Recently, theatres across Canada have begun to adapt their performances to accommodate guests with sensory sensitivities, which are often symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and dementia.
These adaptations may also benefit those who experience reduced mobility, those who may need the bathroom more than usual and people with small children who can’t sit through an entire performance.
“Theatre can seem like kind of this elitist thing that only certain people can go to,” Elena Anciro, education and community engagement manager at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (Royal MTC), says.
“We need to think about the ways we can make changes and offer a different kind of performance so that everyone can feel welcome.”
These modified performances, called relaxed performances, are different from the usual production in two departments: technical and front-of-house.
The technical component includes reducing harsh lighting and sounds, slowing down transitions and keeping the house lights on dim to enable people to leave during the performance. Anciro explains that the special effects are made to be less startling.
In the front-of-house area, the sound on the ticketing machines is turned down, fidget toys are available, and there are two quiet rooms where people can go to calm down.
Dorothy Schwab, a registered occupational therapist and FASD educator at the Manitoba FASD Centre, explains that reducing the noise level helps individuals with FASD enjoy the show, due to their heightened sensitivity to sound. She says that carpeted floors and the option to wear headphones are also useful.
“Lights can really trigger behaviour and sensory issues a lot, too,” she says.
She suggests a low-stimulus seating spot, such as the front or to the side of the theatre, since a person with FASD might be distracted from the show if there are too many audience members in front of them.
Calming tools such as hand fidgets or chewing gum are useful in keeping a person focused on the show. For further modifications, Schwab recommends softer fabric on the seats, chairs that can rock and having calming visual colours such as blue or green on the walls.
The Royal MTC offers a visual guide on their website, which gives patrons the opportunity to prepare for the theatrical experience. Schwab says that this helps explain the expectations, or rules, of the theatre, which is helpful for individuals with FASD.
“You break it down into … visual concrete expectations, and that’s just part of preparing the individuals ahead of time for what’s going to happen,” she says.
Anciro stresses that the quality of the performance remains unaffected. She says the theatre has received positive feedback from patrons.
The Royal MTC hosted their first relaxed performance in November of 2016, for the production of The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, with help from the theatre development fund in New York and advice from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network of Winnipeg. Anciro says that it continues to be a learning experience.
“We’re learning, and our patrons are part of that learning,” she says.