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Guest Blog: Little Angel's Slavka Jovanovic on 'relaxed performances'

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In this guest blog, Little Angel Theatre’s education and participation manager, Slavka Jovanovic, looks at how Little Angel are developing their 'Access to Theatre' policy by presenting a 'relaxed performance' of their current production, The Ugly Duckling, a puppet play with music for all people over the age of 3.

It's currently running at Little Angel Theatre until 8 July. The relaxed performance takes place at 2pm 16 June.

At Little Angel we have always had an open doors policy and try to create a welcoming environment to all people who come through the doors – whether it’s to see our shows or to participate in a workshop. However, over the past two or three years we have been trying out ways of making specific shows more accessible for different types of audiences. For example, we introduced 'baby friendly' shows, where we welcome families with babies or toddlers (under the required lower age range of the show) to bring them along to share the experience with the older sibling.

'Relaxed performances' are similar but are for people of all ages. They are designed for those who benefit from a more relaxed atmosphere with regards to making noise, but tend to be experienced at attending the theatre. There are no chill-out rooms or pre-show visits, but people are welcome to come in and out of the auditorium or talk during the show, if they need to. Essentially it’s a bit like the quiet carriage on a train – but the opposite!

I know to some people this scenario might seem like hell but, as the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum, I can only tell you what a heavenly situation this offers. I have had many a dreadful experience where my boy has bolted from the auditorium because something has frightened him and we have been unable to return as the theatre policy is not to allow 'latecomers'. Or he has needed verbal reassurance from me because he is having an anxiety moment during a play and we have had to put up with the stares and tuts of the other audience members or the theatre staff who may have to uphold a 'no talking policy'.

Only last week did we have another bad experience. My son and I went to see an alternative cutting-edge theatre company called Race Horse. They were performing their show Petit Mal at a lively venue where the audience were obviously having a good time and clearly interacting with the spectacle and skill on stage. There was lots of clapping and whooping and general merriment. Whilst my son enjoyed the show, he also felt anxious at times, especially when 20 giant blow-up balls appeared on the stage for the performers to bounce on (my son has a phobia of balloons and of them popping). So he was chattering away nervously (in a low voice) and needing much reassurance. I was amazed that he didn’t run from his seat and out the door!

I was absolutely gob-smacked when a woman, two rows down, turned round and told us “sssh! Be quiet!”. It was awkward and embarrassing and confusing, especially since she had a kid on her lap and it was an interactive show. It made me so cross, and puzzled my son. We sat awkwardly though the last 20 minutes of the show, with me plotting what to say to her if she approached us at the end to tell us off (and worried that her 'Hulk' of a husband would flatten me). At the end they left rapidly and I breathed a sigh of relief. My son kept asking me what the problem had been.

So, there you have it – a typical family outing gone wrong. Okay, no one got hurt, but it makes us feel horrible. It’s difficult getting out in the first place (coping with public transport, walking to the theatre, the on-going fear of thunder that my son has), without having the additional hurdles of dealing with difficult audience members and dismissive staff.

This is why I think that there is a place for 'relaxed performances'. Some people might think it’s corralling a certain type of audience but for us it’s a blessed relief. At least you know that you will be surrounded by like-minded people. Those who love going to the theatre but find sitting still a challenge. Or need to go to the loo several times during the course of the act. Or need to whisper to their mums for a bit of reassurance. Or who rock back and forth when they are enjoying themselves. The funny thing that I find when I go to these performances is that the quirky behaviours that are presented when people are anxious sometimes subside when the theatre adopts a 'relaxed policy'. It means that parents and carers relax and then children relax, and we all breathe a big sigh of happiness.


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