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How ‘Relaxed Performances’ Are Transforming Theater Experiences Across the Country

Jess Thom, who has Tourettes, works closely with the British Council to promote the idea of relaxed performances internationally. A number of major U.S. theaters have begun to offer these performances. (Photo by James Lyndsay, courtesy Jess Thom)

In 2011, a British theater-goer named Jess Thom was watching a performance at a London theater called the Tricycle. At intermission, Thom was approached by the theater manager, who asked her to leave her seat and spend the remainder of the performance in the soundbooth.

Thom has Tourettes, a neurological condition characterized by involuntary vocal and physical tics. Other audience members had complained that Thom’s tics, which include saying things like “biscuit” and “hedgehog” and thumping her chest, were disturbing the performance.

Thom spent the rest of the show sobbing in the soundbooth and decided she’d never set foot in a theater again.

Luckily, however, she didn’t keep that promise. Thom went on to found an advocacy organization called Touretteshero, and developed her own widely acclaimed theater show, “Backstage in Biscuit Land,” out of that humiliating experience.

She has also become one of the most persuasive and active voices in the movement for what are known as relaxed performances. Associated with the disability rights and inclusivity movements, these are theater performances designed to be welcoming for people who, like Thom, have different needs than a typical theatergoer.

At a relaxed performance, patrons are allowed and expected to move around, make noise, and leave and return as needed. House lights are dimmed, rather than fully turned off. Sound and light effects are fully disclosed to the audience beforehand, and in some cases, toned down. The lobby often contains a designated “quiet area” for patrons with sensory conditions like autism who need to take a break from the action on stage.

“It’s really a no judgment zone,” says Miranda Hoffner, assistant director of accessibility and guest services at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “I’ve heard some performers at the top of the show call it a ‘no shushing’ zone, which I think is a really nice way of thinking about it.”

Lincoln Center is one of several major U.S. theaters that have started offering relaxed performances in the past four years. Others in New York include the Roundabout Theatre and the Atlantic Theater Company, as well as the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and countless other smaller theaters. Other venues, like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., offer sensory-friendly performances, which are similar to relaxed performances but are designed specifically for people on the autism spectrum.

For many of these venues, their relaxed performances still make up a tiny percentage of their total performance offerings, and are usually part of a child- or family-friendly series. This is the case at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, for example. Those that offer relaxed adult performances may do so two or three times a year. The notable exception to this is the Roundabout, which offers one relaxed performance for each show in its regular season.

Many of these venues have been able to join the relaxed performance movement because of trainings offered by the British Council, the UK’s international organization for cultural relations, which got behind the idea after becoming aware of Thom’s work with Touretteshero. Hoffner herself attended a training held in Brooklyn in 2015, which she says was the first time she’d heard of the concept.

Because of these trainings, the Council — along with Thom and Touretteshero, with whom the organization works closely — has been instrumental in spreading relaxed performances throughout the 46 countries in which it works.

There are two critical elements of relaxed performances: the reduction or elimination of barriers for people with diverse needs, and the literal relaxing of social norms around what’s considered “appropriate” theater behavior.

The first element, the reduction or elimination of barriers, involves things typically associated with making a venue accessible. Wheelchair access, for example, is critical. Sign language interpreters, captioning, and assistive-listening devices are often available. Many venues also offer ear plugs or ear defenders (headphones that help mute external noises) and fidgets to help combat sensory overload for neurodiverse attendees.

Relaxed performances go further, however, by offering preparation tools for audience members to peruse before they set foot in the venue. One of these is a social narrative — a detailed description of what the experience of going to the performance will be like. This can help people with various needs and their families or caregivers plan for any potential obstacles, like physical barriers, stimuli, or emotional triggers, that could cause problems for them.

“Our social narratives will say, ‘This is what it’s going to look like when you arrive, here’s where you will go once you get inside,’” says Hoffner. “It’s going to start at this time, end at this time. And we include really, really specific visuals associated with each step of seeing the performance. As much as possible, we like to send video of the performance ahead of time so that people feel very well-prepared for it.”

Creating these social narratives can be time-intensive, especially the first time or two. However, the costs associated specifically with relaxed performances — creating the narratives and training staff to work with diverse populations, along with purchasing or replacing headphones, fidgets, and quiet area toys — are largely nominal, Hoffner says. The major costs that an institution would incur would generally be associated with getting the venue in compliance with the American Disabilities Act, which should be done regardless of whether the theater offers relaxed performances.

The second element of a relaxed performance — the relaxing of social norms around theater behavior — involves some more nuanced work on the part of both the venue and the performers. It’s really shifting the attitude that audience members bring to the auditorium, says Neil Webb, the British Council’s director of theater and dance. He also points out that this attitude is really just a product of the era we’re living in. “It’s only over the past century, generally, that the theater has become a much quieter, more uptight place with a lot of social norms. If you go back to Elizabethan times, for example, it was quite a bawdy place to be.”

People with Tourettes, autism, and other disabilities are far from the only people who can benefit from a more relaxed theater environment. Families with young children, elderly people, people who have trouble sitting still, those who suffer from dementia or other cognitive disorders, even people who are simply entering a theater for the first time — for these individuals, a relaxed performance can turn what could be a highly stressful experience into a much more enjoyable one. “Those social constructs are barriers for lots of people,” Webb says. “They can be barriers to class as well as disability. If you don’t know what the norm is, if you don’t know how to behave, it can feel quite exclusive.”

Facilitating this attitude shift means offering audience members as much explicit information about what a relaxed performance is as possible — both before they arrive at the venue, and once they’re in their seats. At Lincoln Center, relaxed performances are marked with an “RP” symbol both on the website and on all performance signage. “We have very specific language that we choose to make sure people are aware of what ‘relaxed performance’ means when they purchase a ticket,” Hoffner says.

While the relaxed performance movement has in general been embraced by many in both the arts and disability advocacy sectors, one criticism is that designating certain performances as “relaxed” can unintentionally segregate audiences. “My concern is that I don’t want us to get stuck where we are,” says Zoe Gross, director of operations of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a nonprofit run by and for people on the autism spectrum. “I think the relaxed performances are a great thing, but we don’t want to lean into that too hard and end up with, ‘These are the only performances you can go to if you’re autistic and you have accessibility needs.’”

Webb is familiar with that argument. “There is a danger to that, but I think, like with so many things, the biggest critics are often the ones who’ve never experienced [a relaxed performance].” Unintentional segregation of disabled people could happen if theaters don’t run their relaxed performance program well, he continues. “But it’s difficult to not do it well.”

This is partly because the very concept of relaxed performances is inclusive, rather than disability-specific. And that’s why it’s being embraced, Hoffner says. “Anyone who works in the arts really has to have a passion for what they do, and if you have that passion, I’d hope you’d want to share it with as many people as possible. Any time you design a performance that isn’t inclusive, you’re telling someone they’re not welcome … and unless we’re making art for everyone, we’re kind of making it for no one.”

Elizabeth Pandolfi is a freelance arts and culture journalist. She is the former arts editor of the Charleston City Paper, and her work has appeared in Art and Antiques magazine, Charleston magazine, WNC magazine, and other publications. 

Tags: arts and culture