This week the West End production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory played its first ever Relaxed Performance.
The popular award-winning show directed by Sam Mendes, made special adaptations to enable children with additional needs to access the performance.
A Relaxed Performance, is particularly useful for those with autism, learning difficulties, sensory processing difficulties and communication difficulties to watch a show in a supportive environment.
At a Relaxed Performance, there will typically be changes to the sound and lighting both in the show and auditorium, visual social story guides for visiting the theatre and a simplified synopsis with signs or symbols.
Relaxed Performances are currently rare to find, but a growing movement in its attempts to make theatre accessible to all.
In December 2015, we went to a Relaxed Performance at The Bristol Hippodrome of their annual traditional pantomime which this year was Snow White.
One of the hardest things about leaving the house with a child on the autistic spectrum, is that to everyone else, they appear completely neurotypical. Or ‘normal’ as others might say.
But children with Autism can behave erratically and unpredictably and are often judged badly by others who expect them to be ‘better behaved’ at their age.
The tiniest of sounds that others may not notice can cause extreme distress. Sudden loud noises, busy areas with bright lights, inability to communicate effectively in the grip of sensory overload and many parents will know the trauma of The British Queuing System.
One of the best things about visiting this performance at The Bristol Hippdrome theatre, were the signs put up in various places to inform their patrons that this was a Relaxed Performance. A polite warning to the neurotypicals in the audience not to complain to front of house staff should the child in front be flapping their hands or having a ‘temper tantrum’ – meltdown.
During the performance, the house lights were kept on but dimmed down. There were adjustments to sound so the dramatic arrival of the baddie was not greeted with 1,000 children legging it to the exit. And when a child with additional needs ran onto the stage during one scene and then ran back off, the performers didn’t blink, save to keep a cautious eye out.
During the interval, there was a dedicated chill out space in the Grand Circle Bar, with bean bags and hand held sensory toys.
But with all the adjustments that were made, the best thing about the performance was the sanctity it provided from the judgement of others.
As a theatre, The Bristol Hippodrome have a wonderfully helpful Access department who help those who have a disability to visit the theatre. There are dedicated staff members, wheelchair lifts, an access platform for wheelchairs. There are hearing loops, performances with sign language interpreters and audio description. As a country, there is still a very long way to go to help those with Invisible Disabilities with access requirements, but these Relaxed Performances are a brilliant step in the right direction.