In a previous blog post I discussed some of the limitations of the Relaxed Performance (RP). The main thread of my argument was that such performances tend to reflect a specifically neurotypical understanding of what a theatre experience should offer its audience, and therefore how it’s audience should respond. This, I suggested, can sometimes result in a rather narrow form of artistic engagement for audience members with more complex needs.
Far from being a critic of the cultural shift towards the RP model, I see it as an encouraging and significant step towards opening up the theatre world to people with diverse needs. The growing popularity of this model has created an opportunity for the further development of different practices among theatre artists.
Theatre producer Kitty Parker argues for
“…A range of different approaches to theatre from which people can choose: open doors, through which they’re invited to enter. The more open doors there are, the more people want/are able to go through them. It’s actually the opposite of working towards a common denominator: an ‘integrated’ theatre which is theoretically accessible to all. That would result in work that is emasculated and deeply dull”.
What I’m advocating, then, is a plurality of well-pitched, different performance experiences, which take into account the various ways in which people can enjoy theatre. This is something that I believe the UK can pioneer. At the first annual Upfront Performance Network Forum, held in London on January the 18th, I was encouraged and invigorated by the number of artists with innovative ideas in this area. What’s exciting, are creative responses to these needs – rather than solutions to the problem of access. What I’d like to propose here then, is my own suggestion for one new fully accessible model: the ‘Enriched Performance’.
So what is an Enriched Performance? Well, as with the Relaxed Performance, this model is adaptive and aims to make existent theatrical productions more accessible. However, there are two key differences in terms of focus: the emphasis is on artistic rather than physical accessibility; and it is targeted towards a wider spectrum of people, particularly those complex needs.
In aiming to provide an accessible theatre experience for people with conditions such as autism, the RP seeks to eliminate those aspects of a show which audience members may find scary or triggering, such as unexpected noises and sudden lighting effects. Yet, to my mind, this means the process of adaptation starts from a rather negative place – What mustn’t participants be exposed to, rather than What will they enjoy? The Enriched Performance – while taking into account physical factors – instead uses as its main source of inspiration, the things that people with varying processing systems often enjoy more intensely than neurotypical people. These may include: sound, live music, vibration of voice, tone of text, objects, and lighting shifts. The term ‘Enriched’ therefore extends an invitation to anyone who may enjoy a version of a performance that is more visceral, intimate, tactile and sensory than the traditional proscenium arch version of a show.
In The Aesthetics of Affect, Simon O’Sullivan states:
“Art is less involved in making sense of the world and more involved in exploring the possibilities of being, of becoming, in the world. Less involved in knowledge and more involved in experience, in pushing forward the boundaries of what can be experienced.”
Yet the issue when adapting existent pieces for neurodiverse audiences is made more complex by the question of faithfulness to the original. In a RP, one usually finds aspects of the production viewed as being at its core – the plot, the characters, the dialogue – are kept intact. The Enriched Performance, however, offers an alternative perspective, suggesting that the ‘essence’ of a theatrical production can be found as much in the tones, the rhythms, and structure of the piece as these traditional, narratively-focused aspects. Such elements then become the theatre-artist’s route into the adaptation process: generating a radical new interpretation of a work, while retaining its essential integrity.
I’d like to provide a little background here as to where this approach originated from and why I feel it offers a new perspective. I trained as a Theatre Artist making collaborative, devised theatre, and as such, have always been interested in playing with context, form and spectatorship in performance. This led me to wander happily into making theatre for people with complex needs, which felt like a natural fit both for my interests and skill-set.
In becoming absorbed in this work, I noticed a clear crossover between the creative needs of this audience – for the work to be tactile, intimate, visceral, and sensory: with the practices of experimental theatre and live art.
For example, in 512 hours, by performance artist Marina Abramovic, participants were invited to put on noise-blocking earphones, and were led around the gallery by the artist. Activities within the space encouraged people to be “present in the moment”. This created an environment that was entirely responsive to it’s audience, and which placed the focus on minute shifts in light, sound and movement. These reflect exactly the principles on which any worthwhile piece of specialised performance for neurodiverse audiences would be based.
Countless performance pieces beckon us into a different way of experiencing the world: Stifler’s Dinge, by Heiner Goebbels, beautifully illustrates a performative space that does not demand you to observe in a neurotypical/cerebral way. It is a deeply visceral experience which appeals to your subconscious. The action hypnotises you into a deeply relaxed state – removing the emotional demands of performer on the audience.
The piece is indeed described as:
…leaving its meaning and relevance up to its audience. Deconstructing Heiner Goebbels’ strange and wonderful world of theatre without people will never do it justice. It’s an experience that doesn’t scream the creator’s intent…This cacophony of sounds and contradictory images are blended to “raise questions” and “share experiences”. The genius of Stiflers Dinge is that you take whatever you want from it.
To not pair a performance such as this; which invites interpretation and responses on many different levels, with an audience full of many different minds and often unpredictable responses, surely seems an oversight?
In performing for audiences with complex needs, I often reflect on how the regular usurping of logic by nonsense, seems to speak directly to the type of absurdist, surrealist theatre produced by companies such as Duckie and of course the masters of the avant-garde, such as Robert Wilson. One could argue that surrealism may even posses the potential to connect with more varied ways of relating to world. Indeed the reason I enjoy surrealism is because it reflects how I experience the world with my whole body, rather than how I intellectualise it.
This is echoed by Julia Kristeva; when talking about experimental performance, she states:
“It is the body in its entirety which is asked to participate through its sensations, through vision obviously, but also hearing, touch, on occasions smell. As if these artists […] sought to place us in a space […] to make us feel – through the abstractions, the forms, the colours, the volumes, the sensations – a real experience.”
I spend a lot of my spare time seeking out these types of performances as an audience member. Yet I am constantly left bewildered by how underexploited the potential crossover between experimental theatre and specialist theatre for neurodiverse audiences is. One rather stark observation is that I have never seen anyone with an observable learning difficulty or complex needs attend a single live art or experimental performance I have been to.
Yet by utilisiing the tools naturally offered to us by this work; I believe we can imaginatively ‘solve the problem’ of making theatre artistically accessible for neurodiverse audiences; including people with severe autism, profound and multiple learning disabilities, complex needs and even later stage dementia.
So how do we go about adapting existing productions into Enriched Performances? Of course, the ‘how’ will vary from production to production and collaboration to collaboration, but I believe there to be a few key principles:
The first is that a company seeking to create an Enriched version of a production must collaborate with a specialised artist. By this I mean someone with experience both of experimental theatre and creating specialised performances targeted at those with complex needs. It is also vital that this artist collaborates with the company producing the piece from the beginning, and throughout the whole creative process.
The relationship between the specialised artist and the company is central to creating an effective Enriched Performance. The artist must be viewed as an integral part of the creative team, enhancing the process, expanding the ideas and vision, and equipping the performers both with new skills enabling them to work with a more diverse range of audiences, and an embodied understanding of the piece. It should be viewed as inviting an audience to experience a piece on new levels, rather than as a process which somehow dilutes, hinders or simplifies the work.
As an example, I refer to a project I collaborated on many years ago with The Drawing Theatre. Our process involved taking live images from a pre-existing theatre piece I had directed, and presenting them on stage to a group of life drawers who the interpreted the images through drawing, collage and words. We sustained these images for whole sittings and played with their form and duration. Viewing the drawings, collages and poems created afterwards was one of the most enriching things I have ever had as part of a theatre creating process; seeing other people’s interpretations, seeing the piece from a totally different angle opened up many themes I had not considered to be in the subtext of our work. I genuinely believe it led to a richer final version of the performance; with greater clarity, and performed with a more embodied understanding of the material.
In this way, I believe the process of creating an Enriched version of a show could and should be mutually beneficial.
There are of practical implications involved in producing a successful Enriched Performance (EP). Here, leading RP specialist Ben Fletcher-Watson considers just a few:
1) Cost – As with Relaxed Performances, tickets would need to be subsidised, with additional free tickets offered to carers and companions. The capacity of an Enriched Performance would no doubt be smaller than an RP. However, it is possible to have such events fully funded, as The Festival and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, proved by raising an extra £30,000, largely from one donor, to fund one RP.
2) Another barrier could be fixing an appropriate slot – RPs are often ‘buried’ as weekday or Sunday matinees, rather than seen as integral to a run. One would hope that progressive, committed venues would help forge the way by programming an EP alongside the original version as part of the wider programme.
3) ‘Otherness’ / RPs being ‘not what we do’ – although EPs offer a great way around this, by wrapping accessible performance up with a longer run, and making it an integral part of the offer by the theatre company.
4) There’s also the issue of extended rehearsal time required to create an EP alongside a mainstream show. Companies would need to make a strong case to funders for extra money, not only for the specialised artist as part of the team, but also for the additional weeks rehearsals to make the EP.
5) Sales – audience development is still badly needed to guarantee neurodiverse audiences attend. All parties would need to commit to this as part of a longer term vision of building this audiences trust. Embedding, and outreach strands can help by being built into funding applications as part of a tour.
On a positive note, EPs can offer a new direction, which would attract positive press and maybe even diverse funding routes for venues and companies.
I am currently looking to pilot the Enriched Performance model, and would love to hear from any theatre companies interested in developing this concept in partnership.
And, as always, I look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts on this post.
Lead Artist: Upfront Performance Network