Relaxed Performances and Audience Integration

Being an active supporter of Disability Arts, whilst I have seen lots of disabled and learning disabled performers on stage, I have not often had a conscious awareness of being part of an integrated audience. This got me to thinking about the so-called “relaxed” and “autism friendly”  performances which are becoming increasingly more popular, and why would they not with the horrible stories we hear via word of mouth, the press and the ever influential uncensored social media posts. There are accounts of families being told to leave the theatre because their learning disabled child is being too disruptive, as well as occurrences where a physically disabled audience member is moved or even evicted on the grounds that his condition may upset and offend others. (A couple of documented examples can be read here and here.) A wheelchair user once told me how he phoned to book a ticket to the theatre and required a wheelchair space, in response he was bombarded with a series of personal questions including if he smelled; and they were not referring to his ability of the sense. No wonder the craving for a safe space to watch live performances is so huge! Unfortunately as can sometimes happen with access, this causes an element if segregation. It was once mentioned to me that why can’t all performances be “relaxed” and those die hard, middle-class theatre goers so deeply rooted in tradition can book separate performances (maybe occuring once in a run) to watch their theatre in still silence barring a patter of laughter and a light applause upon conclusion.

So what does being an audience member mean? I must admit to having once been a traditionalist, I would glare at anyone who so much as hinted at opening a bag of crisps mid performance. In my days of child acting and youth theatre I was taught that the theatre building should be treated with the same respect as a place of worship and being a good audience member meant sitting quietly, watching and listening whilst forming thoughts and opinions to discuss at the end.

Recently, however I was made aware that I was part of an integrated audience. This realisation occurred because of one small but hugely impacting reaction. Sitting in the auditorium of a performance created by a disability led company, a learning disabled audience member started to make a vocal noise, I didn’t think anything of it until they were promptly hushed by a non disabled person. As theatre is designed to make us think, form opinions and then hopefully share them with others, what is so terrible about an immediate reaction? Perhaps this could somehow be taken further and opportunities to outlet and engage creatively can be embedded within the experience. Theatres are now introducing “tweet seats” to enable theatre goers to comment throughout performances and whilst this concept is relatively new, Twitter is not the only medium through which audiences can respond, an area certainly worth exploring, especially considering access.

I hope relaxed performances continue to flourish. It is vital they are of a high standard – there is a substantial difference between engaging physically/vocally and being bored/disinterested. The type of venue will also impact significantly, whilst we work on exploring the audience’s role in traditional theatres, live performance outside these venues with less stigma have the freedom to be more relaxed more of the time, I hope they relish this opportunity.

One response to this post.

  1. Interesting ideas, which theatres now have tweet seats? I’ve not seen that.


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