How to stop the panto becoming a place to avoid for autistic children

TES Professional

The Relaxed Performance Project is a proposal that aims to make theatre more accessible to children with special needs. Professor Andy Kempe, from the University of Reading, explains the benefits.

Although the new term has only just started, it won’t be long before teachers and parents start thinking about the annual trip to the pantomime. A uniquely British affair, the panto will be one of the few times that children and adults alike will experience live theatre. 

However, for families of children with disabilities, visiting the theatre can be a daunting prospect. With a lack of awareness of their child’s needs, as well as the risk of attracting unwanted attention from other audience members, the theatre becomes a place to avoid. 

Cue the Relaxed Performance Project. The project was instigated by the Society of London Theatre, the Theatrical Management Association and the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, and involves both regional playhouses and major companies such as the RSC.

The scheme features theatres, including amateur organisations, programming "autism-friendly" or "relaxed" performances. Major shows, including The Lion King and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, have been specially adapted in order to attract an audience that has hitherto felt excluded.

The performance itself doesn’t really change; instead, the audience is allowed to engage with the experience in a suitable way. People with sensory disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders may experience over- or under-sensitivity to sensory experiences. With their exuberant use of special effects and audience interaction, pantomimes present particular challenges to this.

However, Heather Wildsmith, who advises theatres on how to make suitable adjustments on behalf of the National Autistic Society, says that “a key aim of a relaxed performance is to make as few changes to the show as possible”. Instead, children and families can prepare for the visit through "visual stories" sent out in advance.

These include both words and photographs that will introduce the theatre, and the behaviour that is expected there. Visual stories can also introduce the characters and outline the action. They might mention any theatrical conventions, such as cross-dressing, that could otherwise be confusing.

Theatre staff are also trained to understand the diverse needs of the audience, including how to deal with incidents. Useful adjustments include providing a quiet breakout space with a monitor showing the stage, and offering a "touch tour" of the set with a member of the company.

Some aspects of the performance itself may be altered, such as the removal of strobe lighting and pyrotechnics, and lowering volume. The impact of audience engagement is assessed, and every child is given a green card that they can use to indicate whether or not they are willing to be spoken to.

Feedback from schools and families on the relaxed performance initiative has been overwhelmingly positive. One parent who visited Jack and the Beanstalk at the Corn Exchange in Newbury described it is “an incredible liberation”.

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