Leadership / 03.12.19
Relaxed Performances: Plan Ahead for Success
Christine Payne and Doug James
Rare just a few short years ago, relaxed performances are becoming much more common at theaters around the world. It’s all part of a continuing effort by arts and culture organizations to ensure inclusivity by meeting the needs of all patrons regardless of their abilities. This ensures that all families, couples, groups of friends, classes and other groupings can choose to attend events at your venue.
Recently, an expert in the field offered Toronto ticketing professionals some tips on how to set up relaxed performances in a way that will ensure success.
During her talk to Ontario Professional Ticketing Association (OPTA) members, Rachel Marks told a story about a little girl who attended a performance at the Lincoln Center in New York. During the show, the girl kept getting up from her seat and going backstage. At one point she returned with the head of a puppet and began trying to wear it on her head. Another time she peppered people with questions. “Where’s the exit back here?” “Is there someone hiding here waiting to scare me?” After one final behind-the-scenes sortie, she returned with a hat, put it on and sat quietly in her seat for the rest of the performance. Later, when the stage manager was asked what that was all about, she responded as if it were a common occurrence: “We allow the chaos in order to manage the chaos,” she said matter-of-factly.
Welcome to the world of relaxed performances where back office theatre professionals sometimes spend as much time assuaging the anxiety of patrons as actors do in preparing for their roles.
“The main thing you are doing when you are planning a relaxed performance,” says Marks, “is you are helping to lessen or dampen the anxiety of the patron, so that they are able to enjoy the show.”
For Marks, a relaxed performance consultant with significant experience in the performing arts, it’s all in a day’s work. During her OPTA presentation, she joked that her interest in relaxed performances is based solely on her desire to attend the theatre with her friends, who are some of an estimated half-million Canadians living on the autism spectrum.
In reality, Marks is a leading advocate for inclusivity. She believes every person in society should be able to get out and enjoy a live theatrical or musical performance, including, but not limited to, those with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy and dementia. These conditions can cause anxiety, impairments in communication skills, repetitive behaviors, compulsive activities and difficulties with social interactions. Thus, the need for a more relaxed environment where patrons can come and go as they please — and even make noise or use a mobile device during the show. In other words, patrons are welcomed in a way that makes them feel safe and confident in knowing that they can enjoy themselves without being judged.
“It can be really hard for people to go out when they are neurodiverse,” says Marks. “They look just like everybody else, so when they are not behaving like everybody else, we tend to be critical. This can be very harmful for people. Instead, we need to let them know that we’re here for them, that we know they are neurodiverse and that’s awesome. We’re open to having you here. We want you here.”
The relaxed performances movement has spread across North America since its debut on Broadway in 2011, and much has been learned over the past few years. According to Marks, the most important thing to know is that a successful relaxed performance takes a lot of pre-planning and preparation.
“Relaxed performances are not as much as what happens on the day of the show, but with what happens with marketing and the ticket office beforehand,” she says. “Ninety percent of the work is up front. The main thing to remember is that pre-planning will lessen the anxiety of your audience members and a less anxious audience member is more open to experiencing and enjoying the performance.”
In her own words, Marks suggests considering the following 12 areas to prepare for a relaxed performance:
1. Language. “One thing we have to remember is sensitivity in our language. People-led language is the way we are going, so when I started working in the community, if we had said ‘autistic’ we would have been struck off. That word has been reclaimed by people living on the spectrum and it's obviously their choice; they can say ‘autistic people’ or ‘people living with autism,’ but for the rest of us it’s ‘people living with autism.’ If you are uncertain, call local societies and ask them how one should properly refer to their community. They’ll be happy to help. By reaching out in this way and letting them know that you are planning a relaxed performance, you’ll also start getting the word out to potential patrons. They’ll begin to spread the word for you.”
2. Ticket sales. “When somebody calls in to get tickets, your calls are probably going to be longer than they would be for a regular performance. People are going to want a lot more information. You need to share everything you have with the person buying the tickets. Some will ask you to tell them everything. They’ll want to know all the details including such things as, ‘during this performance, the orchestra is going to stand up and yell at you three times and clap their hands.’ You may not know all of the content of the performance when tickets go on sale, especially if it’s a touring show, but be sure to share what information you do have with the person who is buying the tickets.”
3. Visual guides. “Guides help build familiarity. And when we are familiar, we are relaxed and we are successful. You’re going to talk your patron through the entire process of ordering their ticket, getting to the theater, introducing them to an usher and saying ‘ushers are friendly but they may need to check your bags or they will help you find your seat,’ telling them the ticket scanner might beep, this is how long before the show that the lobby opens, this is when the auditorium opens, you might have to take stairs, this is where the washrooms are, you can come and go anytime during the show, and anything else you want them to know.”
Here’s a great example of a visual guide from the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (Toronto). Note that it is written in the first person, which Marks recommends for all visual guides.
“I recently prepared a visual guide for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It is 40 pages long. You might think nobody is going to read something like that, but they do. I had one young woman on the spectrum who read it and told me ‘Oh, this is so calming.’ That’s the goal.”
4. Fact sheets. “Visual guides are generic in nature while a fact sheet is specific to an event. Fact sheets should include anything and everything you might want to know about the performance; fog will be used in the show at such and such a point, there will be some foul language in the opening scene, here’s a photo of an actor who will be doing this in a particular scene. Anything that you can think of should go in the fact sheet, which should then be sent out with the visual guide as soon as possible after a ticket is purchased. It should be updated at least 48 hours before the performance.”
Marks continues, “Some patrons who aren’t living with a neurodevelopmental disorder might ask, ‘How can you give away the plot or how can you tell me what’s going to happen at this point…how do we keep the artistic integrity while giving away so much information?’ My short answer to that is that if somebody doesn’t want to read it, they don’t have to. They don’t have to click on a link to see that at this precise moment in the play, a cannon is going to go off and so forth. So, you can protect the artistic integrity with the main part of your audience because they’re not going to be interested in reading that anyway. It’s their choice. But by providing all the extra information, you are better serving your diverse audience.”
5. Accessibility packs. “These can include the program, character guides, social stories, maps, fidgets, coloring sheets, sunglasses and ear plugs. Coloring sheets, I think, are especially helpful but they should connect with the performance somehow. For example, pictures of musical instruments for an orchestral program. I really feel strongly that it should relate to the show because once a person’s anxiety or behavior de-escalates, they’re still connected to what’s happening on the stage and will be more inclined to go back into the theater. For fidgets, I prefer the silent ones. Fidget spinners are kind of loud. Most people who need them will come to a performance with sound dampening headphones, but it’s a good idea to have ear plugs on hand for those who might not and are taken aback by the level of sound in the theater. Ditto for sunglasses, just in case someone finds the stage lighting to be too bright.”
6. Washrooms. “Where are the washrooms? Are they accessible? Are they gender neutral? Gender neutral is huge. We’re seeing a lot of gender fluidity in the autism community. So, it’s important to say we have washrooms for men, we have washrooms for women and we have gender neutral washrooms, choose whichever you are comfortable in. Let patrons know if the washrooms have automatic flushes and be sure to provide paper towels for those who don’t want to use noisy hand dryers.”
7. Signage. “This is an overkill kind of audience, so an abundance of signage is needed. A patron should be able to quickly and easily find their way to the cloakroom, the washroom, the concession stands, the exits and so on, simply by following posted signs. Be sure to provide maps as well as they really make people comfortable.”
8. Sounds, lights and special effects. “Instead of ringing a bell or switching the lights off and on before a show opens or at the end of an intermission, consider having front-of-house people tell patrons it’s time to take their seats. If that’s not an option, make sure there is a notice in the fact sheet or visual guide, so patrons won’t be surprised by unexpected noise and flashing lights. State clearly that ‘There will be a loud bell. You might want to put your hands over your ears.’ This may seem weird, but by giving patrons permission in this way, they’ll feel more comfortable by not standing out in a crowd. Inside the theater, ensure patrons know if fog or strobe lights will be used and, if so, when. Remember too that some people might be taken by surprise if cast members move through the audience. Let patrons know in their fact sheet when and where this is going to happen. While some may not want to be touched, others with a special interest who have come to see a favorite artist might actually want to change their ticket to be sure they don’t miss the opportunity to get up close and personal.”
9. Quiet space. “It’s essential to set up a place for people to go when they are experiencing sensory overload. A separate room that’s not being used for anything else is ideal, especially if it’s near a washroom. Cover the windows and block out as much light as possible. You could just throw some blankets over a table and have a fort for kids. One venue set up a quiet space underneath a grand staircase. The idea is to establish a calming environment. Provide comfortable seating if possible. Have fidgets on hand. For some, the fear of missing out on the performance might be stronger than the sensual overload. For them, a two-step process might work. At first, they might want to just stand at the back of the house and continue to watch. If that’s still not enough, they can then move on to the designated quiet space.”
10. Touch tours. “I recommend a venue have touch tours a couple of times each year. It’s like a rehearsal for your patrons. Send a call out to all your patrons who have attended relaxed performances, signed up for your last performances or anyone you know who has expressed an interest and say, ‘Hey, come on in. Come and see our venue.’ It gives them a chance to figure out where everything is in advance. You can have sort of an open call or you can book times for people to come in and get the logistics part over with. It’s a really great way for the patrons to feel less anxious on the night of the show. It’s always great with a touch tour to have somebody there who they might see the night of the actual performance. Again, it’s that familiarity.”
11. Front-of-house house training. “Make sure your ushers and others understand why you’re doing a relaxed performance, what your goals are, who you’re trying to reach and who you are trying to help.”
12. Inform the performers. “Make sure performers are prepped for potential disruptions in the show and that they understand that engagement is going to look different than with a neuro-typical audience. It’s going to look really different and, if it’s a small show in the round, they could be thrown off by not getting back from the audience what they are used to receiving. That can be devasting for an artist if they aren’t prepared for it.
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Tags: Accessibility , Theater , Musicals , Venues