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Relaxed Performances at YPT

As part of our celebrations for World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People we asked Lois Adamson of Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre to tell us about their experience creating relaxed performances for their audience.

Pictured (L-R): Jennifer Villaverde and Matt Nethersole in a scene from James and the Giant Peach at Young People’s Theatre; Set Design by Teresa Przybylski, Costume Design by Joanna Yu, Lighting Design by Rebecca Picherack; | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I work as part of the Education & Participation (E&P) Department at YPT. One of the programs we run which I am most proud of is the Member Schools initiative through which we create long-term partnerships with specific schools throughout the city of Toronto. In 2014, I heard from a principal at one of our most involved Member Schools about how stressful it can be for the students in his Primary Autism Class to attend our performances. So I did a lot of research into what we could do to make things more comfortable and engaging for that class, looking especially at TYA companies in the UK where there is a longer tradition of Relaxed Performances (RPs) than in Canada.

RPs are specifically designed for audience members with Autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or anyone who may find the traditional theatre-going experience difficult. With the help of the principal and the Primary Autism teacher, along with the guidance of the Coordinator of Autism Services at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), we piloted our first RP for just one school performance – a truly collaborative effort.

Since then, we have held more than 10 RPs – they are now a staple of our programming! We further developed our approach through training provided by IncludeArts, a UK-based organization focused on inclusion in arts and culture. We learned that there is a broad scope of how to create an RP, but that there are some key building blocks that should be included.

Supporting social interaction is an important piece… [young people] with autism often have the desire to interact with others, but do not have the skills to engage appropriately or may be overwhelmed by the process… Social development represents a range of skills, including timing and attention, sensory integration and communication… Sometimes, the mere unpredictability and noise of the presence of others can be disconcerting.”

For our part, we have never changed the performance itself, but have focused instead on providing resources, supporting preparation and making changes to the social practices and sensory environment of the theatre. We invite audience members planning to attend the RP to come “meet the theatre” in advance of seeing the show, so they can acquaint themselves with the space. On our website, we also have both a Visual Guide and Video which give a clear and detailed explanation of what it’s like to visit YPT. For many people, especially those attending theatre for the first time or those who are unfamiliar with the show, this can help to reduce anxiety. To support further preparation for each individual show, we also provide a show synopsis and cue list in addition to the regular Study Guide. On the day of the performance, we build in additional supports before, during and after the show. There are adjusted lighting levels in the theatre, so that it is not as dark as usual for the audience. The cast introduce themselves at the top of the show, each saying the role they play. We welcome the use of food, fidget tools and electronic devices as needed. It’s made clear that audience members are welcome to come and go as they require. There is also a designated relief area where people can take a break and watch the performance via program video. All of this is done to help make YPT a less overwhelming, more welcoming place for young people with ASD.

Through our experience in creating RPs at YPT, we have learned a great deal about how small changes can have a big impact on everyone. One of the most surprising outcomes of the RPs has been the impact they have had on the performers.

At our most recent school RP for James and the Giant Peach, Stage Manager Andrea Schurman included this note in her show report, which she has given us permission to share:

What an amazing performance to experience today! This afternoon was our first “Relaxed Performance” and it was AMAZING!

There was something so special about the introductions of cast and musicians to the audience before the show. And keeping the house lights up a bit seemed to make it a very shared experience between actors and audience. This audience was by far our most focused of the run, and somehow I expected it to be very different. I spoke to almost every cast member after the show to get a feel of how it was for them and they all LOVED it. Many of them mentioned they think actors should introduce themselves to the schools before every performance as it maybe helps students realize they are real people up there and it gives them a connection to the story unfolding before them.

It was a pretty special show today. So glad for it.

At YPT, learning is at the centre of everything we do. As evidenced by the development of the RPs, more often than not, it’s not just our audiences who are learning – it’s also us.

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