Providing young people with access to quality arts experiences has always been a passion of mine. As a young child I was constantly performing, writing and directing. I was that kid making up elaborate stories and scenarios and bossing around my cousins and siblings to comply. I continued this theme in my adult life, first becoming a high school Drama Teacher and then over the years returning to the arts world to eventually land my dream job as Riverside’s Program Coordinator for Education, Youth and Families.
My road here has been one filled with discovery and my personal experiences in life have come to inform what I do in many ways and I would like to share with you one of those.
In 2010, I became a mother for the first time. My little bundle of joy, a boy called Alex, was the light of my life and of many others around me. He brings joy to everyone he meets. He lifts the mood of a room just by stepping into it. Of course none of this changed one bit when in 2013 he was diagnosed with Autism.
However, having a child with Autism did change my life in the sense that it plunged me into a new community, a community of special needs parents. These brave warriors face challenges on day-to-day basis that many without that experience would even think of.
What it didn’t change is how many creative and live performance experiences I exposed Alex to as he grew, and that is a lot. Alex is more familiar with going to the theatre than he is with going to the movies. He delights in the spectacle of it all. He has a wonderful connection to the live-ness of the experience. Live theatre makes him come alive.
What I learned from being in that community of special needs parents though, is that not all parents can do that. Not all children with special needs will be able to have that same reaction as my son has to the live theatre experience. What if they’re afraid of the dark? What if their needs mean that they call out words which might disturb the ‘quiet’ nature of theatre? What if sudden loud noises or really bright lights cause them to panic? What if they need to leave to calm down and then can’t get back in to watch the rest of the show? Of course, the theatre isn’t the place for them.
Which made me sad.
So how can we change that?
That’s when I heard of ‘Relaxed Performances’. A relaxed performance is where the perceived ‘rules’ of traditional theatre are thrown out the window and the environment is modified to reduce those elements that some children might find overwhelming. The house lights are often dimmed, but left on. Any loud noises or bright lights are reduced or at least forewarned. The doors are left open so patrons can come and go. Patrons are welcome to ‘call out’, get up, flap their arms or do whatever they need to do to make them feel comfortable (aside from getting on the stage – although some performers allow that too!). All this so that they and their parents see and can experience the wonders of live performance without having to worry about whether other patrons or the performers will be disturbed.
Riverside had our first Relaxed Performance for our Spot On Children’s Festival in 2014. One parent watched as their child who often struggled to engage and avoided physical contact with others became so engrossed with the show that at the end of the performance the child ran onto the stage and hugged the lead actor. Another parent who had wanted to take her children to the theatre but feared how other patrons might react to the one child who vocalises, reported back that the relaxed performance took all stigma and stress away. They felt completely welcome and valued.
In 2015, Riverside appointed a program coordinator for access, becoming one of the only venues in the state with a dedicated role for access.
Now, three years later, our upcoming Spot On Children’s Festival has five relaxed performances, one for every show that needs it. In addition, we offer an AUSLAN interpreted performance, Audio Description for shows and movies and for the first time ever Autism Spectrum guides, which allow parents of children with autism to determine if the show (without the relaxed component) is suitable for their child by outlining the content and any potential triggers, both negative and positive.
We have been lucky to work with amazing artists who are so receptive to helping us prepare and offer these access initiatives, knowing their value and appreciating their importance.
My hope is that with every passing year, we’re making sure that we’re breaking down those barriers and that more and more young people feel as comfortable as Alex does at the theatre. Why? If you met the happy, creative, imaginative, captivating Alex, you’d know.
Program Coordinator – Education, Youth and Families
CLICK HERE for a full list of Accessible Performances