Relaxed Performances at Belfast Children's Festival
Relaxed theatre performances are specially designed for children who are living with additional sensory and communication needs - including learning difficulties and autism. Lights might be dimmed, loud noises are kept to a minimum, and parents know that their kids are welcome to make noise and go in and out of the performance space as they like.
Relaxed performances are a fantastic way to welcome new families to your venue or show, and can often be the only way that some children and teens can experience the magic of a trip to the theatre.
Our recent research into Belfast residents’ cultural lives shows that 30% of theatre attenders in Belfast have kids in the household – meaning that theatres are likely attracting a good level of family visitors (33% of Belfast residents overall have kids at home).
But, only 1 in 16 theatre and dance attenders in Belfast have a disability – compared to 1 in 7 of Belfast residents generally. So there’s a real opportunity here to welcome families with children who have additional needs.
Thanks to Young at Art, I was able to attend a relaxed performance of ‘Milo’s Hat Trick’ by Cahoots NI, in the Lyric Theatre, as part of Belfast Children’s Festival.
Before the Show
For all families, and especially those with additional needs, a trip out to any cultural activity involves a lot of pre-planning. Making sure that you’ve got the basics right is key – with a good access page on the venue’s booking site. This should include things like bathroom and changing facilities, food, disability access, transport options, buggy storage, and parking.
But for relaxed performances, having advanced information is even more vital. For some children, going into a new space, seeing new faces, and having a different experience can be really daunting.
Once I had my ticket for the performance, I received an email linking me to a resource pack for the show. The pack is a visual story of the journey to the show and it explains what you might see or do at every stage of the theatre visit.
The pack includes images of the theatre exterior and entrance, staff faces and names, directions on where to go, images of bathroom and theatre spaces, and info on how bright or dark things will be. An adult can sit down with a child and go through each stage of the visit beforehand, helping to make the experience feel more familiar to the children, and reduce anxiety caused by new activities or places.
These packs require work by both the production company and the venue – so there needs to be buy-in from both to put on successful relaxed performances. Many venues have resource packs already created for other shows or exhibitions, so you might have something pre-existing to work with for your own show.
Mini ticket booth for young attendees
At the Venue
On the day, I arrived early at the Lyric to grab a sandwich before the performance. The space slowly began to get a lot livelier as children started to arrive.
Staff members in Young at Art t-shirts (and some in costumes too) were on-hand to answer any questions from kids or other family members. Young at Art’s Access programme includes specialist training for event managers and venue staff to greet the children and their families or schools on arrival.
There was even a miniature ticket booth for children to interact with as they made their way into the theatre space.
The theatre space was well-lit as everyone filed in, and staff were there to help people pick seats that best suited them.
Before the show started, one of the theatre team came on stage to help get everyone ready for the performance. He pointed out the theatre technician and gave examples of music and lights effects we might see during the show. He also gave us all some quick introductions to characters that we’d be seeing in the play. Then he asked if everyone in the audience was okay with sound and light levels, and after a resounding ‘yeah!’ from the younger audience members, it was time for the show to begin.
The lights dimmed, but the audience were never left fully in the dark, and there were no sudden bangs or surprising loud noises. All of the kids had been given stress balls and earplugs on the way in too.
There was also a special ‘chill-out zone’ beside the venue auditorium so children experiencing anxiety could leave and re-enter the performance as they wished.
Visual effects, music, lights, and smells kept really young audience members engaged, and older children were clearly mesmerised and wrapped up in Milo’s story.
Only a few audience members left the space during the performance, but just having reassurances that you can means a lot to families – and can be the difference between staying in a familiar home environment, or trying something new.
Young at Art got this feedback from Haberton Special School when they went to a previous relaxed performance:
We really appreciated the planning that had gone into the visual story and the resources given to our pupils. The staff were so responsive to our pupils and accepting of their difficulties and differences, which was wonderful. For example, a staff member noticed a pupil of mine was becoming a little restless and he was quickly but subtly offered some ear defenders, which worked perfectly to ensure the pupil enjoyed the rest of the performance. The stress balls and calm space available were so thoughtful but our pupils didn’t even need them as they were so engaged in the performance.
Many parents feel like they may be judged or shushed if their child needs to make noise or have space to move around. So it’s not just children with additional needs who may be feeling anxious and unable to enjoy traditional performances. Having specific ‘relaxed’ performances can really appeal to families who wouldn’t normally go to a regular performance.
There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK - so we need to think about how to be inclusive.
The interaction and gasps of astonishment from the kids watching ‘Milo’s Hat Trick’, and the chilled out vibe of the space, the staff, and the audience completely enhanced the theatre experience for me (and, I suspect, the other audience members and performers) that Sunday afternoon.
Starting Your Own Relaxed Performances
There are elements that will apply to most relaxed performances – a chill-out zone, pre-visit guides and preparation, and a more brightly lit performance space. But the best place to start (as always) is thinking about what particular audience you want to attract with these performances, and getting feedback on what they’d appreciate or need.
Sarah Kelly, Young at Art’s marketing manager, spoke to us about why it was so important for them to invest in relaxed performances:
Young at Art is committed to offering a festival accessible to all, and it's important to us that we offer Relaxed Performances. While it is necessary to have buy-in from the venue and the production company, the extra effort is worth it when we see the demand and receive positive feedback from families and schools as to the difference it makes in making them feel welcome, supported and included. We received advice from The Ark, Dublin, on how to create the relaxed performance packs and what elements to include in training front of house staff in The MAC and The Lyric, and our own festival staff, so we are forever grateful to them.
To find out more, check out Young at Art’s access programme, or get in touch with theatre companies or venues who have already started running relaxed performances.
Header photograph by Melissa Gordon