It has been two years since Globe Education ran our first Relaxed Performance as part of its Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank programme. This annual programme aims to increase access in its broadest sense to Shakespeare’s works by giving away free tickets to London state schools students. We’ve continually extended the invitations by considering the potential needs of those individuals and schools who might consider attendance impossible or problematic, from SEND schools to individual deafblind students.
Our 2013 offering was part of the Relaxed Performance Project, masterminded and executed by the ceaselessly passionate Kirsty Hoyle, director at Include Arts. Since then, and only thanks to the frank feedback of our patrons, we have refined our model and developed a form of access that reflects the socially aware space that is the Globe.
In order to be as welcoming as possible to audiences, venues need a deep understanding of their own natures. It is the sincere hope of Shakespeare’s Globe to promote positive change through social interaction, and therefore our Relaxed Performances are not solely marketed to people with a shared diagnosis, but rather equally open to all. Feedback from those who specifically request a relaxed environment and those who do not is overwhelmingly positive. Expectations are growing from learning disabled audience members and their families, and there is a steady increase in programmes reflecting the public desire for relaxed performances. The response is natural: any theatrical endeavour that does not have the audience at its core is surely, if not misguided, suspicious?
The role of an access officer is to understand need rather than impairment. Our position is not there to scrutinise the medical circumstances of our patrons, but rather we look to fulfil their requirements through adaptation, preparation and assistance. Having written such, it may seem contradictory to then give a list of the numbers of people affected by one diagnosis or another, but I believe it is still useful to have a notion of how many people in the country possibly feel alienated from performances by theatrical conventions. According to Tourettes Action ‘it is estimated that TS affects one schoolchild in every hundred and more than 300,000 children and adults in the UK live with the condition.’ The NAS states that about 1 in 100 people in the UK have an Autism Spectrum Condition. There are more than 11,000 children in the UK who require long term ventilation assistance. These are just a few examples of those who might benefit from a more relaxed environment, not to mention their families and friends.
The adaptations originally intended for such patrons have informed new practices, such as the Globe’s development of work for people living with Dementia, and the training our staff has received has undeniably provided useful in non-Relaxed Performances.
At this year’s Devoted & Disgruntled, Jess Thom (AKA Touretteshero) discussed various forms of performance that are accessible to all, from Relaxed to Extra Live. She also made the provocation to theatre companies that, if they were hesitant in any way about the value of such performances, perhaps they should draw a list of people they did not wish to attend their plays. It’s an extremely powerful challenge. Though I find it personally perplexing when theatres choose to exclude Deaf, disabled and learning disabled people from their work, there are still some venues that offer no assistance of any kind. Thankfully, this number is small and diminishing steadily. Increasingly, the actors who we work with have experienced performing in Relaxed Performances elsewhere. With designers, technicians, wardrobe managers, stage managers, directors, performers and others sharing their knowledge and insight into the process adaptation, so the benefits of this cross-pollination have spread across the industry.
Some of the greatest proponents of the social inclusion are creators and performers. One such example is Daniel Kitson who ran a Relaxed Performance of Tree at the Old Vic. Whereas part of the Relaxed Performance Project looked at welcoming families with a specific focus on children, shows such as Tree and our forthcoming Twelfth Night cater for teenage and adult audiences. A wide selection of options, giving the agency for learning disabled people to choose which shows they wish to see, can only be a positive thing. The next step has to increase confidence in learning disabled audience members that they can access theatre by educating them about their options. To this end, I think it’s important for theatres to be mindful about how they market their performances and how they communicate with the world.
I hope that this blog piece won’t be read and dismissed as a nice mention of a nicer charitable act. Disabled access is not a work of charity, but rather a potentially stimulating and artistically engaged process of lifting previous barriers between patron and performance. I hope every theatregoer attends at least one Relaxed Performance. As audience member, director, family member, performer, lighting designer, writer, friend, colleague or sound engineer, we all have a chance to advocate for Relaxed Performances in the venues we attend or those we work with.