A conversation about relaxed performances with Accessible PuSh Coordinator Anika Vervecken.

Tiffany King and Niall McNeil photo by Andrew Alexander

Neworld: Perhaps we can start off with something simple like “What is a relaxed performance?”

Anika: If only that were simple! I guess the simplest way to describe a relaxed performance is that it is a performance slightly adapted to welcome as many people as possible who otherwise might not feel welcomed in a theatre setting.

Neworld: And can you speak a little bit about who relaxed performance may benefit, where a typical theatre performance may be a barrier for them?

Anika: There are a lot of factors that go into a relaxed performance and different aspects support different groups. But generally, a lot of the aspects were designed for people on the autism spectrum, people who have Tourette’s syndrome or neurological disorders, people who are special needs who may not be able to adhere to the normal “rules” of theatre, so to speak. People with anxiety who don’t feel comfortable sitting in the dark, people with ADHD, people with sensory sensitivities. In some cases, they’re also just great for kids, mothers with babies.

And personally, I know other people as well, people who really, truly like live performance. As Jess Thom, who performed at the festival last year said, she calls all her performances, “extra live” which basically means that every show is a relaxed performance. And I love that term because a relaxed performance is extra live because what happens in the audience could have an influence on what happens on the stage.

Neworld: What would you expect to experience if you went to a relaxed performance?

Anika: You can expect something before the actual relaxed performance. Which is that we create visual stories – one for the theatre and one for the show. A visual story is a bit of a guide in very straightforward simple language with a lot of pictures, describing the whole experience that anybody coming to see the show may experience, from the venue to a breakdown of the entire story. And the goal here is to support people on the autism spectrum because they highly benefit from knowing what is going to happen. They call this pre-loading. For a person with autism to know what is going to happen, it helps them deal with stuff. Simply having the visual story for the venue, that can make the difference for them to be able to come or not come. Otherwise the whole experience of a new route and a new place might already be too overwhelming and by the time they get into the theatre it might be too much to even watch the show.

Throughout the performances, the light and sound get taken down a little bit so it’s not as loud or as light. And during the show itself the main etiquette of theater is not expected to be observed. Rather, an open and permissive environment is encouraged. Also if people need to leave during the show, we create what we call a chill out space. And we put as much comfortable seating as we can, pillows, yoga mats, just a place people can come if the experience is too intense they can just leave and go to the chill out space. Ideally the chill out space has a screen with the show and the sound so they can keep following until they’re ready to go back in.

Neworld: Have you noticed a move toward more relaxed performances?

Anika: It’s definitely a brand, brand new thing around here. PuSh did it last year, Carousel Theatre has been doing it for about the same amount of time, specifically for children. It’s opening up people’s minds and the more conversations I have about it, people get interested but I think we’re still at a stage where on the artistic side, a lot of people just don’t know what it is yet.

So often we will do something that will only serve a relatively small group of people. From all the different things that we can do to help people gain access to performance, this is the most radical but it’s also the most inclusive. The group of people who are served by it is really, really large.

And we’re also trying to learn what is best practice and what is best practice here may not be the same as in the UK where it originated. And while we can learn a lot from the teachers from the British Council, we also need to be learning from our local communities and asking them, “What is helpful to you?” And that may be different. So we still have a lot of learning to do. But the reactions that we get from people are quite positive.

And I want to say the radical inclusion that Neworld is bringing is important. Because we can do relaxed performances for a ton of shows but to do it for a show like this is really meaningful. We talk about how to make shows accessible but we don’t talk enough about how to make the stage accessible and I really want to commend Neworld for doing that.

Accessible PuSh has more info on what to expect at the relaxed performance as well as a visual story for King Arthur’s Night.

Learn more about writer, performer and artist Jess Thom’s perspective on the creative potential of ‘extra live’ and relaxed performances on her website, touretteshero.com, and her Tedx Talk.

The British Council has a website about relaxed performance coming soon: accessactivators.ca