You’re sitting comfortably at the theatre. The show begins and you dig into your chocolate Minstrels. But some annoying person close to you starts moving around too much, making loud noises - and not at the right moment, either. It is extremely irritating. You frown, whisper something to your neighbour before leaning over to tell the offender to please be quiet.
Disapproving audience-members who shush for silence in hallowed theatre stalls are a key reason those with autism, and their families, get put off going. Amid an audience of hundreds, who under the cover of darkness might not realise that a noise is involuntary, or that an unconventional show of theatrical appreciation is coming from someone with a disability, people can be cruel. In 2011 front-of-house staff at a West End production of Wicked were accused of “outrageous discrimination” after a 12-year-old child with autism, Gregor Morris, was asked to leave the performance for making too much noise.
One solution is for theatres to host "relaxed performances". Designed for those with learning disabilities and other sensory and communication disorders, relaxed performances adapt productions to reduce potential anxiety, and throw away some of the dogmatic rules. Audience-members are free to eat and drink, use phones and iPads, and exit and re-enter the performance during the show – in other words behaviours frowned upon by your stereotypical buttoned-up theatre-goer and the ushers on the doors.
The theatrical adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted by Simon Stephens, is theatre-land’s biggest hit so far to schedule a “relaxed performance”, continuing a growing trend. It is a hugely appropriate choice as the play’s central character Christopher Boone has an unspecified behavioural condition which closely resembles Asperger’s Syndrome. The show’s plot and script will not be altered, with only strobe lighting and loud noises reduced in an effort to create a more “supportive atmosphere” in the auditorium.
According to Kirsty Hoyle, project manager of the Relaxed Performance Project, the autism-friendly performance creates “an added poignancy”. She says: “It brings to life the difficulties of these families [in the audience] as they get older. When you’re a teenager and you’re growing up, as Christopher is in Curious, it’s a little bit more difficult if you’re not like everyone else. Plays like this really do help.”
The National Theatre is one of the biggest arts organisations partaking in a pilot scheme for relaxed performances which involves ten theatres nationwide including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
“For the families, quite often it’s not only the first time they’ll have gone to the theatre together, it’s often the first time they’ve gone anywhere to a cultural event as a family,” Hoyle says.
“The performance becomes an informal social networking group for families - it’s not often you’ll be in a room with a lot of other people. When people are looking at you and you’re the only people in the theatre exhibiting this behaviour it can be bloody horrible to be honest.”
Susan Whiddington, director of Mousetrap Theatre Performances charity which helped to arrange the West End’s first ever relaxed performance, of Shrek: The Musical last May, says it was “the most special thing we’ve ever done.” After eight months of planning, she provided families with a “visual story”, a pack that includes photos of what an usher look like, and what to expect from the inside of the theatre . She also trained box office and front-of-house staff.
It is also necessary to train actors about what to expect: “A lot of the time when you’re working with people who have autism or learning difficulties their responses will be really vocal and they will be immediate,” Hoyle says.
“At these performances, often you’ll have an immediate response, which is brilliant, but if you’re an actor or a dancer or a singer it can be quite distracting. So one of the main things we talk about is to expect quite a lot of audience noise.”
Organisers say there is huge potential for further relaxed performances, possibly for music and orchestral concerts - and there is even scope for similar events for dementia sufferers. According to Jeremy Newton, chief executive of The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts, which funded the pilot to the tune of £20,000, there is also a commercial case to be made. “People are perfectly willing to pay for their tickets if they know that the performance will work for their children,” he says.
The relaxed performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the matinee on 22 June