The etiquette of arts venues, theatres in particular, can present multiple barriers for audiences such as autistic people. Disabled journalist and theatre-maker Kate Lovell explores the growing trend of autism-friendly and relaxed performances, which aim to reduce some of these barriers and make the arts more accessible for everyone.

Group of children with torches explore a set

Sensorium Theatre's Oddysea. Photograph: Jessica Wyld.

You attend a theatre performance – you follow signs to the bar, jostle through the crowds to get your interval drinks ordered, weather the queue to the toilets, hear the bell clanging for the three-minute call, walk with the throngs, take your seat and are ready to sit quietly, and as still as possible, in the dark, for the ninety-plus minutes ahead. A familiar routine to a regular theatre goer. But the environment, rules and unspoken etiquette of many arts events, particularly theatre, present significant access barriers to audience demographics – those who find crowds make them anxious, who cannot sit still and quiet for long periods of time, who find sudden loud noises a significant challenge. So – what is the arts world doing, and what more can be done, to ensure that disabled people are not being continually excluded from performances and events?

Autistic audiences can experience some of the most disabling barriers to attending arts events, and this has been recognised by some institutions and organisations. Many pioneering individuals and institutions have been working for years on creating ‘autism-friendly’ environments. However, it is still a relatively lesser known concept, and whilst gaining traction in the UK, on an international scale, adapting arts events for autistic audiences is in its infancy.

In the UK, most theatre institutions have adopted the term relaxed performances in place of the term ‘autism friendly’. This is an important lesson in terminology; it acknowledges that it is not only autistic audiences who may benefit from a relaxed performance. When the key components are considered, in fact almost everyone could benefit from a relaxed performance, and for some it’s the difference between being able to attend a show or feeling too uncomfortable or stressed to be able to consider going into the venue at all.

A relaxed performance in a theatre environment usually involves inverting the usual etiquette observed in an auditorium. Audiences are welcome to come in and out of the auditorium as they wish, meaning no one can be late arriving, and there’s no pressure to stay seated for the duration of the show. Many venues offer a ‘chill out zone’ outside of the auditorium to allow people to have a break if they wish to take one, often made up of big cushions, beanbags and sofas, ideally in a quiet environment free of the foot-traffic in a foyer or bar.

The house lights are often left at half or full, to allow people to move around safely and to support those who may find darkness anxiety-inducing. There is no pressure to be entirely quiet during the show, providing a much-needed breathing space for those who make involuntary noises to know they will not be chided by ushers or other audience members.

The bell or tannoy announcement for the five-minute call is replaced by ushers carrying a card stating that the performance is about to begin, and gently inviting people to take their seats. This eliminates the loud, sudden clanging noise that can upset. It also often prevents the stampede to the bar or toilet before the show begins, as there issue with arriving late at a relaxed show.

As well as adapting the environment within the theatre building, often parts of the performance itself are altered specifically for a relaxed performance. Theatre-goer and autistic artist Paul Wady describes the importance of shifting auditory elements of the show to welcome neurodiverse audiences: “No sudden bangs. No sudden anything without warning and no overwhelming lights and noises. Neurotypical audiences seem to adore overstimulation. Take it easy world. Mute sound and light and let us know about any surprises please.”

Wady also highlights another key component of a relaxed performance: “Sell [autistic audiences] cheap tickets…only about 15% have been estimated to be in employment.” Affordability is paramount, as much as the specific adaptations.

A child looks into an illuminated mirror

Oily Cart's Light Show. Photograph: Neal Houghton

Across the pond, this April and May has seen “the world’s first month-long arts festival dedicated to children on the autistic spectrum and their families” with the Big Umbrella Festival, hosted at the Lincoln Arts Center in New York City. The UK’s Oily Cart took their performance Light Show to the festival, a multisensory journey accompanied by a live double bass player. They were joined by Australian company Sensorium Theatre, who presented an immersive, under-the-sea adventure, Oddysea. In contrast to a relaxed performance, which takes an existing show and makes adaptations for a particular audience, companies like Oily Cart and Sensorium are creating work specifically for autistic children and young people.

Taking this idea of making work directly welcoming and tailored to autistic audiences further, Jonathan Meth, curator of learning-disability arts festival Crossing the Line, explains that there were no specific relaxed performances at the festival, hosted in France, because “making all audiences welcome was a priority. The French do things differently from the anglophone world. Because of Laïcité – the French concept of secularism which separates Church and State – each individual should appear as a simple citizen, equal to all other citizens, devoid of ethnic, religious or other particularities. This effectively removes the concept of ‘minorities’ from the public sphere.”

This commitment to ensuring that all arts events are accessible to anyone who wishes to attend is echoed by those who are also not whole-hearted fans of a stand-alone relaxed performances. Disabled artist and filmmaker Richard Butchins, whose show 213 Things About Me about the real-life story of a woman with Asperger’s is coming to Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) later this month, observes: “the idea that ‘relaxed’ performances are a special thing is unfortunate – shouldn't all performances be relaxed?” Not to mention the fact that “people with autism are so varied in their requirements it could be difficult to cater for them as a mass.” Butchins highlights the reason why many prefer the term relaxed performance – how can any single show claim to be ‘autism-friendly’ when autistic people are so varied in the way they experience the world and therefore the barriers they may face?

Artistic director of Touretteshero, performer and passionate advocate for neurodiverse audiences, Jess Thom, has been working with Battersea Arts Centre, and is supporting the venue to ensure all their performances are relaxed, making Battersea Arts Centre the first ‘relaxed’ venue in the UK. This is a particularly important step, as in some venues the choice of what shows in a run should have a relaxed performance on offer can be limited to specific types of show: often pantomimes, family shows or musicals.

There seem to be ideas about what kinds of shows relaxed performance audiences may enjoy, and there is, perhaps, a bias towards catering for autistic children and young people when it comes to making shows relaxed. As Thom astutely comments in her activism work, the arts world has a duty to stop making assumptions about who pieces of art or performances are for. A prestigious arts venue like Battersea Arts Centre relaxing all its usual policies and rules that create barriers to attendance is an incredibly powerful statement and attests to what all of us making work should be aiming for: to welcome absolutely everyone to enjoy and experience the art we create by removing as many potential barriers to attendance as possible. It may be high time that the arts world, and theatres in particular, relax the rule book on audience etiquette.