RX theatre on taking a relaxed approach to performances

Attending a live theatre performance is an exciting and intense experience, but for those living with autism the assault on the senses can be overwhelming. The UK’s Royal Exchange Theatre isn’t the first to present ‘relaxed performances’, but it has taken the concept to a whole new level. Andrew Anderson meets Amanda Dalton to find out more

Any theatre is a busy and bustling place. As I walk up the stairs and along the corridors of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre (RX), people carrying costumes rush by, followed by security staff shouting into walkie-talkies, and actors chatting, laughing and running lines. It’s a pretty hectic and energetic scene.

Attending a theatre performance can be an equally intense experience, and for some, the bright lights are disorientating, sudden movements are surprising, and loud sounds unnerving. These assaults on the senses are exactly what many of us love about live performance – but for others, and especially those with autism, the cacophony is overwhelming.

Away from the hubbub in the corridors is the perfectly calm office of director of engagement, Amanda Dalton. Located in a silent area at the top of the building, it’s an appropriate space for someone who has just organised the RX’s first ever informal performance. ‘The idea of a relaxed performance is to provide a theatre experience for people who might have difficulties with a conventional show,’ explains Dalton.

The concept grew out of her work alongside children with autism. ‘Some children might have difficulty with sudden loud noises, or dislike the strong contrasts of light and dark. They might want to get up and move about, or need to make involuntary noises,’ she explains. Those with autism spectrum disorders could also have extra informational requirements, such as a need to know the basic storyline of the play, supported by detailed information about the theatre beforehand. This advanced preparation allays fears around being in a new environment.

The Ghost Train
The Ghost Train

While other theatres have already organised productions that meet these needs, Dalton believes a broader range of people might benefit from relaxed performances, and not just those with autism. ‘The idea quickly extended to being about people with a diversity of sensory and communicative disabilities, especially those people who really need something a bit more relaxed than the typical theatre environment. We didn’t want to present work just for children [and thus exclude adults] either.’ RX selected The Ghost Train, Arnold Ridley’s 1923 comic thriller restaged by Told By An Idiot. ‘The show appealed to us for this sort of project because Told By An Idiot’s director had done a relaxed performance before. We also felt it was suitable for all ages.’

It was no quick and easy task: preparations started some nine months before curtain up, with RX reaching out for guidance to groups like Manchester Camerata – who have also run similar projects before – as well as schools and companies in the region that assist people with autism. ‘During that time we put on a training event for all staff that were going to work on the show: we scheduled double the number of ushers compared to a normal performance, and all involved had an information-sharing session around awareness of autism and dementia.’

RX also prepared its materials in advance, including a visual guide to the building and a special programme that indicated important times using pictorial clock faces. ‘We made breakout areas filled with books and craft materials for people, in case they wanted to take a break during the show,’ says Dalton, ‘and we gave away a lot of free tickets because we wanted to encourage attendance by groups that wouldn’t normally come.’

It was an expensive endeavour, and although RX invested staff hours and other resources, it needed independent financial backing to make it work. Support came from The Duchy of Lancaster Benevolent Fund; Manchester Guardians Society Charitable Trust; The D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust; and Ordinary People, Interesting Lives. While RX doesn’t have precise figures yet for the cost of the show, it is considerably more expensive to put on than many standard performances.

‘We gave away 250 free tickets, we had extra staff for the show, we had to rehearse it, we had print and design costs, we had to pay a trainer, and we had 15 beanbags especially made,’ says Dalton. ‘We will always have to seek additional funding for a performance such as this, but it is something we’re committed to doing in the long term.’

For the show itself, Dalton says RX was fortunate because The Ghost Train needed very few adaptations. ‘There are gunshots in the play; one way around this was to have the actors say ‘bang’ instead,’ she laughs. ‘It’s a fun show, so it was completely fine to do that. We also changed some of the bits where there is sudden movement, and reduced the volume of the whole thing. The actual rerehearsal only took an afternoon.’

Read the full interview in issue Vol 11: Issue 12 of IAM here.