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Let’s all just relax: why relaxed arts offerings are on the rise

I got ‘shushed’ at a kids show this year. Yep, that happend. My neurodivergent son and I attended a children’s theatre performance, and he needed to quietly ask me a couple of questions to understand what was going on. The parent sitting in front of us was clearly not impressed and asked us to be quiet. We were no longer comfortable nor felt safe in that environment, so we left. 


I heard a story recently of an orchestra concert in a major venue where one audience member happened to make some involuntary noises during the performance and this led to a plethora of complaints from other audience members. Interestingly, nowhere in any part of the ticketing process did it mention that audience members attending must be quiet. 


For a long time now, there’s been an entrenched view that participating in arts events means shutting up, sitting still and following old traditions and etiquette. For some people, that means not being able to bring their whole selves to an event or being shut out of an event completely. However, this is not always how theatre and the arts has been consumed in the past. Shakespeare’s Globe was a forum for discussion and audience members engage and got involved, telling everyone what they thought of the show, including by throwing fruit! 


But the world is changing again, as are our needs as a society. 1 in 5 Australians have some form of disability and if arts organisations want to sell us tickets, they need to welcome us in and support our access requirements. 


Luckily, there are some companies who are doing exactly this - and we are starting to see an increase in relaxed performances and sessions. 


Who’s doing it well? 


In the music sphere, the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) has been delivering a Relaxed Concert Series since 2022. They prepare shortened versions of their usual concert program, talk with the audience and provide a Visual Story to let them know what’s going to happen - all within their beautiful, accessible concert space home at Pier 2/3  in Sydney. Audience members are welcome to move around the venue, use the quiet space next door, make noise, sit on cushions on the floor and just generally be themselves. ACO has built some strong partnerships with disability service providers to connect to an audience who are keen to engage in this content. The series is a regular part of their program offering and it's not focused purely on kids (often the case with Relaxed Performances) as there are many adults who need a relaxed performance environment as well. 


Image: ACO’s relaxed performance of “The Lark Ascending” (May 2024)


Some good things are happening in Tasmania too. Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast has run Sensory Sessions for the last few years, in partnership with local disability group Young Leaders Of Tasmania. Traditionally, Winter Feast can be a smorgasbord of sensory overload, with huge crowds, many vendors and stalls to navigate and lots of sounds, sights, tastes and smells.  Relaxed sessions provide a capped number of participants with the opportunity to enter the site an hour before standard opening time, so that people with disability and their families/friends can have a positive Winter Feast experience without the overwhelm. The demand for this service has increased and two sessions were offered this year, both of which reached capacity very quickly. These sessions were successfully paired with an accompanying Visual Story and a newly installed quiet space. 


Image: Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast Sensory Session (Jun 2024)


Image: Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast Quiet Space (Jun 2024) 


What’s happening internationally? 

In 2020, London’s Battersea Arts Centre launched itself as the world’s first fully relaxed venue, in a move to open up to more audiences and embed access and inclusivity across all activities. They developed their Relaxed Venue Method, working with local artists such as Jess Thom from Tourrettes Hero. This includes three guiding commitments:

  1. To create no new barriers

  2. To ensure equality of experience

  3. To reduce fuss


Companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company are experimenting with different types of relaxed offerings for all their shows, including:


Standard Relaxed Performances - where the ambience of the auditorium and theatre 'rules' are relaxed. The performance may also be adapted to support people's needs; for instance, loud noises and music might be turned down. These performances are ideal for anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed environment. 


Chilled Performances (or as I like to think of them, halfway to relaxed) - these take a more casual approach to noise and movement in the auditorium, but the performance itself is unchanged. This performance is ideal for people who feel more at ease knowing they can go in and out of the auditorium during the show. This performance is for everybody and babes in arms are welcome (not walking or requiring their own seat).


Individual artists, and many disabled artists, like Dan Daw are also embracing the relaxed approach. Every performance of his show “The Dan Daw Show” (which visited Australia in 2023) was relaxed, and audience members were invited to move around, leave and return, whatever they needed to do. There were embedded elements worked into the start of the performance, so everyone could understand what to expect, including the brightest lights and loudest sounds you’d experience as part of the show.


More artists and organisations are seeing the benefits of applying relaxed principles as an avenue to welcoming more audiences and members of the community who have historically been excluded. Even commercial companies, such as Diseny’s Beauty and the Beast are starting to create relaxed offerings, so I think they are here to stay.

 

What should a relaxed performance or session include? 


There’s no real ‘standard’ approach when it comes to organising a relaxed performance or session, it’s something that’s open to interpretation - so it's important that we clearly describe the offering so people know what to expect and whether something is going to work for them or not.


Typically, relaxed sessions can include:

  • A relaxed attitude to noise and movement

  • Information on the website, ticketing platform and a verbal introduction at the beginning of the show that the performance is relaxed

  • Appropriate choice of repertoire 

  • Performers engage with and speak to the audience 

  • House lights on low, doors left open (no lock outs)

  • Changes in the show to cater for different needs (e.g. toning down loud noises, lighting effects or specific movements)

  • A separate chill out space (which could be quiet, and/or a place to make noise or to ‘stim’) if people need some time out of the theatre

  • Any trigger warnings regarding the lyrics or synopsis

  • Bean bags, cushions and and soft furnishings 

  • Seating spread out (not a fully packed show, so people have room and space)

  • Ear defenders/muffs available

  • Bathroom hand dryers turned off and paper towel provided.


A relaxed offering might also include:

  • The opportunity to visit the venue beforehand, to familiarize yourself with the space

  • Visual Story or Virtual Tour of the space 

  • A spotify playlist to listen to the music in advance 

  • A Sonic Story (which includes information on sounds within a production, and may include a chart and/or warning of when it will get loud).

 

There’s a huge market of people, adults and kids alike, who need relaxed sessions to be able to engage in arts activities. Providing relaxed sessions doesn’t have to be hard or expensive, but it does take some thought and care. We’re not serving our community if we’re not providing options for how people can interact with our events. And as artists and arts organisations, surely we want to create connection and meaning with as many audience members as possible!


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