Curiosity: the play about an autistic boy triggered a movement to be more inclusive in the theatre
Curiosity: the play about an autistic boy triggered a movement to be more inclusive in the theatre

Something has happened this year at theatres. Sharon Diamond comes out of the chill-out room to investigate relaxed performances

There’s a curious story behind relaxed performances and it all started with a play. So what’s a relaxed performance and why are so many theatres putting them on? A good definition of what a relaxed performance is comes from the Lighthouse in Poole, the community’s arts centre. They describe it thus: “During a relaxed performance the environment is specifically adapted for theatregoers with autistic spectrum conditions, those with sensory, communication or learning difficulties and anyone else who would benefit from a less formal environment.”
“There is a relaxed attitude to noise, the lights in the auditorium remain on low throughout the show, sudden loud noises are softened and audience members are free to leave and re-enter the auditorium at any point. Additional staff members will be on hand to assist with seating and access around the theatre and there will be a chill out room, where a space is made for anyone needing a bit of quiet time before or during the performance.”
“Many families with autistic children or children with sensory and communication needs are reluctant for a variety of reasons to attend public theatre performances. Relaxed performances are a fantastic way for families to experience theatre together and for the children to benefit from an environment where the performance is adjusted to reduce anxiety or stress.”
Many theatres have chill-out rooms or an area where children can calm down after stressing out with their parents or carer. The egg theatre in Bath has a padded booth area with a window so the child can still see what’s going on.
Relaxed performances began in earnest last year when the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time at the Apollo Theatre in London, was modified for people with autism, learning disabilities and sensory or communication needs.
The story was ideal in one sense as the novel and play is about a boy with autism who is determined to solve the mystery of the dog’s demise. The production was the first West End performance in a pilot scheme from the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, the Society of London Theatre and the Theatre Management Association.
The full programme has been rolled out this year with the plan for these relaxed performances to become as standard a part of a show’s schedule, just as signed performances are for the hearing-impaired. The scheme also caters for people of all ages with special needs which opens up a whole new audience for the theatre but also for the cast.
Autistic children can find crowded foyers, sudden noises and unexpected music and changes in lighting disconcerting so these muted performances can make them less challenging and help them to come to terms with the world in general.
The Curious Incident play went on to win seven Olivier awards, including best new play and best actor for Luke Treadaway as the central character, Christopher, a 15-year-old with autism.
The author Mark Haddon, said of the special performances:“It’s a brilliant idea. It is important to emphasise that this is about inclusivity, not targeting. These performances are for anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed performance environment, including people with an autistic spectrum condition, sensory or communication disorders, or a learning disability.”