Theatre’s current show THE BUSKERS OPERA recently ran a successful crowd-funding campaign so that they could stage the theatre’s first ever Relaxed Performance with this show and it is wonderful to see smaller fringe productions picking up this initiative of making theatre accessible to all.

On Saturday afternoon (14 May 2016) WICKED held their first ever Austism Friendly Relaxed Performance of the show at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, which was incredible to hear would be happening as the show deals with themes of being different and feeling like an outcast in life sometimes. I attended the performance and it was an awe inspiring afternoon. Staff had been specially trained to understand the needs of the people who were attending and members of the National Autistic Society were on hand to assist people thought the performance and take them to special chill out zones if they wanted to take a break from the show. Lights in the auditorium were dimmed for the performance so audience members weren’t distressed by the darkness around them. Elphaba actress Emma Hatton took to the stage before the performance began, along with her two monkey friends, to explain how the show would proceed, the types of things we might see and hear and to remind audience members that they were welcome to move around the auditorium at anytime they wish.

The performance of WICKED itself was only very slightly different. Music wasn’t quite so loud, flashing lights were toned down and any loud noises or shouting were quieter (suitcases were placed on the stage instead of being thrown etc). Standby Elphaba for WICKED, Natalie Andreou (who wasn’t performing at this particular show) was able to enjoy the show from within the audience, along with her autistic sister-in-law who had never had an opportunity to see the show Natalie is in because, until now a special performance like this had not happened.

I applaud WICKED for holding their first ever Relaxed Performance of the show and I hope to see many more of them to come in the future. I also hope that other shows take inspiration from this and work to create at least one Relaxed Performance of each show, so that all people have the opportunity to experience art, regardless of disability. It isn’t just children with Autism that these events help, it is the adults and children living with any condition that may stop them from feeling comfortable and welcomed at a regular performance.

On a personal note, I loved knowing I was free to go to the toilet at any time during the show, without being judged for leaving my seat. Theatre Etiquette is rife these days and audience members demand a certain level of appropriate behaviour from those around them. If we are going to make some people feel excluded from attending theatre (due to our own levels of what is acceptable), then the least we should do is ensure they have an opportunity to attend a specially dedicated and ‘relaxed’ performance.

West End Wilma

Are you a theatre producer looking to put on an Autism Friendly Relaxed Performance of your next show? I’d love to hear from you. wilma@westendwilma.com

Photo: Matt Crockett