Relaxed performances, sometimes referred to as sensory-friendly or autism-friendly performances, are designed to make the experience of visiting venues and seeing a show more comfortable and fulfilling for autistic people.
Relaxed performances can also be beneficial for those with mental health conditions, neurological conditions, chronic pain conditions, people with learning difficulties and very young children.
Traditional rules or etiquette that can exist in mainstream theatre can be difficult and stressful for certain people, so relaxed performances provide a safe space by removing these restrictions on a person’s behaviour. Putting on a relaxed performance/s will encourage attendance at the Fringe by previously neglected audiences.
Developing your show
Every show is different and so the number of adaptations you may need to make to qualify as a relaxed performance varies.
- Introducing the show is a fundamental part of a relaxed performance – audiences should know what is allowed, the rules of the house, or lack of in this instance, and should also know that the other audience members alongside them are aware of what is okay. Importantly that this is a safe, welcoming environment.
- Examples of what to include in the above could include it being okay if the audience makes noise or interacts with the cast.
- Before the performance begins, have cast members introduce themselves using both their real and character names, and provide a synopsis of the show. This can assist the audience to be more comfortable and remove elements of uncertainty, and benefit audience members for whom familiarity rather than surprise is key to an enjoyable experience.
- To also provide familiarity, make plot summaries, sometimes called visual stories, available in advance (download the Fringe social story to see an example). This could contain a cast list with character names, song lists, a description of what will happen from entering the venue to leaving when the show ends, and a list of sensory triggers (what sights, sounds and smells they may encounter). This could be handed out beforehand or be made available online and for download. Provide the Fringe Access Bookings Service and your venue box office with a copy to send to customers who book through them.
- It is advisable to have an open-door policy. If anyone in the audience needs to leave and come back, that’s fine. Audience members may need to walk around the performance space, or to play with fidget toys to help them concentrate. They may also be wearing ear defenders. These things all help them to focus and enjoy your show.
- Softening the sensory environment is also beneficial for many people. Consider removing or camouflaging excessively bright or strobe lights and colours, loud, sudden or sharp noises, and strong odours. Alternatively, house lights can be dimmed or left on instead of it being completely dark.
- Language and environment can also be taken literally; phrases like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ can be confusing. So be wary of any communication directed solely at the audience (like the interaction during a panto) as this can be taken literally.
- Relaxed performances often include a set-aside chill-out area or quite space at the venue. Although this may not always be possible at the Fringe with space restrictions, it would be welcomed by audiences if possible.
- Remember to register any relaxed performances when registering your show to ensure these are listed on the Fringe website.
Working with venues
- Communicate your plans to the venue early and fully, so the company and venue are both aware what is and isn’t possible. Venues should be aware what details are registered with the Fringe.
- Your venue will also be more directly involved in the process of staging a relaxed performance, so keeping them informed is especially important. Front of house staff should be aware there is a relaxed performance on, and what this means, for example allowing an open-door policy or early entry. Ensure that the venue is onside!
- Speak to your venue to confirm if venue staff will be available to assist with any audience access requirements. They may be able to assign extra staff for this purpose on the day. It is also beneficial if staff have undergone disability awareness training (such as the Fringe Society’s free online training).
- Staff should be asked not to wear scented products such as perfume or aftershave on these occasions, as strong smells can cause severe discomfort to some autistic people.
- The nature of the Fringe does mean that not all adaptations will be possible. Often there won’t be space for a chill-out area, or a small space might not have much room to move around. This is fine but makes the introduction all the more important – explain what is and isn’t possible within the confines of the venue.
- If no chill-out area can be dedicated, ask if the venue can provide another space nearby that could be used.
- As the Fringe is a busy environment, speak to the venue to arrange early access into the performance space to remove the need to queue. Audience members may also ask to sit at the end of an aisle to allow them to leave if they wish to. This can be confirmed with the audience at the point of purchase through the Fringe’s Access Bookings Service.
- For other sensory triggers around the area, speak to the venue about switching off fluorescent lights where possible around performance times. With regards to sound, ask if electric hand dryers can be turned off and be replaced with paper towels, and if loud music in public areas can be temporarily lowered. While this might not all be possible, whatever can be done will make a difference to your audience, and increase their enjoyment of your show.
Case study: Zoo Co
Zoo Co has toured with a ‘Relaxed Performance as Standard’ model since 2014, and passionately believe that when it comes to theatre, it’s only good if everybody is invited.