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Christmas theatre for autistic audiences and children with learning disabilities

Birmingham and Wolverhampton theatres to put on relaxed shows over festive period

The cast of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at Birmingham Hippodrome
The cast of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at Birmingham Hippodrome

They are the unwritten rules of theatre etiquette.

When watching a performance, you turn your mobile phone off and keep quiet. You don’t get up and leave halfway through – unless it’s really terrible – and rustling sweet wrappers will probably get you some dirty looks.

So imagine what the reaction would be from your fellow theatre-goers if you started screaming, or rocking backwards and forwards.

This is why going to the theatre is usually an impossible task for people with autism and learning disabilities.

But this year has seen the arrival of several relaxed performances across the Midlands, specially designed to reduce anxiety in children, many of whom will be going to the theatre for the first time.

No behaviour will be frowned upon. Shouting out is fine, or leaving if it gets too much and coming back in – there will be chill out areas full of soft cushions.

Staff at Birmingham Hippodrome are being trained in how to cope with this new clientele, ready for the theatre’s first relaxed performance on January 30 at 1pm, of the pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, starring John Partridge, Stephanie Beacham and Gok Wan.

The Mac at Cannon Hill Park will be the first to stage relaxed performances in Birmingham. The Snow Dragon and Hansel and Gretel each has a relaxed performance at 11am on December 1 and December 8.

Performing arts producer Louisa Davies says: “We recognise that families are diverse and sometimes complex, however this should not be a barrier to their engagement with the arts.

“Our relaxed performances will go some way to providing an experience that many of us take for granted.”

And Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre will also have its first relaxed performance of Sleeping Beauty starring Joe Pasquale, on January 16 at 11am.

Michael Harrison, producer of both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, says: “I am thrilled that this new initiative will allow audiences with additional needs the chance to share in the magic of pantomime for the first time.”

The Hippodrome has been planning relaxed performances as a natural progression from the work it has done for six years with young people with learning difficulties.

Some of the loud and bright elements of the panto will be reduced, strobe lighting and pyrotechnics will be removed and both the staff and cast will be prepared for movement and noise within the auditorium.

It means youngsters like Brendan Nolan, 18, will have a much more comfortable trip to the theatre. Although he already feels at home there, as he is part of the theatre company One Of A Kind, which will be helping prepare the Hippodrome staff and cast for the relaxed performances.

Run by Richard Hayhow, who founded the Open Theatre Company, up to 20 teenagers with autism and learning disabilities meet every week at the Hippodrome for drama classes.

Encouraging them to role play and work with other people boosts their self-confidence and social skills. Even learning to look someone in the eye is a major achievement.

Brendan, from Kings Norton in Birmingham, has been learning drama from Richard since he was 14.

His mother Sandra explains: “I can honestly say, it has transformed his life.

“It has given him so much more confidence. The drama classes allow him to be himself, by also becoming other people.

“Brendan is autistic with learning and language disorders and a mental age of eight. Everything is a challenge, especially meeting new people. He gets very anxious but the drama classes have really helped him. If he meets someone new, he pretends he’s in a play so he can cope.

“When he gets uncomfortable, he stammers and can’t get his words out. But at drama, you can physically see him relaxing. His attention span is normally only about 10 minutes so it’s wonderful to see him getting so involved.

“Before he joined the drama group, he wouldn’t have been able to go to the theatre to see a production. He found it a threatening environment, but now he understands what’s going on. He was able to see The Lion King this summer and loved it.”

One of a Kind has put on several productions at the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre and an outdoor performance at Coventry’s Godiva Awakes event.

Richard Hayhow says: “The Hippodrome has given us a base and support. I couldn’t train the staff without my students, who can explain how coming to the theatre makes them feel and the sort of behaviour to expect at the relaxed performance.

“Every autistic child is different, but there are some things to look out for. For example, they take what you say literally. I heard a story about an autistic man who was behaving oddly in the street so the police were called.

“They told him to ‘hop in’ the police van. He literally hopped to the van. The officers thought he was taking the mickey but he wasn’t.

“We brought a group of students to see Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at the Hippodrome, but one of them panicked, started screaming and ran out. He couldn’t cope with all the people, the lights and the noise.

“The staff coped well but it will be a much better environment at the relaxed performance in January.

“The pressure comes from worrying about what other people are thinking of you, but you won’t be judged at a relaxed performance.

“When you go to a pop concert, you don’t expect people to sit there quietly. I actually enjoy relaxed performances more than standard ones because there are no worries.

“It’s important to involve the actors on stage, too. I’ve been to a relaxed performance at another theatre where the actors looked terrified, thinking ‘we can’t be put off, we just have to get through the show’.

“In Restoration times, the audiences used to get up on stage and the actors had to carry on, so they have had to cope with worse interruptions!

“Panto is ideal for the first relaxed performance, to bridge that gap between the cast and audience, as there is already plenty of shouting out. But I hope this will be the start of many relaxed performances, and for all sorts of productions.”

Birmingham Hippodrome hopes to raise £6,000 for its relaxed performance, to pay for training and to provide discounted tickets. If people donate on the Big Give website ( www.thebiggive.org.uk ), from 10am on December 5, 6 or 7, the charity will double pledges.

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