Relaxed Performances, “Crip Time,” and Access for All

by J.J. El-Far

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

Post image for Relaxed Performances, “Crip Time,” and Access for All

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

In case you missed it in your Facebook newsfeeds, Emily Colson and her 23-year-old autistic son Max made news in January when they went to see the “Muppets Most Wanted” in a suburban Boston cinema. As the movie started, Max had an outburst, and his actions attracted the unwanted attention of the other movie-goers, who quickly turned on the pair, eventually jeering them right out of the theater. Colson tried to explain her son’s condition, but the response she got was “why should others have to suffer?” Colson wrote a blog post about her experience, which prompted her community to stand up to this kind of intolerance. They ended up renting the theater for a private screening of the movie for more than 300 kids, many of whom had learning or social disabilities like Max. Awesome.

In the UK, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), the Theatrical Management Association (TMA) and The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts (Children & the Arts) have piloted the Relaxed Performance Project to better accommodate individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder or developmental disabilities. Led by champions like the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, “relaxed performances,” are now available to audiences that have trouble sitting through the typical dark, silent, stillness of a live performance. These performances provide a relaxed environment, with elements of the production modified to alleviate anxiety, such as sound and lighting adjustments, and designated “chill out spots.” There is also a relaxed attitude towards moving around during the performance, and as NT puts it on their website, “the atmosphere is perhaps, the opposite of the quiet carriage on the train.” Considering that one in every 68 eight-year-olds in the U.S. are now affected by Autism (30% increase since 2012!), you would think the U.S. would be eager to adopt this idea.

The National Theatre not only considers the needs of audiences with these kinds of sensory and communication disorders, they set the bar high when it comes to providing access, and inclusive practices to accommodate individuals with visual and hearing impairments, and provide detailed information and accommodates for individuals with physical disabilities. If you have ever spent time with someone with a physical disability, you realize how important this information is, and the fact that it is easily found on NT’s website, allows for greater access all around. What’s more, they don’t take a “one size fits all” approach to accommodating different disabilities, understanding that different challenges require different tactics. It is this kind of active, intentional inclusion that we in the American Theater talk so much about and still have trouble implementing.

Recently, the British Council supported a collaboration between the UK’s Live Art Development Agency, and Abrons Arts Center in NYC for a day-long symposium modeled after LADA’s enormously successful, “Access All Areas” program. The day featured incredible speakers, performers, and artists like Mat Fraser with various disabilities showcasing their work, and offering a kind of portal into the daily reality of living with a disability. The presenters used the term “crip time,” jokingly throughout the day, but with an underlying seriousness, revealing that when it comes to actually getting around, and participating in public life, people with disabilities sometimes have more involved in their transportation, and may need more than a 10-minute intermission.

My mother, infinitely supportive and wise, happened to be in town visiting me this weekend and joined me at Access All Areas: NYC Edition. As a teacher for special needs students, some of whom have Autism, some in wheelchairs, some with various other developmental disabilities, she found herself really connecting with the concepts of “crip time,” as well as the relaxed performances. “Why don’t we have this here?” she asked. Great question, mom.

Why don’t we have this here? We spend a lot of time thinking about marketing and audience development. We wonder how we can make the theater-going experience more cool, more comfortable, more flexible, more competitive, and more active for the audience. What about starting with accommodating the large population of people who simply cannot access or participate in the theatrical experience due to physical or developmental disabilities? This is more than targeted marketing, more than simply building wheelchair ramps, and calling it a day. It is more than conventional or even expanded understanding of “Diversity” and audience development. The challenge with bringing any people to the theater, no matter their level of ability, is only half about how we reach them; the other half is about the experience they have once they get there.

Producers should consider their audience’s level of comfort and access as a crucial element of the theatrical event, because even if the play is extraordinary, no one will be able to appreciate the story if they are mortified from being unable to climb steps, can’t find or access the toilets, or they cannot see or hear what is happening. Comfort and access are part of an audience’s basic rights. Offering captions, sign language translations, touch tours of the set, or relaxed performances create pathways for entering into the work in a new way, sparking further creative interpretation, creating understanding and inclusion among all attendees.

Going to the theater is a practiced ritual, a group of strangers sits and experiences something together, and for a brief moment, and only if you’re lucky, experience some enlightenment, and then go back to their individual lives. We should offer each member of our audience comfort and access, because not only do we want them to come in, we want them to stay.


J.J. El-Far is an Arab-American creative producer based in Harlem and currently the Arts Program and Equal Opportunity and Diversity Coordinator at the British Council, USA- the UK’s cultural relations organization. J.J. develops projects to showcase contemporary British artists in the US, support art work dealing with global issues, and building trans-Atlantic dialogue. J.J. is also a co-founder and Creative Director of the multi-disciplinary Harlem Arts Festival, which creates events in Harlem to nurture the local artistic community. She was selected as one of Theatre Communications Group’s Young Leaders of Color and is a member of Women of Color in the Arts and Theatre Without Borders. Previously, she was the co-founder and Executive Director of Hybrid Theatre Works, an international theater collective that created over 60 original works using non-traditional space and new media. Formerly a theater critic for Uptown Flavor, artistic consultant for Ted X Harlem, co-producer of “Acting Together on the World Stage” conferences in 2007 and 2010 with Theatre Without Borders, intern at Jerash Festival of Arts and Culture in Amman, Jordan. J.J. has created work with Magic Future Box, Changeling Theatre, Castillo Theatre, LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, NY Arab American Comedy Fest, Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, and Berkshire Theatre Group. Presented at the Apollo Theater, Chamber Music America Conference, NYU, ReOrient Forum at Golden Thread Productions, Cultural Diplomacy and Global Performance at Georgetown Univ., and Arts in the One World at Brown Univ. She served on grant panels for TCG and Queens Arts Council. In 2010 she attended La Mama’s International Symposium for Directors in Umbria, Italy. She has taken courses towards M.F.A. in Directing at New School for Drama. J.J. holds a B.A. in Theater Arts and International Global Studies from Brandeis University and is a candidate for MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy, Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

  • Patty Bates-Ballard

    I read this post with interest as a mother of an 11 year-old son with Down syndrome, seizures, and other developmental disabilities, who uses a wheelchair. I am grateful to be a part of the Dallas Children’s Theater’s new effort to provide inclusive theater experiences for children like my son. A TCG/Doris Duke grant is allowing us to learn about inclusive, sensory-friendly theater through a partnership with Orlando Repertory Theater and Nashville Children’s Theater, both of which provide a number of these performances each year. My son thoroughly enjoyed his first live theater experience this spring because of performance modifications like reduced sound level and avoidance of flashing lights, as well as a relaxed, understanding, and supportive atmosphere.

    My son and I and the 300 others who attended Dallas Children’s Theater’s (DCT) first sensory-friendly performance truly felt welcomed and treated to an amazing theater experience as we watched Go, Dog. Go! There were genuine outbursts and laughter in response to what was happening on stage and loads of appreciation from parents who were able to relax and turn off the guarded mode that is nearly constant in our lives. Parents used words like glorious, warmth, compassion, thrilled, and non-judgmental in their feedback.

    As theaters strive to be more inclusive and to serve more diverse audiences, please do remember the many families who often forgo live performances because we fear being treated the way Emily and Max were. Through writing grant proposals for DCT, I have come to realize just how valuable theater is for my children’s brain development (see the book Smart Moves, for example), and I yearn to give them greater exposure to theater. I also want to make sure all families like mine hear about theater’s benefits and have a chance to see a live show in their own backyard. Hopefully the work that is taking place in Nashville, Orlando, and other places throughout the country can make this hope a reality. Dallas Children’s Theater, for example, is making a sincere effort to be a resource to any theater looking to learn more about making a performance sensory friendly. Thank you to everyone who speaks out on inclusion. It is a subject I hope we embrace and explore more deeply.

  • Jonathan Meth

    For more on autism and theatre you can download the report of the Autism and Theatre Industry inspiration day I co-Chaired in London in October 2011 at The Unicorn Theatre. http://www.solt.co.uk/autism-theatre. This came about thanks also to ATG who responded so well to one family’s bad experience at a performance of Wicked (see https://www.facebook.com/groups/greenwicked/?fref=ts)

  • Betty Siegel

    You can also find more on creating sensory friendly (relaxed rules) performances in the U.S. at: http://www.kennedy-center.org/accessibility/education/lead/SensoryGuidebook.pdf
    This guidebook was assembled by a group of noted experts in the field of autism and theater and published by the Office of Accessibillity at the Kennedy Center. Those interested in the chance to exchange information and learn more about what is happening in theaters and museums on this type of programming should attend the Center’s LEAD conference August 4 – 6, 2014 in Chicago! To register: https://www.kennedy-center.org/accessibility/education/lead/schedule.html