I recently performed the final show in the “Thread Bound” run as a relaxed performance and many people asked me what that means. Some thought it meant the audience needed to participate. Some thought it meant performers only perform at 2/3 their regular energy level. Some said they did know what it meant and it sounded a bit scary so they decided to avoid it. So today I am going to tell you what a relaxed performance is.
To clear up these misconceptions, I’d like to say that audience participation is NOT something that is added to a relaxed performance and the performers WILL still go all out and perform at their usual full intensity and artistry!
A relaxed performance is an inclusive performance practice in which the traditional theatre rules and expectations are relaxed and/or presentation is specifically designed to make theatre more welcoming to audience members who are neurologically different from the norm. Relaxed performances are sensitive and inviting to theatergoers who may benefit from a more relaxed environment, including, but not limited to those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Tourette’s, concussion syndrome, sensory and communication disorders, learning disabilities as well as other ways of being.
People who are neurologically different may have sensory-processing challenges that make light, sound and touch feel different: Sound might seem extra loud or a bright light cue might feel painful for them. Differences in processing speed might mean that it takes a while to understand what is being said on stage. The emotional intensity of a play may seem unbearable without access to their regulatory stims such as rocking or making sounds. They may experience claustrophobia at the thought of having to sit still in a theatre seat for an hour. They may feel anxieties about audience etiquette as they strive to figure out what the social theatre rules are. All these different types of experiences may feel overwhelming and make theatre in a traditional setting not accessible to them.
Every production company will design their relaxed performances differently. Whatever the choices they make, it is important to remember that a relaxed show will never make a production 100% accessible. Nothing is every 100% due to competing access-needs. I will give an example from my personal life to help define competing access-needs. Both my son and I have high functioning Autism. Sometimes he needs to makes a clucking noise to feel right in his body and sometimes I need to repeat a specific sentence over and over to feel right in my body. The thing is that both our self-regulating stim methods drive the other person to distraction and irritability and thus represent completing access needs. What is helpful to one person might interfere with access for another.
A vital aspect of relaxed performance is that the artistic excellence of the production and director’s vision remain unchanged. Rather it is everything else that surrounds the production that may be adjusted to be more welcoming.
So what are the type of things might be involved in a relaxed performance?
- House (audience) lights may be kept at a dim level rather than completely turned off
- people may be invited to leave the theatre during the show and the re-enter of they want or need.
- audience members may be asked to be aware of people’s needs to move or make noise.
- sound and lighting cues may be adjusted to be less startling or intense
- “fidget” devices such as hand spinners may be welcome and yes this may even include the use of cell phones or other devices as long as they are kept in quiet mode.
- self-regulation support items such as weighted blankets may be welcome or provided.
- a copy of the script may be provided in advance so people can prepare or gain an understanding of the content on their own time.
- description of possible triggers may be explained to the audience prior to the show.
- earplugs or sunglasses may be provided.
- people may be told its okay to plug their ears whenever they need to.
- people may be given advanced entrance or a longer time than usual to leave the theatre to help them avoid crowded theatre aisle or lobby.
Since all relaxed performances differ in how they provide a more relaxed setting, it is vital that what is being provided is outlined at the time of ticket purchase. This enables theatergoers to get a sense of whether the production will be accessible for them. For instance, sometimes a director will decide that turning down the music or light level will not work for a particular scene because the performers need that level of intensity. So earplugs may be provided instead of lower music levels. If you cannot stand the feeling of earplugs you may decide to bring your own noise-canceling headphones or decide not to go.
Production companies should not shorten their program by cutting out scenes as part of a relaxed performance. By doing this, they are making choices based on what they think is best for a disabled theatergoer. I offer that production companies put the choice in the hands of the theatre-goer. Present your full production and let the theatergoer make their own choice to self-edit by leaving the theatre for moments if they need or to want to.
Recently, my dance company REAson d’etre productions did a relaxed performance of “Thread Bound”.
This is how we designed the show to be more welcoming to those with neurological-difference:
- Music was played slightly lower than usual.
- “Stim” gadgets were welcome, including cell phones or devices as long as they are in quiet-mode.
- audience were asked to be aware of people’s needs to move or make noise
- people could leave and come back in as needed.
- script was sent to attendees ahead of time so they could process the meaning of the text and work-through/prepare for possible triggers on their own time.
- ear-plugs and sunglass were provided at the box-office to be worn in sections in which blinking-lights and sound levels might be painful for some.
- description of possible triggers was given prior to the performance.
After the performance, the box office manager said, “providing earplugs was a waste of money as hardly anyone used them.” He guessed that people who needed earplugs had brought their own and suggested that for the next relaxed performance we forgo supply them. I explained that even if no one had used our earplugs that they were still an important relationship-building tool. As a person with Autism if I arrive at a show and saw that earplugs were provided I get a sense that who I am is visible and my needs are being considered. This is a wonderful moment of being seen that builds a positive relationship between me and the producing company even if I had brought my own earplugs.
Photo credit: Suzanne Liska and Kathleen Rea in Thread Bound
Robbie Wychwood from The Sacred Fire Blog, sat down to interview me just after the launch of my book The Healing Dance: The Life and Practice of an Expressive Arts Therapist. Robbie is a singer/songwriter who has a passion for creative and sustainable living. He is also a painter, writer and ecstatic dancer. He is currently being mentored as a spiritual counselor in pagan traditions. After several previous interviews with hosts who had not read my book, it was refreshing to talk with someone so well informed and passionate about expressive arts. He will be posting the interview two parts.
Here is an excerpt from part one:
I made it out to celebrate the launch of Kathleen Rea’s book, ‘the Healing Dance’ at Café Arts and the Norman Felix Gallery in Toronto.
The gallery was packed with Kathleen’s family, friends, mentors, peers, students and fans. During her introduction Kathleen’s sister, Lovisa commented “only Kathleen could have a book launch like opening night for one of her shows.” Indeed it was a wonderful evening of art, readings, and with original music performed by Kathleen’s long-time friend, Ariel Brink.
Her former ISIS Canada-mentor, Steven K. Levine started the evening with a lovely, heartfelt endorsement, saying “this book demonstrates to me that my student, Kathleen, might know more about being an Expressive Arts Therapist than I do.”
Having anticipated this book for some time I was blown away by how captivating it was. Kathleen’s tells a very personal, deeply moving, and powerfully transforming story.
I caught up with her a couple of weeks later in her home for the following interview.
Robbie Wychwood (RW): I was at the book launch and it was a wonderful gathering. It is wonderful to see this book come out knowing the story, and that it was a big project for you. So I would like to start there. There are many arts to Kathleen Rea, the artist, the dancer, the choreographer, the ballet company director, the expressive arts therapist… and now Kathleen Rea, the author. Tell us about becoming an author, and the process. I gather this was not an easy book to write?
Kathleen Rea (KR): The book began as my Master’s Thesis which I actually started in 2000. There was two years of writing even before I thought I should make this Master’s Thesis into a book.
As a professional dancer, I can form my body into a prefect pirouette. But when I write, my words arrive on the screen so garbled that spell-check can’t even recognize them. I rewrite the word over and over again in slightly different ways until spell-check finally recognizes what I am trying to say.
I have known that I have a learning disability since I was young, and became ingenious at hiding it. I was ashamed to ask for help and ashamed to let anyone know. Luckily in my job as a dancer, writing was not needed. It wasn’t until I quit ballet at the age of 30 and went back to school to study expressive arts therapy that I built up the courage to be tested. I was diagnosed with limited working memory. Working memory is defined by researcher Alan Baddeley as “brain systems that provide temporary storage and manipulation of the information necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning.” Working memory is like a “desk top” in your brain upon which you organize your thoughts. My desk top is too small to even be considered a desk. It can barely hold any word longer than three letters. Half way through writing a word, I become lost in letters, and the result is illegible. So, what is someone so profoundly handicapped in writing doing in Open Book: Toronto? Charles C Thomas Publisher is currently publishing my book, The Healing Dance: The Life and Practice of an Expressive Arts Therapist, and Open Book: Toronto has offered me the chance to share my process.
During my learning disability testing, I scored highest in the ability to complete a task. That is a nice way to say that I am incredibly stubborn and rarely give up. I began writing my book in 2002, with the goal of describing my work as expressive arts therapist. Expressive arts therapy is the career I chose after being forced to quit dancing due to cartilage damage in my knees. It is a form of psychotherapy in which the client and therapist communicate with each other not just through talking, but through dance, poetry, music and visual arts. In my practice, I worked intuitively. I define intuition as knowing something without actually knowing how you know it. In writing my book, I was trying to explain concepts that I didn’t actually know how I knew with very little space on my desk top to organize my thoughts. My first drafts were virtually unreadable. I plastered my actual desk with yellow sticky notes that acted as the desk space I was missing in my brain. I had to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until the concepts that kept falling off my way too small desk top finally began to organize themselves on their own. I had dreams in which the just-right description of a concept would arrive. I would wake and then run to my computer and write something like this: “If ioen seranches for creats aert for brastly sake then the chalisling will antaige any possibly of beatruy arribe because beaty is somethst that aaribes sunexectign and sursprsices uss.” I would sigh and then begin the task of un-garbling my words. I began to gravitate towards story telling as a way to describe expressive arts theories because the emotional thread running through a story helped order my writing. As clarity arrived, my learning disorder became even more frustrating because my ideas started arriving with great speed, but I was trying to catch them with a net with huge holes in it.
Five years into this process, my writing started to give me the same sort of adrenaline rush that dancing on stage gave me. I began to miss my book when I couldn’t spend time working on it. I had been working on it for so long, it had become my companion — a companion that I felt needed to meet the world. To help me believe this would happen, I took one of my favourite books and taped my name and book title over the author’s. I put this mock-up on my desk and every time I looked at it, felt joy at the thought that my book was going to be published. This helped to override the shame of having a learning disorder that made it difficult to believe I could write a book. I started to send my manuscript to publishers and editors. I got some interest, but no takers. Ten years after I started writing, my book started to feel complete but I still did not have a publisher. I decided to hire a professional editor and self-publish the book. However, I continued to send my manuscript to publishers. One month before my self-published version was due to be released on Amazon, I received two publishing offers in one week. I accepted an offer from Charles C Thomas, and now the real book sits on my desk. I share with you my final words that end my book:
In my forties, I am surprised to discover that I am a writer. With my learning disorder, I have struggled with writing my whole life. But a persistent need to document my way of working had been following me, like someone tapping on my shoulder. From the chaos of my dyslexic words, this book gradually emerged and I fell in love with writing. I am the crippled dancer who can no longer leap. I am the crippled writer whose words stumble along for years before finding grace. Through the process of writing this book, the message I discovered and rediscovered again and again, is that our humanity and beauty are in our imperfections. And that’s my final “wrod.”