Tics in the Theatre

Hannah Simpson, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, has given a fascinating talk on relaxed performances, titled Tics in the Theatre: The Quiet Audience and the Neurodivergent Spectator. It’s available here as a podcast, and here as a full transcript. She has also discussed these ideas in a blog for the Association of Medical Humanities.

Enhancing relaxed performance: evaluating the Autism Arts Festival

Here is an Open Access (free to read and download) paper by me and Dr Shaun May from the University of Kent, discussing last year’s Autism Arts Festival in Canterbury: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13569783.2018.1468243

Easy to read abstract

This paper looks at relaxed performances, which are theatre performances where it is OK to talk or move around during the show. Relaxed performances are often enjoyed by people on the autistic spectrum. This is because the lights are less bright, the sound effects are quieter, there are more theatre staff to help, and you can read about the theatre and the show before you visit, so you feel more comfortable and relaxed.

This paper looks at the Autism Arts Festival, which was a two-day festival of theatre, films, comedy, and art where all the performances were relaxed. The people who ran the Festival wanted to make sure that people were comfortable before and during their visit – especially if they were autistic. To do this, they tried lots of new things, such as videos of the paths around the theatres, and free toys to fidget with. We found out that most people who visited the Festival thought it was friendly and welcoming. We also found that people used lots of different things to help them feel comfortable.

The people who made the shows told us that the Festival felt like an ‘autistic space’, which means a place where autistic people feel at home. They liked meeting other people on the autistic spectrum. They had interesting conversations about how autistic people and people who are not on the spectrum could work together and learn from each other.

The Future of Inclusive Theatre

This is a transcript of a Edinburgh Festival Fringe panel discussion held on Wednesday 23rd August 2017. The panellists were Ben Fletcher-Watson, Caroline Bowditch and Michael Richardson. Thanks to the Fringe, BSL interpreters Yvonne Waddell and Rachel Amey, and live-tweeters Maggi Laurie, Bérengère Digard and Shereen Sharaan. A Storify thread of the event is available here.

fringe ad

BEN FLETCHER-WATSON: Welcome everyone to this panel discussion entitled The Future of Inclusive Theatre. We really would like this to be a conversation so there will be time for a wider group discussion later. I’d like to welcome our panellists for today: Caroline Bowditch is an Australian born but now Glasgow-based performance artist and choreographer, who describes herself as ‘a performer, maker, teacher, speaker and mosquito buzzing in the ears of the arts industry in the UK and further afield’. Michael Richardson is a doctoral researcher at Heriot-Watt University, looking at d/Deaf audiences, d/Deaf artists and sign language interpretation. My name is Dr Ben Fletcher-Watson, and I work here at the University of Edinburgh, with research interests in theatre for young audiences, relaxed performance and neurodiversity in the arts. I’ll describe myself as it may be useful for people: I am a white man in my mid-thirties with brown hair and beard, and I’m wearing spectacles.


Our interpreters for today are Yvonne Waddell and Rachel Amey. Please join me in welcoming them to our discussion.

This event is relaxed, which means you can move around, come and go if you like, and generally relax. Leave your phone on if you like!

In fact, we encourage you to tweet your thoughts about the session – we have some volunteers live-tweeting so that people can participate digitally – using the hashtag #TFOIT.

We’ll start with our panellists introducing themselves and their work. Caroline, would you like to begin by describing yourself, and then tell us about you and your practice?


CAROLINE BOWDITCH: Sure. I’m a short wheelchair user with a blue bit at the front of my hair, and one side shaved – it’s a reverse mullet. That’s how I like to think about it sometimes – party one side, serious the other. The blue is all part of a costume for a show that we are here presenting at the Fringe this year, that is called Snigel and Friends.


I co-created it with Laura Hook, and it’s at Dance Base, and it is a show for under-1s, so for tiny weeny babies. It happens on a platform stage that is 20cm off the ground. It has four performers: I’m one; there is a live musician called Zac Scott who composed all of the music and put the sound composition together; and there are two other performers, one of whom is Welly O’Brien who may be known to some of you – anyone who has seen Candoco perform, or came to see Falling in Love with Frida, she also performed in that – she’s the beautiful blonde – and Welly plays Flutter, a butterfly (fairly unimaginative name but there we go); and we also have a bumblebee called Hachi, who is a freelance bee with hay fever, but he loves flowers so it’s very confusing, and that role is played by Alex McCabe.

The reason that we started to make children’s work is because it had become very evident to me that there was very little body diversity in the performers that were making work or performing in work for young audiences. Laura and I made this piece as a complete reaction and response to that. I’ve recently started to describe myself as a reactionary choreographer: I make work for a purpose.

So two years ago I presented a work at the Fringe called Falling in Love with Frida, which was about the life, loves and legacy of Frida Kahlo. I don’t know if anybody saw that. [Audience: Yes!] Yeah? Falling in Love with Frida was really my reclaiming of Frida Kahlo as a disabled artist. There are millions of people around the world that love Frida but very few of those people realise or know that she lived with disability for most of her life. So I wanted to reclaim her, and in making that work, it was the first time that I worked with embedding a BSL interpreter into the show. I did that for lots of reasons, and I’ve now made an ongoing commitment, for the rest of my making life, that whenever I make work that has text in it, I will have a BSL interpreter or BSL performer in the work. It is a promise that I make very publicly, because as an artist that receives funding from the government purse, I feel it’s my responsibility. I feel it’s a responsibility that every artist should have, but doesn’t. And I think there is a fair few feet up bottoms that needs to happen to remind artists that it’s a responsibility, actually. You are cutting out a large chunk of audience that would come and see work, but can’t access it or don’t, and I just think that’s wrong. In a way, I think lots of people don’t do it because a) they don’t know how to, b) they never budget for it so it becomes an add-on, a last-minute thing, and they’re like “Oh my God, it’s so expensive to have an interpreter!” – it’s like “Not if you budget for it, it’s not! Only if it’s a last-minute thought. Then it’s really expensive!” So it’s a regular question that I ask, or a point that I make when I work with organisations that are developing disability action plans and various other things: access doesn’t cost much if you plan for it from the start. It becomes very expensive when it becomes an add-on.


BFW: Thanks very much. Michael, could you describe yourself, and outline your work for us?


MICHAEL RICHARDSON: I’m a middle-aged man, about the same height as Ben, slightly older. To make sure I’m distinct from Ben, I’ve shaved and I have my contact lenses in, not my glasses on, and I’ve worn a pale blue shirt so that I match Caroline’s hair.


I’m doing a PhD, but I’ve mostly had a career as a theatre-maker. I’ve had a career that started in one place and gradually sort of morphed into something completely different, in a way that feels very natural to me, but actually sounds really weird. I started as an opera director, and until four or five years ago, I was running a lot of community theatre work, mostly with young people and other groups in the community. So along the way, I’ve worked in opera and musical theatre, I’ve worked with young people, I’ve worked with a lot of disabled groups, did a lot of work in Shropshire with performers with learning disabilities.

What brings me here is that when I was running youth theatre in West Lothian, which for those people who are not local is the bit of Scotland between here and Glasgow, Donaldson’s, the residential Deaf School, moved from Edinburgh to the area in which I was working. With that, d/Deaf young people started to come into workshops in my youth theatre, and those d/Deaf young people who had d/Deaf parents started to bring their parents to see shows. So I was immediately, along with my staff, challenged with how would we involve the d/Deaf young people when none of us used sign language, and also how would we make the shows accessible to d/Deaf people in the audience?

I sort of embarked on this series of experiments in different shows, starting off with the very traditional model, which is pushed by many mainstream theatres, of the interpreter off to the side of the performance, and then working in many different ways to integrate the interpreter, or having some cast members signing. As far as one musical that I worked on, we had the entire chorus signing as choreography – not within choreography, but instead of dance, they just signed all their lines – and all the main characters were simultaneously performed by two people, one signing and one singing.

Now, all of those approaches have their problems, and there were difficulties with them, and by the time I’d tried these five or six different ways of doing things, I realised that actually I didn’t know enough about what I was doing, I didn’t know enough about Deaf culture, I didn’t sign well enough. All of these things were inhibiting my own ability to explore this any further. And so I was already a Level 2 signer [so] I went on and did Level 3 BSL, did some work as a communication support worker, and I eventually came to Heriot Watt to do a PhD.

So why am I doing this? I think Caroline’s already said quite succinctly why there is a responsibility for theatre-makers to think about how the work they create is accessible for d/Deaf audiences, so the only thing I’ll add at the moment, is to say that when I talk about “d/Deaf”, that’s a very complex idea. My starting point is people who use sign language, and people who access theatre as choice through sign language rather than spoken language. But within that, the people who do that might actually have a whole range of levels of residual hearing and they may also have a whole range of communication options that hearing people generally don’t have. We talk – that’s it. But a lot of d/Deaf people use sign language, some of those people also speak, some people communicate in a combination, some people use a form of sign language that matches spoken language grammar – so there are lots of complexities underneath what I’m talking about. But in simplistic terms, what I’m looking at, and the people I’m working with, are people who choose to access theatre through sign language, even if they also have other language choices on top of that.

So I’ve done two bits of research: one bit is in the process of being published, and the results spread more widely, which was to do a project which used one sign language interpreted performance to trigger conversations about how well (or not) do sign language performances work. I’m speaking very specifically of those ones I mentioned earlier where the interpreter is off to the side, the interpreter’s booked at the last minute, there’s very little opportunity for real preparation, all that kind of stuff. I spoke to d/Deaf spectators. I spoke to hearing audience members. I spoke to the interpreter involved, and I spoke to a couple of members of staff. It was really clear that at every stage in the process of setting up these things, there are issues that need resolving. And the issues that need resolving are not particularly about what the interpreter does, but about all the things before and surrounding that event. So that’s the first bit of research I did.

More recently – and the results of this are not really available, because I’ve not really looked at them at all – about five weeks ago, I got a group of ten actors in a room, half sign language users, half hearing/speaking, and said, “OK, let’s create some accessible theatre. How do you think we’re going to do it?” I scaffolded a process in which a group of actors could work together to experiment with ways of creating accessible theatre, all from the stage. Again, that was really problematic as a process, and again, I think the results are going to be quite complicated, but also it was very interesting how different groups of people with different language choices and different understandings of how theatre naturally works for them can actually work to create something that is accessible. So those two strands of work are what I’m working on.


BFW: Thanks very much. For myself, I’m a researcher interested in neurodiverse arts. My research looks at the development of relaxed performance – which means a performance that is adapted to suit people who might want to move, talk, come and go or otherwise enjoy a show without sitting still and silent. A relaxed theatre performance has been described as ‘an environment where it is acceptable to move around, make noise, and behave in non-normative ways’. These environments make theatre and performance more accessible to people on the autism spectrum, people with learning disabilities, mental health conditions, neurological conditions, and chronic pain conditions as well as very young children. Typically, this might mean reducing the intensity of lighting and sound, providing visual stories to familiarise spectators with the venue and production, and having extra trained staff available to assist visitors.


You can now go to relaxed concerts, museums, art exhibitions, film screenings and even supermarkets. Since the first such event in 2009, relaxed performances – sometimes known as sensory-friendly or autism-friendly performances because they initially emerged as a specifically autistic phenomenon – now occur at theatres around the world.  The number of relaxed performances has risen sharply to more than 120 each year. There are 53 relaxed events at this year’s Fringe, for example.

In April, I worked at the Autism Arts Festival – an attempt to develop the idea of a relaxed performance further to create an entirely autism-friendly festival in Canterbury. It took place over two days, using a variety of spaces on the University of Kent campus. The whole Festival was programmed, performed and attended by a mixed group of neurodiverse and neurotypical people. I won’t talk about the shows – instead I’d like to focus on the new adaptations we tested out.

We tried to build on promising practice, drawn from relaxed performances as well as autistic-led conferences like Autreat and Autscape, so for example, fluorescent lights were turned off where possible. Electric hand-dryers in toilets were turned off and replaced with paper towels, and music in public spaces such as the campus shop was turned off.

All visitors were provided with disposable ear protectors in a free audience pack, and detailed information about potential triggers in each performance were given in the programme and on the website, so people could choose their shows to suit their sensory preferences – for example, some people want to avoid latex balloons, or feathers.

A range of videos were created showing how to walk between the various venues, and the journey from the train station. Finally, an aspect of sensory sensitivity often overlooked at relaxed performances is smell, to which many people on the spectrum are hypersensitive. At Autreat, scented products like perfume and aftershave are banned, and while this is not something the Festival demanded of audience members, staff were asked to avoid wearing these products. Finally, people could visit three chill-out spaces, containing sensory toys, colouring books, comfortable seating, Lego and other things to use when they wanted to ‘decompress’, either on their own or with others.

I mentioned the audience pack – this was given out at every performance, and contained coloured pencils, sticky notes, earplugs, a fidget toy, feedback cards and interaction badges marked Green, Yellow and Red. The packs cost us about £1.40 each, and were given away free. The Lincoln Center in New York has also started offering fidgets and headphones. I’ll talk in a bit more detail about two of these items, as they might be of interest.

audience pack

Autistic self-advocates have reported that using fidget toys, and ‘stimming’ more generally, has the effect of reducing anxiety. For many people with autism, the experience of stimming can be immensely pleasurable, with American autism rights activist Julia Bascom suggesting that ‘these [are] things autistic people are supposed to be ashamed of and stop doing? They are how we communicate our joy’. Despite this, the stimming behaviours of autistic people have been stigmatised and interventions like Applied Behaviour Analysis aim to eradicate them. As a result, the act of stimming is now politicised – the call for ‘quiet hands’ by advocates of ABA is condemned by the autistic community and the opposite, ‘loud hands’, is a key term in autistic self-advocacy.

A main aim of the festival was to create a space in which people felt they could stim – that this behaviour wasn’t just ‘tolerated’ but allowed and even celebrated. In one of the productions at the festival, The Misfit Analysis by Access All Areas, performer Cian Binchy openly revels in the joy of spinning a tin opener – an object that he often carries with him – and encourages the audience to share in the sensation by providing windmills, tin openers and other spinning things. This sense that people could stim without judgement, both within performances and outside them, has an importance that I really can’t overstate.

Coming now to the communication cards… Although ‘autistic sociality’ is sometimes presented as a contradictory (perhaps even oxymoronic) idea, it is in fact an ‘observable and widespread phenomenon in everyday life’. To better facilitate an autistic style of sociality, the organisers of Autreat developed a system of colour-coded interaction badges to clearly show your communication preferences. This is a quote:

Showing a green badge means that the person is actively seeking communication; they have trouble initiating conversations, but want to be approached by people who are interested in talking. Showing a yellow badge means that the person only wants to talk to people they recognize, not by strangers or people they only know from the Internet…Showing a red badge means that the person probably does not want to talk to anyone, or only wants to talk to a few people.

We used this same system at the Festival. As one writer suggests, ‘combined with the rule of not pressuring anyone to socialise and the knowledge that they are free to withdraw at any time, the badge system seems to make it easier for some to opt into activities and choose to interact’. Moreover, many autistic people report feeling more comfortable at such events where the rules for social interaction are explicit, and where they can indicate their communication preferences openly, without worrying that they seem impolite. The development of these elements at autistic-led conferences led, we could say, to the development of an ‘autistic space’ to be contrasted with a ‘Neurotypical Space’. Theatres are very neurotypical places, they’re full of unwritten rules about appropriate behaviour, so we had to work hard to challenge that.

I’ll talk more about these issues as we go on, but now I’d like to start the panel discussion by posing a few questions.

Caroline, you’re currently making work for young audiences, while Michael is working with d/Deaf adults. Relaxed performance has overwhelmingly focused on family audiences up to now, but more adult productions are starting to be presented as autism-friendly or relaxed. So, how are audiences we see at inclusive theatre changing? What do you think their expectations will be in the future?


CB: Yeah, I started to think about this – just hearing you talk about autism-friendly spaces, and I just started to think about, as an artist, what you’re expected to do at the Fringe. It’s all about the socialisation, it’s all about the networking – “we’ve got to network!” – and it’s all about the chat. How excluding that would be for anyone who didn’t want to do ‘the chat’. So that just struck me.

How is it changing? I think one of the things that we’re really aware of, or becoming more aware of, is our aging population. I think that accessible performance is going to become even more relevant in the coming years, because we know by 2050, 50% of the population is going to have some form of disability. But how many of those people actually consider themselves to have a disability is possibly a very different number. I think that things like audio described and captioned performance, which we haven’t touched on and aren’t necessarily going to, I think those two kinds of inclusive performances are going to become more and more relevant.

I wanted to ask you a question, because I see the words ‘relaxed performance’ thrown around, and just as the definition of ‘disability’ changes depending on who you ask, or ‘accessibility’ changes depending on who you ask, and the list of variations on d/Deaf and deafness changes, how do we define that? When we’re thinking about ‘inclusive performance’, who are we talking about, and what are we talking about when we talk about that? I think part of it is how we define it, and I think relaxed performance is one of those things where… are we still trying to find a one-size-fits-all scenario that makes sense to people? One of the things that we’ve talked about a lot in making this work for tiny babies is that every performance is relaxed, because their behaviour is completely uncontrollable! They do whatever they want, which is brilliant. It is about making sound and it is all of those things, but we did start thinking about how we could make the environment even more accessible and whether it could almost be to a tiny group – we never had more than forty people in an audience, so it’s all small audiences – but whether or not it would be useful to be able to offer people to come in in groups of four, or smaller groups. But then there’s questions about ‘is that too much’? If there’s four performers and four in the audience, is that then too much attention on what’s happening. So, I have lots of questions, and I question the definition more than anything else, I think.


BFW: I think that’s very fair. Within the audiences that I’ve spoken to, relaxed performance is only eight years old, and already there’s a backlash from the community who created it. This is anecdotal, but there are a number of autistic audience members who are saying “’Relaxed’ is too broad.” ‘Relaxed’ now means, in London especially, a mixture of parents and babies, people with dementia, people with profound and multiple learning difficulties. And there are clashes between the needs of some of those groups. Again, anecdotally, I’ve heard autistic people say, “We want to go back to ‘autism-friendly’ being a thing, and ‘relaxed’ being a separate thing, so we don’t go to relaxed performances any more.” We’re seeing a self-policing of those boundaries because the terms don’t mean anything. A relaxed show at the Fringe can literally be a show where they leave the lights on, and they call it ‘relaxed’ and it’s listed in the brochure as relaxed. But it can also mean shows that have thought long and hard, and budgeted for it, and done everything they can, so we’re in a muddy space right now.

But the direction we seem to be moving in is that the artists who are engaging are really engaging really deeply. And that work is the most interesting, the most brave, the most important for me.

Michael, from your perspective, audio description, captioning and BSL interpretation are all popping up more. How is that affecting audiences?


MR: It’s popping up more, yeah. I think there’s an interesting thing about deaf audiences, because one of the things about d/Deaf audiences is that they are very small. Anecdotally, they are smaller than expected. Essentially, when interpreted theatre started in the 80s, it was triggered by a tour of a show that had a deaf character in it. So it was very attractive to d/Deaf audiences and lots of d/Deaf people came. Part of the interpreting was interpreting the American Sign Language (as it was) into British Sign Language, and also into spoken English for the hearing people in the audience. So interpreted theatre had a kind of flying start, but then it was applied, and is applied now, in a very widespread way by mainstream proscenium arch theatres to all kinds of theatre which is not necessarily all that interesting to d/Deaf people. The feeling is – and this is amongst audience members, amongst hearing venue managers, also among d/Deaf theatre-makers – that the number of d/Deaf people who turn up on their own to these kinds of performances has diminished to a very low number.

The second thing to point out – and this is a really good initiative that’s growing quite rapidly in Scotland – is Deaf Theatre Club. I think it was launched at the Citz, but now is also in Edinburgh, and I saw shows advertised in Inverness. I think they’ve done something in Stirling.


CB: And Dundee.


MR: What this does is that it creates a kind of d/Deaf club that migrates to the theatre. So you might get 30 or 40 people. You also get hearing signing people front-of-house, so there’s then additional access provision in front-of-house areas. Then as a group, a relatively large d/Deaf audience goes into the auditorium and turns it into Deaf Space, which like Autistic Space, is Loud Hands, and people turn to each other in the middle of the show and say, “Did you catch that fingerspelling? What was that? I missed that.” Conversation happens, and it’s very natural within Deaf culture for that kind of side-communication to go on in a non-distracting way. But then that also has issues in a neurotypical, mainstream, hearing theatre. That’s an interesting development that’s really pushing up numbers, I think, in Scotland.


CB: I had a really interesting experience at Dundee Rep Theatre, where I used to work. Graeae came up with the Ian Dury show, Reasons to be Cheerful, and there was a group of older d/Deaf women that I met in the bar afterwards. I said, “How was it?” They said, “We have hardly ever been to the theatre before in all of our lives, because we came once, and the interpreter stood at the side of the stage, and we couldn’t follow what was happening. So we never imagined that we could come and watch theatre like everybody else does.” We had a man who’d come up from London to see Falling in Love with Frida, and afterwards he said to Yvonne, who is one of the performers and also our BSL interpreter, “This is the first time that I’ve ever been to the theatre in my 45 years and felt equal to everybody else in the space.” It was just like *gasp* – to give someone that experience is amazing. But also, how shit is it that he’s had to wait so long for that to happen?


MR: The other thing I was going to say is that this is how d/Deaf audiences are changing: there are these sparks of quality and genuine access, whether that’s about integrating or using a relatively narrow space, so even if the interpreter’s off to the side [they’re] still in the same visual frame, so you don’t have to be doing this [cranes head to the side]. These kinds of things do give more access, so then rightly, d/Deaf people have more expectations. There is a growing expectation among d/Deaf people that when hearing people say, “This is going to be accessible”, we mean it. Unfortunately, that’s not always true still.


BFW: I think that point about a community forming – Deaf Theatre Club as an example – and taking over spaces, that seems to have been the driver for change across inclusive arts in the last decade. It needs numbers. It needs a deliberate statement of intent to say, “We are here – now you need to cater to us.” There’s now much more adult work in autism-friendly performance than there used to be; it was 95% children’s and family theatre for a long time. And that’s because adults have had one experience that was good, and they’re then saying, “We want this other show to be made accessible” and theatres are scrambling to achieve it, but they are slowly getting there.

As I said, I’m seeing a shift in the number of relaxed performances for adults. I’ve done two surveys of relaxed work. In 2015, 92% of relaxed shows could be classed as family entertainment, including theatre for young audiences, pantomime and musicals. In 2017, the proportion of adult-focused work had increased from 8% to over 20%, and now includes new writing, Shakespeare and ballet.

Previously excluded audiences are seeing work in relaxed settings and then they want to see more. Relaxed work is a gateway for many, not the final destination. I’ve interviewed autistic adults who have developed their own ways of preparing for traditional unrelaxed performances (or uptight performances as some call them!) – they bring their own audience packs, they purchase two seats on the end of an aisle so they don’t have to sit right next to someone, they ask for, and increasingly receive, information in advance about the show and the venue.

It wasn’t a single trailblazer, a single person at a venue having a bright idea – the push has been led by the community, not by venues particularly, not by artists yet. The first autistic artists are starting to emerge. It’s come very much from people who say, “I want to be able to go to the theatre. Do you want to be able to go too? Let’s all go.” That’s pushed the change.


MR: I’m not sure how true that is in the d/Deaf community. I think it’s been more policy-driven from above, with funding allocated to theatre buildings to be diverse and accessible. So that’s one of the boxes to tick. I think there’s only a very small number of d/Deaf people, to my knowledge and in my experience, who are actually banging on their doors and saying, “Come on – let’s get this right.” Because most people are like, “Yeah, well, it’s not working, it hasn’t worked, we’re always disappointed and it’s quite expensive, so why bother?”


CB: Yeah, or the theatres say “We’ve done this, and no-one’s come.” When I first arrived at Dundee Rep, they said, “We do one interpreted performance per season of the work we make”, and they did it on the same night every time, and they were just like, “But no d/Deaf people come!” And it just happened that they always programmed it the same night as the Deaf Club happened. It was like, no wonder no-one’s coming – they’re all off drinking beer in a pub, mate! They’re not going to come to the theatre on the same night. Like, be logical! But they hadn’t made that connection with the d/Deaf community at that stage to even think about, “What are the shows that you want to see? Let’s look at the programme. Let’s sit together and see what are the shows that you might want to see. When are good times for that to happen?”


MR: There’s a real sense, especially with touring shows into main touring houses, that the entire provision for d/Deaf people comes in a black box: plug it in, and the people who are in that black box will make it work, even though they’ve got no resources whatsoever, no time, almost no money, and then when it’s over, take it out of the socket and that’s it, thank you very much. There’s not really an awareness of the complexity of the interpreter’s role, the complexity of making the translation, irrespective of the complexity for the theatre company who then have to work around that. It’s an area that’s not widely understood.


CR: I wanted to pick up on this sense of community, because I think as a wheelchair user, one of the really interesting things that happens for me is that I work a lot with a group of young disabled people, and I often think it would be great if we all went to see a dance show, because that’s what I do with them. But actually in most theatres, there can’t be more than four wheelchair users in the building because fire regulations say we’re all a fire hazard. I might spontaneously combust at any point! So this sense of how accessible things are, and this sense of community, is really interesting depending on what your access needs are.


BFW: Technology obviously plays a key role in the theatre, and is only going to play a more central role as things develop. In what ways do you see new technology empowering artists specifically?


MR: I’m not a d/Deaf actor, obviously, so I hesitate to speak for d/Deaf actors, but my instinct is: not at all. What will empower a d/Deaf artist is when a d/Deaf venue manager books that person to perform in their own language and provides interpreting into English for the hearing people in the audience. There is not a piece of technology that will do anything better than that for empowering d/Deaf actors. Full stop.

If or before we achieve that, and interpreting is still the method used for all accessibility, then there are issues at the moment for some hearing audience members about distraction. A lot of performers get really stressed, actually, about the presence of the interpreter. Obviously, for d/Deaf spectators who are looking at two things, there are issues there that could be solved with technology. So just as you can now get captions on iPads and tablets, there is the potential for Augmented Reality in which you wear your Google Glass headset or whatever, and the interpreter is in the screen and then you see that in front of the performance. There is not a real interpreter onstage anywhere. The interpreter’s still live, but beamed into your headset. You can then position the interpreter where you want her, rather than the situation at the moment where the real person is there. So there’s potential there. The technology’s almost there for that, but whether it will be sidelined into theatre, I don’t know.


CR: That just makes me want to go, “Can hearing people not just get over themselves?” [applause] Anyway, maybe that’s just too hardcore, but it’s just like, what is that about?! That technology is amazing, and if that works, it’s brilliant, but more and more, I start to think about how including access, building access in, can be a really exciting creative opportunity. I really feel that artists are missing out on that, and I really feel like audiences are missing out on that. We don’t offer Frida without the interpreter. So every performance is interpreted. It’s not like, “Come to that one on Thursday at 2 o’clock because that one’s going to be interpreted.” We have never ever, in all of the performances that we’ve had, had anyone say to us, “You know what? That was really distracting.” Because she’s in the performance and she is a performer! It’s not about having to make a choice, or having something over there that might be in your peripheral vision.


MR: But to be a bit theoretical about that as well, we’re all in this space now – if somebody walked in through that door, most people in this room would go, [turns] “Oh, what’s that?” That’s what happens when the interpreter’s outside the proscenium arch in a separate light, doing their own thing. But there’s something called inattentional blindness – when you look at anything, say onstage or in a film, you decide what you think that means by making your own decisions about which things to look at, and you don’t see after a while the things you’re not interested in. I know that sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but there’s a clip on YouTube… I’m going to tell you what happens, now I’ll ruin it for you! It’s a basketball game, and half the people are wearing white, the other half are wearing black. You are asked to count how many times the people in white pass the ball. And at the end, it says, “did you see the gorilla?” And because the gorilla’s in black and you’re not paying attention to any of the people in black, you miss it! And you watch it again, and a gorilla just walks through the game! It’s that idea – if you don’t need it, you won’t see it. You’ll just pick up meaning from the things you want. And here’s a really good, concrete example of that from interpreting: I did a children’s pantomime where the average age of the cast was about 11. There were more people aged 8 to 11 than in the older teenage range. I had one interpreter onstage – he was about 40 at the time, quite a big guy, really noticeable onstage! And his parents came, and they said to him, “why didn’t you do the second half?” He was there the whole time! But they were like, ‘we’re not actually interested in what you’re doing, we want to watch the story’. They completely blanked him out.


BFW: We did quite a bit of survey follow-up with our spectators and artists at the festival, and one of the more surprising findings for me was that almost half of the audience – 48% – suggested that if it had been live-streamed, they would have preferred that. Perhaps they didn’t want to come to the venues themselves – a specifically autistic space where we had made as many accommodations as we could. Above and beyond that, nearly two-thirds said that the thing they really wanted was an online community where they could discuss shows afterwards. A lot of them had travelled a long way to come to this first event of its kind; they weren’t able to hang around to talk with other people, but there was a sense that there was a discussion to be had, and no such space exists to facilitate that at the moment. Earlier research from 2012 suggests that autistic adults have the same level of interest in creative arts as neurotypicals, and so maybe mobile technology like chatrooms and live-chat offers a way to facilitate this that’s familiar and everyday. We can begin to offer time to reflect, time to process what’s happened to you, and then an opportunity to come together in a virtual space with the people who were there in that same room as you, to have the discussions that neurotypical people take for granted in the bar afterwards. There’s no comparable social space for people with autism at the moment, and I think that’s a simple, familiar technology that we can adapt readily to promote not just access to the arts but also the ability to critique art, to maintain your interests and to develop your interests. You can talk with the company and the artists as well. You can bring all of those things together in a really enriching way that can also work for neurotypical people. So for me, there’s a sense that those technologies exist and there’s a desire for it – can we bring those two things together to create those spaces?


MR: I think that’s key when you said “they would also work for neurotypical people”. We’re not talking about things that are going to diminish the experience of everybody else. We’re talking about things that actually potentially will enhance that experience. A really good, free-flowing sign language interpreter onstage is absolutely captivating.


BFW: So one last question, and then we’ll open this up for wider discussion: inclusive theatre has changed a lot in the last ten years. There are new companies, there are new networks, there are new models and ways of doing it. Down in England, Ramps on the Moon aims to open up opportunities for disabled artists and drive cultural change. In Scotland, the Creative Thinking Network and Scottish Dance Theatre are advocates for professional equality. What happens next? How do we embed these principles in the wider culture?


CB: Can I just pick up on the Scottish Dance Theatre thing? So I was Dance Agent for Change at Scottish Dance Theatre for four years from 2008 to 2012. Throughout that process, I was part of the Creative Learning Team, I performed onstage, I choreographed, blah blah blah. And really significant change happened. And then they got a new artistic director who came in and didn’t have the same passion as the original artistic director when I’d had that role. So I left, the original artistic director left, and out of the 22 staff that were there when I was there, 20 of them left. So all of that wisdom and knowledge that had happened when I was in the building left, like blew away, went somewhere else. It’s really interesting because it showed me how not embedded it was. It’s in the policies and practices and procedures within Dundee Rep Theatre and Scottish Dance Theatre, but how they implement it is very sporadic. I think the importance of embedding is absolutely massive.


MR: How do you do that? Because there’s exactly the same issue for access for d/Deaf people.


CB: So much of it becomes about the personality or the ally or the champion within an organisation. Arts Council England has adopted the Agent for Change model, which there were lots of in the Ramps on the Moon project, and it’s now happening all over England, which is brilliant. But it started here in Scotland – we just need to reinforce that. Birds of Paradise had the first one with Robert Softley Gale, who’s now their artistic director, and then SDT had me, and then the Arts Council discovered that it was a great idea. It’s a great model, but so much of it relies on people thinking it’s great and buying into it. So I don’t know how we embed it more than that, because I felt that we had in Dundee, but now all of those people that were there are a bit like a dandelion clock – so now I feel like those people are now being blown to different organisations and are making their own work and are making it accessible because they had that experience, but they’re not with that organisation where it started.


BFW: So we’re creating those allies and champions, then they’re dispersing, but hopefully they can seed new allies and champions. This afternoon, I went to see Not I, Jess Thom’s new show. She talks at the end about the importance of reclaiming the classics, of identifying Mouth, the main character in Beckett’s Not I, as a disabled character. Three months ago, Mat Fraser played Richard III for Northern Broadsides, a rare instance of a disabled actor playing that part. The first autistic actor will play Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time in September in New York. There’s that idea of visibility – ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. We’re finally seeing a wider diversity of actors across the board. There’s a creeping sense that those roles are beginning to open up in the classics and modern classics. In terms of that visibility and representation, we’re in the foothills – how do you think that’s going to develop?


MR: I think it’s a really problematic question, because the classics are not particularly part of Deaf culture. They are hearing classics. Whilst hearing directors are very blasé about employing hearing people to play d/Deaf characters, it’s pretty hard for a fully deaf, non-speaking person to play a hearing character, unless it’s accepted that you’re turning the whole thing into sign language. That’s a massive mind-shift for directors. I have no solution to that, personally. It comes back to recognising that d/Deaf actors have something to offer. So they should be asked what they’ve got to offer, and then work with that, rather than always saying, “This is what we do. You want to be involved? OK, we’re going to try to shoehorn you into that however we can.” And then they fail, and they’re disappointed, and d/Deaf audiences come because there’s a d/Deaf actor there, but they are also disappointed – you just go round in this perpetual cycle.

There’s a show on in the Fringe that I haven’t seen but have been told about, in which snippets of sign language, like individual signs, are woven into some dance moves. So they’re not quite the original signs. They’re also not structured grammatically to create sentences. It’s a dance show. It has opera with text, it has some spoken English and it’s advertised as a show that’s accessible to d/Deaf people in every performance. One out of the three performers is d/Deaf. And it’s not accessible at all. I’ve heard about it from three or four people now, and the first thing it made me think of was the National Theatre of the Deaf in the States, who were doing exactly the same thing with sign language in 1967. It just goes round in cycles. People go, “oh, that’s not good enough. Leave it.” It lost its funding. It just does children’s shows, then something else pops up and they start from the beginning again. There’s no sense of amassing knowledge and creating a bedrock of good practice that people can build on. It’s always going right back to the beginning.

That’s complicated in the d/Deaf community because 90% of d/Deaf people are born to hearing parents. So they’re not born into Deaf culture; they’re not necessarily born into a family where sign language is a first language. So as individuals, lots of d/Deaf people are learning from scratch how to be part of Deaf culture, if that’s their choice.


CB: Garry Robson is the co-artistic director of Birds of Paradise and he recently talked on a panel about the importance of young disabled and d/Deaf people knowing their cultural heritage. I think it’s a really fascinating thing, because how are we telling those stories? How are we telling the stories of historically known disabled people? Or aren’t we? I think it’s problematic. People often wonder why inclusive dance is seemingly more successful than inclusive theatre, and a lot of that is because we’re making it up on the spot. I’m not trying to remake Swan Lake with a mixed cast of people. I am making for the bodies that are in the room with me. David Greig has this beautiful saying: he makes work for the troupe. So he doesn’t give his characters descriptions, he just gives them a name. He doesn’t say what they have to look like, how old they are, how tall they are. He just gives them a name and then he writes the play. So we need to start making for the troupe. But we also need to tell the historical stories, the classics that are relevant for our community, for us as a community. Some of the remaking of the classics is, in a way, to find acceptance maybe. I guess I’m less interested in being accepted and more interested in just making interesting work that challenges mainstream thinking about things.


BFW: That’s an excellent point to open this up and to take wider questions, thoughts, opinions, ideas.


QUESTION: I just really wanted to bring something to people’s thoughts. In this Fringe, there’s nothing for deaf-blind people. I’ve got a friend who was deaf, and through Usher syndrome, she’s now deaf-blind. She used to be involved and go to a lot of shows that were interpreted into BSL, and there’s nothing for her now – there’s not one show that offers access. It’s like they’ve been forgotten about, deaf-blind people. It is a very small group but I just think there should be more provision there.


MR: You’re right – nothing is being done, to my knowledge. I don’t know what the solution is. I think if she’s up for it – and I imagine she is – that actually she would be the perfect person to go into a theatre and say, “Right, the box that I’m in isn’t on your list. I’m going to tell you what I need.” Part of the problem with other aspects of access provision is that people have created a model, or a model has developed which is very specific to all kinds of circumstances, but doesn’t necessarily work for all the people it’s aimed at. It’s a really good opportunity for someone to design a service that genuinely works for the people it’s meant to work for. Whether there would be someone in a theatre who is enough of an ally, I don’t know. Certainly the person that Ben and I have worked with the most in a theatre in both of our research has gone. So that’s an ally who’s lost for a while. But maybe her successor would be up for it.


CB: We have an ambition, because Yvonne Strain is our gorgeous interpreter in Falling in Love with Frida, we have been talking about doing a deaf-blind performance. It would obviously be for a very small audience, but there’s definitely an ambition to do that. We don’t know how that would work, but our ambition is to have time in a studio with that particular audience to kind of work out how it would work. How do we do this? That’s the other really interesting thing that fascinates me. Laura’s had some ideas and Yvonne’s got some ideas, and so we just need to get into a studio with people who would come to that as a show to work through it with us. We did have a lovely moment when we were touring Falling in Love with Frida in Australia, and Yvonne in her brilliance somehow managed to find a group of d/Deaf people, two of whom were deaf-blind, on the street in Parramatta just outside of Sydney. It’s not a very big community at all, but Yvonne found these d/Deaf people and started talking to them, and because she’s experienced in working with people who are deaf-blind, she was able to communicate with them. And they were just like, “How often do you meet someone on the street who can just communicate with you?!” So they came to the show – two people that were d/Deaf and one person that was deaf-blind. So one person who was d/Deaf was watching Yvonne, and then interpreting for the person that was deaf-blind sitting beside her. For us as performers watching this, it was just like stop watching us and just watch them, but then realising that if we stopped, that would stop! But it was the most extraordinarily beautiful thing to see this woman interpreting our choreography for this person through her movement. It was absolutely extraordinary. We did a touch tour with them beforehand, so they obviously had access to the props. We gave them a rundown of what was going to happen in the show.

But the thing that we’re finding more and more is that people come in with these seemingly unreasonable requests about what they need to be able to watch or be part of a show, and we just kind of go, “Yep. All right.” The venue comes in and goes, “someone needs a special chair to sit on. Where would you like them to go?” and Laura goes, “they’re all movable seats, they’re sitting on carpets so they can sit wherever they want.” And the theatre venue’s like, “What? Oh, OK, right, good.” For Falling in Love with Frida two years ago, a woman said, “I really want to come, but I need to be able to lie down.” I said, “that’s all right – Dance Base has got a couch, so I’ll just arrange for it to be put in the studio so you can come and lie down, move around, do whatever you want.”

The really sad thing for me is that it’s often disabled performers that have the flexibility that other people don’t. I also feel that there is an expectation that I know what to do – I should know how to make performance accessible because I have access requirements. It’s like, I don’t know that, and I’ll be the first one to admit it and go, “I don’t know how to do this, but I’m really open to bringing people in who can teach me how to do it.”

In the making of the baby show, we had a Baby Board. So every week we had a group of babies with their grownups who came and helped us form the show. I’d never made work for babies before. I’d never made work for children before. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had it as an ambition. So what’s the best thing to do? It’s to bring in people who know stuff. And that might be a one-year-old who’s gonna go, “I’m bored now – I’m off!” It’s brilliant. It made sense to me. But it’s not rocket science. How are you supposed to know it if you’ve never done it before? I think there’s massive expectations on us to have the answers when we don’t need to. We just need to be open.


BFW: I think that’s a really good point. The feedback we had from the artists who performed at the Autism Arts Festival was that in future years they would absolutely need support to be able to provide the level of information that we were requesting to give to the autistic audience members. They had to provide quite detailed information on the sensory triggers; we needed a synopsis of each show; we needed, where possible, character descriptions or photographs. The autistic artists came back and said, “You are expecting too much of us as artists who are often emerging, haven’t made much work before, are making very very personal work, and premiering work at this Festival. We can’t do all of this as well! We don’t make this as standard.” Some of them said, “You’ve got this audience pack. We want an artists’ pack. When we come in, we want a Green Room that’s autism-friendly.” The thought did not occur to us, as a mixed group of neurotypical and neurodiverse people together. We just, as you say, passed it on: “The artists can deal with it – that’s fine!” There is a sense that those things have to be co-created, by talking to each other, by having people in the room, and by ensuring that those discussions can happen, and you identify those things in advance, rather than assuming “you’ll know. Everything will be fine.”


MR: I think they can be more easily led by smaller, more agile companies in more flexible spaces. A lot of the discussions we had in my interpreted theatre work were about access in big proscenium arch buildings, where everything’s driven by the number of seats, and the structure of the building just fixes so many things. Within that, there isn’t a lot of flexibility. I think the drive’s got to come from elsewhere.


CB: That small, agile sense of being an independent artist makes me able to go, “yep, that’s OK.” We’re making the decisions, so actually we don’t have to check with 700 other people up the chain. We just go, “yes, that will work, we will do that.”


MR: But this also creates the problem of maintaining momentum, because the buildings attract funding. Nobody wants to condemn a Victorian theatre. But small-scale, little, agile groups get project funding or very short term funding and then fizzle out, often.


QUESTION: Going back to people with autism, I’m here with an aerial circus theatre show which has been created with an audio soundtrack for visually impaired audience members. We also have a workshop element after the show where people can come and get in the air and do basic aerial stuff, which is open to wheelchair users, and anyone who wants to do it, really. The location we’re in now is some nice gardens and it’s quite a quiet street, but the first performance we did was in the middle of Birmingham, thousands of people around, and that’s obviously very challenging for people with autism. I’m thinking now, the obvious course of action is to speak to people who have autism, basically! [laughs] I just wonder if there’s anything that springs to mind for you about how can you make a performance happening in a massive inner-city street less daunting?


BFW: The first response, obviously, is to talk to autistic people about what they want and how that would work for them. I think we’ve already seen the really massive West End theatres successfully take on relaxed performance, where they have audiences who come back and back and back, saying “What’s the next relaxed performance going to be? We want to come.” If you can turn a space as complex, as unfriendly, as inaccessible, as uncomfortable as the Duke of York’s into a space that people want to go back to and want to see something else in, you can absolutely do that in the street. But the requirements are going to be different. The best, simplest, quickest way of addressing that is to find people who are interested, who would want to see that work, and ask them to help you do that. The practice of Baby Boards, like the Youth Advisory Boards at some US theatres and at Imaginate, shows that if you’re catering to a specific audience, those people need to be represented at a high level – at a programming level, perhaps. If you can achieve that, the other things will begin to fall into place, because they will help you to identify the need to put in funding lines for a specific access requirement, or whatever is the case.


CB: I would go further than talking to people. I would put a call-out for anyone on the spectrum that might be interested in learning aerial skills. Start from there: as an exchange, I’ll teach you some aerial skills in a way that works for you, if you can tell us how we can make our performances more welcoming and accessible to you. Otherwise, it can become a bit tokenistic.


QUESTION: Can I ask about audiences that may not have their own powers of advocacy, specifically profound and multiply disabled audiences? The future of inclusive theatre, from my work and research, means we must begin to think not just about opening up access in terms of relaxed performance, but actually opening up access in terms of cultural initiation for people who have no idea what theatre is and how that feels. And broadening out sensory theatre, which is already magnificently well-performed, into something that has emotional engagement and narrative, which is quite often what makes the hairs on the back of our neck stand up. And all done with care and thought and a lot of research and a high degree of skill, the best performers, the best spaces. How on earth are we going to make sure that in future generations, that form of developing theatre continues? Because there are some of us who have been working at it for a long, long time and it’s still an uphill battle. With Frozen Light, those actors feel a huge weight of responsibility on their shoulders. We need to really work at this area of accessible theatre and I just wondered what your views and thoughts were on that.


MR: It’s one of those topsy-turvy funding worlds, isn’t it? All the funding goes to the stuff that’s actually relatively easy to do. That reflects a bigger issue in society about how we view different groups of people and how we treat them. It’s a hugely political issue, and it’s about power, and the people who have power maintaining power, not being willing to empower others, because that means giving up their power.


CB: I think there’s massive issues around the next generation of all sorts of artists. My response or thought is that inclusive and accessible theatre needs to be a compulsory unit that every person who undertakes a theatre degree needs to do. [applause] We don’t have many/any disabled academics involved in teaching, so people never get exposed to that, ever, unless it’s a little niche that they get invited into at some point in their career. I have a whole issue with training institutions for a whole range of reasons, but I do feel that a component of every performer’s training should be about inclusive theatre. But I also think teachers should have a compulsory unit about how to each kids with various needs as well, which I don’t believe they get as much as they need either, so there’s massive holes in the system. Some of it could be nipped in the bud if those kinds of things were infiltrated earlier on.


QUESTION: In terms of relaxed performances, is it enough just to lower lights and sound, or are there other really simple things that can be done? It feels like they are the relaxed performances that I’ve mostly witnessed, but I don’t know if there are other things that I can pass on to everyone I know?


BFW: There is increasingly a checklist that people are using. There are a couple of books on it and a few academic articles. The risk is that people tick those boxes and assume they’ve done it, when actually it’s the bare minimum. In the UK, people often go to the National Autistic Society; in the US, there are specific organisations on Broadway and in other places; and that’s where they stop. The idea of a developing practice hasn’t really taken root beyond a couple of small, agile companies who are pushing that work. Again, I strongly recommend seeing Not I – the most thoughtfully relaxed and accessible performance I can imagine. Everything is there, everything is offered.

The key aspect for me is offering information in advance. It’s absolutely fine just to keep the lights on and tone down the SFX, as long as you say beforehand that that’s what you’re doing, and that’s what you mean by ‘relaxed’. I went to some relaxed Fringe shows a couple of years ago that were not relaxed by any metric, and I felt I had to go up to the companies and say, “Don’t ever say that this is a relaxed performance, because it’s completely inappropriate.” The risk is that you have somebody who’s heard of these relaxed things, decided they want to go to one, has a terrible experience because it’s completely inappropriate, and they will never go again. But if they had picked another relaxed show the next day in a different venue, they could have had a fabulous time. It’s all about information in advance though, about being clear and honest. It’s fine if your company can’t afford £1.40 audience packs, or extra trained ushers, or video trailers – there are always small accommodations that can be made as long as people can prepare themselves in advance for them. We developed these packs because we spoke to people who said, “Whenever I go to the theatre, I take my pack: it’s got food and my squeeze toy and so on”, a list of things that suited them. That was the ‘armour’ that they needed to put on to be able to go to the theatre. You as the company don’t have to tick all those boxes, but you do need to make clear online and in your print material what you’re going to offer, so people can bring their own packs or prepare in their own way.


QUESTION: I’ve come to Edinburgh, or the UK, for the whole year to look at accessibility. One of the things I’m really actually amazed about accessibility here is there’s no consultation whatsoever. For example, I was expected to have the app on my phone. Why should I download the app onto my phone and hold it the whole time? How is that accessible for us d/Deaf people? So what does that mean for all of us d/Deaf and disabled people coming to the Fringe? When do we actually say this is not appropriate for our d/Deaf family?


CB: I think that idea of holding your phone is one that’s been tried and discarded by companies here. I don’t think it’s accessible and I don’t think it’s acceptable. The Fringe Society has a particular access model – there’s a number you can ring for accessible tickets, for example, and they train lots of people, so there is a place to feed back into – it would be great for them to have that feedback, actually, to say, “This is not an acceptable kind of arrangement.”


BFW: It’s also worth remembering the origins of the Fringe and the way it’s been maintained is with companies who choose to come and take on all the risk. That means that the companies describe and define themselves – they tick the boxes on the registration form that say “We’re going to offer BSL, captioning, relaxed performance, etc.” Nobody checks after registration. Nobody official knows if or how they’re doing it. A couple of years ago when it first emerged, a lot of companies ticked ‘relaxed’ because they thought, “yeah, we don’t mind people taking their shoes off.” [laughter] It’s the company’s responsibility. So feeding back to the Fringe is one route, but the companies themselves, and the venues, is another – they need to be confronted as well.


MR: And it’s a real frustration with the Fringe. They will not take responsibility for the quality of access. If you think about physical access to buildings, if there isn’t access to a building, it cannot be a venue.


CB: Can you say that again?! [laughter]


MR: OK… They say there’s access.


CB: Mm-hmm!


MR: But the Fringe don’t check that either. There’s a culture of what you could call trust, or passing the buck, depending on which side your perspective is from. If companies say they are accessible, it’s accepted that they are. In Scotland, we now have the Access Scottish Theatre website which also just relies on the venues to say what they’re doing, but there is no monitoring to see whether it actually works as access. There’s quite a big public profile for accessibility, but not a lot of monitoring whether it’s real access.


QUESTION: I think we kind of let people off the hook. Access is certainly one big thing that we all need to be aware of, but as d/Deaf audiences who want to go to theatre, I don’t ‘access’ the theatre on a Friday night. I go for a theatrical experience. Putting a tickbox for an interpreter once a month on the side of the stage is not what access is about. It’s not giving d/Deaf audiences parity of experience. So I wonder if we want to change the model, and separate out what is access and what both Caroline and Michael mentioned as relevant experiences. Whether that’s bringing in d/Deaf people once a year and picking which performances within that programme are more culturally relevant, bringing an interpreter into that process, or bringing a performer who signs into that process earlier on, so you’re not just sticking somebody in and thinking, “Great! We’ve provided access!” ‘Access’ isn’t actually good enough for enjoying a theatrical experience.


BFW: Thank you very much. I’d like us to finish with something uplifting and utopian – can you give us a one- or two-sentence prediction about what inclusive theatre will look like in ten years’ time?


MR: My utopian vision is that we will no longer need to use the term ‘inclusive theatre’ to describe something separate – it will just be ‘theatre’. And that will not mean ‘the theatre building’, but theatre experiences of all kinds in all places.


CB: What he said. [laughter] Plus venues that actually allow me to sit anywhere in the theatre that I want to. This is clearly Utopia; this is not reality in any way, shape or form. And where I can go and see high-quality work being generated, performed and enjoyed by disabled and d/Deaf performers of all ages.


BFW: For me, in 2027, buying a ticket will offer me the choice of going to the theatre, or being able to sit on my sofa and watch the show as part of an online community, whichever I prefer at the time. Art shouldn’t be confined to neurotypical spaces.

Thank you all so much for coming. Please join me in thanking our panel, our volunteers and our interpreters.


Mickey Rowe cast in ‘Curious Incident’

A fascinating article about the casting of the first actor on the autism spectrum as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time:

Having been diagnosed with autism at age 21, Rowe is one of the first actors with autism to play a character with autism on a major professional stage ― and the very first to play Christopher in the critically-acclaimed show set to premiere this fall at the Indiana Repertory Theatre before traveling to New York’s Syracuse Stage…

In an email to HuffPost, Rowe explained how living with autism not only prepared him for his role as Christopher, but his life as an actor. “Autistics use scripts every day,” he wrote. “We use scripting for daily situations that we can predict the outcome of, and stick to those scripts. My job as an autistic is to make you believe that I am coming up with words on the spot, that this is spontaneous, the first time the conversation has ever happened in my life; this is also my job on stage as an actor.”

The Lincoln Center’s 10 Facts about Relaxed Performance

This is a great introduction to relaxed performance from the Lincoln Center in New York. I especially like point 8:

Staff are ready to lend a hand, and a fidget. Front of house staff are trained and available to answer questions, provide information, and make sure that the audience member’s experience is enjoyable. They can also provide accommodations, such as headphones or fidgets, for when it gets too loud or someone needs to re-focus their attention.

The provision of fidgets is a new development, and seems to be a promising addition to best practice. The Autism Arts Festival provided free audience packs, including a fidget, communication badges (green for ‘happy to talk’, yellow for ‘happy to talk to people I know’, red for ‘please don’t talk to me’), earplugs, pens and Post-Its. Similarly, a local toy supplier sponsored free fidgets at a recent relaxed concert in Princeton, New Jersey.

Autism Arts Festival

The Autism Arts Festival will take place in Canterbury on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th April 2017. This is the UK’s first festival of arts by and for people on the autistic spectrum.

It has two key aims. First, it is an attempt to develop the idea of a relaxed performance/screening further, to create an entire festival that’s as autism friendly as possible. There will be performances, screenings, workshops and installations, as well as talks by autistic artists and academics. Second, it is intended to be a celebration of autistic creativity, with many of the works in the festival by professional artists on the spectrum.

The Autism Arts Festival is supported by Arts Council England, The Gulbenkian and School of Arts at the University of Kent. Additional funding has been received from University of Kent Public Engagement with Research Fund, the Centre for Popular and Comic Performance and Centre for Cognition and Kinesthetics in Performance.

The Festival is at the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent, and it is taking place outside of term time when the campus will be quiet. The organisers aim to make the venues and the spaces between them as autism-friendly as possible, so if you have any specific requirements please do let them know by emailing autismartsfestival@kent.ac.uk.

Autism on the Fringe

This week, I got a Tweet from Dr Katherine Sanders, a self-described “stay-at-home, painting, chicken keeping, gardening, sewing mother with Aspergers and ADD”. Katherine pointed me towards her blog, where she details a week of performances at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. In each case, she describes the show, the performers, her child’s response and some really useful and fascinating “ASD/SEN notes”. I’m particularly interested in the notes, because they are quite different to the lists of sensory triggers that are starting to appear for some shows. While neurotypical people can use a bullet-pointed list of triggers (as in my last blog) to provide audiences with information, it’s notable that Katherine’s lived experience allows her to explore a much wider range of considerations. For example, in a review of Andon Theatre Company’s Fairly Tales, she says:

The cellar is dark and quite small but it is not a problem for kids to be near their parents or move around as needed. I wouldn’t think it is great for kids who need to be very mobile or have a lot of stimming, as they will be near the front of the performance and in view of other kids, which might be stressful for them if not near parents.

This sense of space, or perhaps more accurately, the spatial affordances of a specific venue, could be key information for some theatregoers, but it’s not yet something that venues would expect to provide. I wonder whether theatres could start to think about this aspect whether they’re making relaxed performances or not. Speaking as someone with long legs, I’d love to know about the legroom of the seat I’m about to book!

Katherine’s reviews can be found here:

Day 1: Andon Theatre Company’s Fairly Tales

Day 2: Ali McGregor’s Jazzmatazz

Day 3: Trash Test Dummies

Day 4: Theatre Fideri Fidera’s Pitschi the Kitten with Dreams

Day 5: Theatre Haddangse’s Brush [one of my favourites, too]

Bonus Christmas 2014 blog: Scottish Ballet’s The Nutcracker


Building a visual story

I’ve recently been looking at visual stories, which are short documents that introduce the reader to a new experience, like visiting the dentist. They are now available at almost all relaxed performances, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog. Some venues have gone further, producing video visual stories that show what it’s like to walk from the theatre’s front door to your seat.

I downloaded around 70 visual stories from the past five years to get a sense of how they were constructed. There was enormous variation, with some only four or five pages long, and others clocking in at over 25 pages. A few used line drawings and clipart, while most featured colour images from the show. The majority were simply laid out, although several had clearly been (over)produced by a graphic designer, with coloured backgrounds, lots of pictures and symbols. Two particularly good examples, in my opinion, are the visual stories produced by the Little Angel Theatre in London, who maintain an extensive archive, and the resource produced by 59E59 Theaters for Mark Thomas’ solo show Cuckooed, a rare example of an adult visual story (opens as PDF).

It’s also apparent that visual stories are often split into several documents, as for the relaxed performances promoted by Mousetrap Theatre Projects. These include: a visual story for the venue, a visual story for the show itself (including characters and scenes), a list of sensory triggers and surprises (usually but not always aimed at parents and personal assistants), and a synopsis of the story. I’m not sure about this splitting-up of documents, both because it would be easy to miss an important piece, and because the total number of pages creeps up to a very large figure. That said, I can see the appeal of keeping the list of sensory triggers separate if you want to preserve the surprise of a show.

I thought it might be useful to provide a review of good practice derived from this archive. Do let me know your thoughts in the comments section!

How to write a visual story for a theatre performance

Keep it short. It is strongly recommended that you avoid pages consisting solely of text.

For performances aimed at children aged 0 – 8: One or two sentences per image, one or two images per page, and a maximum of six pages in total.

For performances aimed at children and young people aged 8 – 15: Two or three sentences per image, up to three images per page and a maximum of eight pages in total.

For performances aimed at young people aged 15+ and adults: Two or three sentences per image, up to four images per page and a maximum of ten pages in total.

Keep it clear. Consider your language carefully to ensure that you’re not using jargon, technical terms or things that your audience don’t need to know.

Be accurate and objective. Audiences will react in many different ways to a performance, so statements such as “You will find it funny when…” may not be correct. It is preferable to keep information factual, such as “There is a scene where…”.

Offer positive options. Noise, lighting and crowded spaces are off-putting for many people, but the aim of a visual story is to allay fears by presenting a situation in a positive light. For instance, you might write, “If the music is too loud, I can cover my ears or go outside to the chill-out space.”

All responses are allowed at relaxed performances. You should focus on describing what the reader will encounter when they visit your show, not how they are expected to behave. For example, “Some people will choose to clap at the end of the performance. You can clap if you want to, or not if you don’t.”

Be flexible. Rather than saying “I must sit still” or “I have to keep quiet”, you can use statements like “I will try…” or “If I want to, I can…”

Choose engaging images with a single focus. It’s preferable to have a picture of one character in costume than your whole cast. Close-ups are better than action shots or full-length portraits.

Be explicit about timings. As well as the start time and length of the show, it is useful to know the timing of each half and the interval, if you’re including one.

Tell the story briefly but in full. You should include the finale, rather than ending on a cliff-hanger. Usually, this is done by showing an image of each scene, accompanied by a few sentences. You can give a lengthier synopsis accompanied by only one or two images, depending on the target age of the audience.

Don’t worry about spoiling the surprise. Audiences at relaxed performances will often feel more comfortable and engaged if they know that a big surprise is part of the experience. It’s absolutely fine to say things like “This is the confetti cannon that is used at the end of the performance. It makes a loud noise so it’s OK to cover your ears.”

Sensory triggers are important. Increasingly, venues provide information on the presence of sensory triggers (both positive and negative). These might include:

  • Total black-out or sudden lighting transitions
  • Flashing lights / strobe
  • Loud noises or music
  • Repetitive noises (e.g. bell)
  • Drums
  • High-pitched tones
  • Unexpected sounds (e.g. crash, thunder)
  • Background music
  • Distinctive smells
  • Balloons
  • Confetti / glitter
  • Dust / powder
  • Bubbles
  • Smoke / steam / haze / dry ice
  • Gunshots / cannon
  • Trapdoors and sudden appearances
  • Characters or objects flying in the air
  • Characters expressing anger
  • Violence
  • Nudity
  • Audience members invited on stage
  • Characters coming into the audience
  • Touch tours of the set and costumes

It is generally advisable to show images of visual effects, such as smoke. You should also try to place the effects in context, which may mean combining this page with the story synopsis, e.g. “When Mary hides from Bob, he rings the doorbell several times. This might be loud but you can cover your ears.” You can put triggers in blue or purple text.

Reassure and affirm where necessary. You may want to draw attention to specific rules, such as sitting in your assigned seat. It’s absolutely fine to use phrases such as “This is important” if so. Equally, you may wish to reassure people about a special effect such as a gunshot – in this case, you could consider stating that “Gunshots are loud, but these are not real shots and no-one will be hurt while they are acting on the stage.”

Aim to give a rounded picture without overdoing it. You may wish to include images of the actors in costume, the major scenes or scenic items, special effects, and the curtain call. It is not necessary to feature every member of a cast, every prop or every scene.

Think carefully about your format. Would landscape orientation work better than portrait? What is the most readable font, and what size should it be (no smaller than size 12)? You should avoid using coloured backgrounds, as parents and personal assistants will often want to print out the visual story. It’s also best to save the final product as a PDF, rather than a Word document, and to make sure that you use the show’s title as the filename.

Lawsuits on Broadway

The mega-hit musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda has found itself in the dock over claims of “systemic civil rights violations” against blind and visually-impaired audience members, due to the lack of regular audio-description facilities. This report in Variety highlights the lack of accessible performances on Broadway – from autism-friendly performances to ASL interpretation and captioning:

Privately, Broadway producers all express the best of intentions: Everyone, after all, wants more people to be able to attend their show. But during the often chaotic, high-pressure months around a production’s opening, accessibility accommodations often fall to the bottom of a long to-do list, and, some producers add, it only makes sense to spend the money on accommodations once it’s clear a show is successful enough to run for a while. It can also be a challenge figuring out which services (like sign language interpretation or “open caption” supertitles) are wanted how often.

While the US culture of litigation can be problematic, I have to applaud the choice of Hamilton as the test-case in this area, as it’s a fine example of critically acclaimed work for adults which should be accessible to all. Indeed, the production rightly prides itself on its diverse casting, but if people with disabilities and neurodiverse spectators cannot easily attend, then its audiences will lack that diversity. Wicked, The Lion King and Aladdin have begun to present regular relaxed performances, but their more ‘adult’ counterparts are arguably perpetuating what can be seen as a patronising and infantilising cultural offer by refusing to follow suit. After all, children with autism grow up. If they develop a taste for culture by attending The Lion King as children, where can they find the stories that reflect their lives when they are no longer young?

Autism-friendly auditions

While relaxed performances continue to spread around the world, the theatre industry has not yet made significant progress towards autism-friendly practices for artists. The number of autistic performers remains low, despite increasing opportunities for the portrayal of autistic characters on stage and screen. As an example, Cian Binchy‘s 2015 show, The Misfit Analysis, is one of very few performances created by a person with ASD. Cian is represented by Triple ‘A’gency, a dedicated actors’ agency for performers with learning disabilities, having trained on the Performance Making Diploma at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

So what can be done to open up the performing arts as a career path? At this year’s Devoted and Disgruntled, a ‘nationwide conversation about the future of theatre’ run by Improbable, artist Griffyn Gilligan held a session titled ASD In The Room – Making Friendlier Processes For Artists With Autism Spectrum Disorder/Aspergers. The full report of that session is here, but I wanted to draw out a few of the discussion points:

Before an audition/rehearsal/event, send artists:
-directions to the venue
-clear and accurate description of what will happen during the session
-any materials they may want or need to prepare
-accessibility features of the venue
-a list of who they will be meeting
– a contact for communicating about accessibility needs/answering q’s
-description of the room(s) they’ll be working in (size, windows, doors, acoustics, light quality, etc.)

These practices are already common as part of relaxed performances, and many theatres will already have created an accessibility pack for audiences. While it’s obviously a time-consuming process to create a new pack along these lines for every rehearsal studio and meeting room that you use (and some companies will find themselves using different rooms all the time), the upside is that once it’s made, you only have to tweak it for each new round of auditions or rehearsals.

All companies should have a designated support worker who is educated on access and mental health and is Mental Health First Aid trained. This person can liaison with the producer, stage manager, director, and venues, and can handled needs as they arise.

Similarly, this is a one-off cost for companies, and will reap rewards in the long-term. I wouldn’t be surprised if this eventually becomes a requirement for receiving ACE / Creative Scotland / ACNI / ACW funding.

When leaders/directors don’t know how to make accessible space, how do ASD artists have that conversation, especially in an audition setting (where requests might make an actor seem “difficult” or “needy”)?

The social model of disability suggests that disability isn’t a medical impairment or difference intrinsic to a person’s body, but is caused by the way society is set up. Through this lens, it is society’s job to remove those barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. Openness to the needs of others is therefore key, rather than expecting people with disabilities always to be the ones beginning the conversation. Projects like Ramps on the Moon seek to bring about this form of ‘cultural change… to enable accessibility to become a central part of [companies’] thinking and aesthetics’.

Listen, listen, listen. Listen to the artists. If there is something you can do in a process, make sure you learn what you need to make it possible the next time.

Lastly, listening is a simple but powerful way to bring about change.

As ever, I would love to know your thoughts on this issue, and others to do with relaxed performance. Please leave comments below, or get in touch via the Contact Page.