Accessible Theatre


Full paper:


Nothing about us without us
Who: Simpson
Journal: Theatre Topics
Published: 2018
Title: Tics in the Theatre: The Quiet Audience, the Relaxed Performance, and the Neurodivergent Spectator

Theatre: The Neurodivergent Spectator

Theatres have an etiquette for the audience. The idea of a quiet or invisible audience is both a recent concept, a historically atypical concept, & an ableist concept.


Noises considered disrespectful in the theatre include heckling, using phones, crackling sweet & crisp packets.

Oliver Burkeman wrote a Guardian editorial on the horrors of noisy fellow spectators, cheerfully recalling an usher “who lectured the noisemakers so forcibly and successfully” that the very memory can still, he confesses, “thrill” him.

The expectation of a quiet audience can be an insurmountable challenge for the neurodivergent spectator.


Verbal tics & motor convulsions of an individual with Tourette’s syndrome, the repetitive tapping of an individual with OCD, and the self-soothing stimming of an autistic individual are also all considered disrespectful within the theatre audience.

Among other reasons, the stringent policing of quiet-audience etiquette significantly reduces the accessibility of theatre, and leads to disabled people having significantly lower rates of arts attendance than nondisabled people.


However, the presence of neurodivergent spectators offers new perspectives on the value of theatre as an embodied communal event.

Despite the idea of the “silent audience” being a modern one, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when this change occurred. However, in UK theatre, audiences began being instructed in quiet-audience etiquette in the 1950s. This has now moved into audiences being self-policing.


One could argue that what is being self-policed is wilfully disrespectful noises. However, theatre critic Costa disagrees, suggesting that those with a cough or cold or who produce other noises which are not wilfully disrespectful “can expect to be pretty much despised”.

That which starts as policing of audience noise out of respect for actors & fellow audience members quickly slips into self-righteous discrimination.

In 2009, a survey by the Times on UK audience member experience noted multiple complaints about the presence of disabled audience members, such as the audio description required for a blind patron and the heavy breathing of a service dog.


Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability explicitly states that disabled people have the right to “enjoy access to places for cultural performances or services, such as theatres”.

The UK has begun to provide accessible technologies for disabled patrons, such as smart glasses with subtitles & headsets with audio descriptions. However, the demand for a silent audience still frequently appears to outweigh the needs of disabled spectators.


A 2015 article by Elkin states that “Theatre is for everyone. No one should ever be excluded. It’s a universal medium. […] But it isn’t as simple as that, is it?” She complains about a group of schoolchildren with unspecified “learning difficulties” whose “rustling, banging and oral noise” disrupted a performance she recently attended at the Polka Theatre. That the Polka specializes in creating inclusive environments for children with access issues seemed not to deter Elkin: “If their enjoyment cancels out someone else’s then surely it’s a problem?”


Here, she is assuming that “someone else” is a universal identity of the nondisabled person. The assumed right to a silent theatre is working in direct opposition to the idea of an accessible theatre.

Jess Thom, cofounder of the British theatre group Touretteshero, says she began performing because being onstage offered her “the one seat in the house I knew I wouldn’t be asked to leave.”


Relaxed Performances

Thom advocates for relaxed performances, which “takes a relaxed approach to sound and movement coming from the audience, understands that an audience will include people who need to do things in various ways, and does not make assumptions about how an audience might ‘be’ or watch a piece, and understands that focus and attention can look different to different types of bodies.”


Relaxed performances are relatively modern, born of the sensory-friendly film screenings for autistic audiences in the 1990s, and introduced to theatres via a nationwide pilot program in 2012.

The relaxed performance aims to create audience spaces which are accessible to all spectators, via measures like allowing exit out of and re-entry into the auditorium throughout the performance, leaving the house lights on dimly, designating a “chill-out” area in the foyer that spectators can use during the show, reducing jarring audio and strobe lights, and training front-of-house staff and actors to accept higher levels of audience noise.


Thom explains that “[f]or me, being still and silent doesn’t mean that I’m focusing on what’s in front of me; it means I’m putting energy into physically restraining and controlling my body.”

The relaxed performance understands that a verbal or moving spectator is still a focused spectator. For many people, movement & noise often shows a more intense & genuine attention to the performance being shown.


During the pilot of the relaxed performances, nearly 5,000 individuals attended shows across 8 venues. 60% said they had never been able to go to the theatre as a family before. 30% had never been to the theatre at all. Those who were able to attend reported enjoyment, relaxation, and increased confidence & self-esteem.

“We would attend every relaxed performance. Please put on more shows; they are the only way our family can go out.”


However, it is hard to find a relaxed performance of mainstream London shows. The author contacted 40 central London theatres, and despite emphasising a commitment to accessibility, virtually none could offer a relaxed screening of an adult show. Relaxed screenings are often musicals and childrens shows.

Thom argues that all shows should offer relaxed performances, regardless of content. “[t]here’s a misconception that relaxed performance can only work for certain types of plays… I’m interested in seeing a really broad range of work. I think it’s a mistake to shut down what type of work can be a relaxed performance.”


At least two major UK theatres are currently transitioning towards more extensive relaxed performances.

“What I am really hoping,” Oxford Playhouse producer Hannah Groombridge says, “is that this will make the experience better for everyone, not just those with accessibility needs.” Relaxed performances will benefit not just disabled patrons, but all patrons.


Relaxed performances are not only “kind to these [neurodiverse] audience members, it creates a whole new experience for everyone.” (Comfort; actor with Tourette’s syndrome). The Globe’s access manager Bellwood states that relaxed performances are “not a work of charity, but rather a potentially stimulating and artistically engaged process” that enhances the theatrical experience for all audiences.


Mangan emphasizes the value of “the sense of communication and complicity between stage and audience that live performance is able to create”, and Predergast theorises that “due to the inherent nature of shared presence in live performance, the potential exists for authentic, meaningful interactions between performers and spectators [is possible] in a way that is not possible in most media-based performance forms.”

Relaxed performances allow for the sense of connection between the actor & audience to be felt. It allows for a renewed perspective on theatre as an embodied & communal event, a social art form.


Rancière’s model of the “emancipated spectator” thus ignores the potential advantages to be derived from the spectator’s recognition, acknowledgment, and validation of her and her fellow spectators’ proximate embodied existences.

Kershaw argues that the “growing acquiescence of audiences” leads to “a relinquishing of cultural power” and “an undermining of its democratic potential”.

Relaxed performances not only provides increased accessibility for neurodivergent patrons, but also allows a space for individuals to get used to & accept the existence of others and the idea that interaction with others can & does affect you.


Home-Cook examines the accommodation of noise, suggesting that it offers a model for “accepting non-staged noise in the theatre [and] accepting the existence of other human beings in proximity to us”, and that non-scripted noises in the theatre “are not necessarily technical or perceptual problems to be ‘solved’, but rather are to be savoured, or even sought after”.


The ability to accommodate unintended noise is closely linked to the ability to accommodate other people. Theatre involves prolonged contact with the existence of other people, and thus, the noises they inevitable make.

The quiet audience attempts to negate the recognition of the existence of others; the relaxed audience acknowledges, recognises, & welcomes the existence of others into ones own world, in a dynamic, intersubjective process of mutual accommodation.


The relaxed audience offers one example of how theatre can “participat[e] in a process of managing the way people think about relationships with one another and their potential for creating societies in which everyone can enjoy freedom”.

Contemporary theatre holds the potential to teach its spectators to engage more readily & responsively to other both within the theatre & within the world around them.


To attempt to contain or control which noises, which people, we will allow to affect us, is to resist the very basis of theatre itself and its potential positive effects.

Jill Dolan suggests that this creates a “feeling of affinity” that allows spectators to “experience themselves as part of a congenial public”, giving them a “new idea of how to be and how to be with each other”, which will allow them to “reconsider and change the world outside the theatre to articulate a common, different future” & to “imagine, together, the affective potential of a future in which this rich feeling could be experienced regularly and effectively outside the theatre”.


The relaxed performance opens the theatre to a broader spectrum of society, re-establishing the understanding of individuals as having a diverse existence. Opening oneself up to a sensorially perceptible and diversely embodied existence together within the theatre offers a seductive taste of how a similar model of acceptance might equally operate outside of the theatre.

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