When I first met David Bellwood who is in charge of access at the Globe Theatre, the sun was shining, it was a beautiful day, we sat on the roof terrace with the River Thames running by and talked about access, autism and relaxed performances. I came away with one burnt right shoulder and a feeling that, although it was great to hear about their relaxed performance, they only had one a year and quite frankly it didn’t seem enough.
Now a new artistic director has been appointed and her mission is to see the Globe Theatre and her new 2016 ‘Wonder Season’ become accessible to the widest possible audience. This Emma Rice sounds like my type of woman. This isn’t just about visitors on the autistic spectrum, but families with young children, those with learning disabilities, hearing and sight impairments and also those with sensory communication disorders. Basically anyone who find they often face barriers on visiting the theatre.
So I have returned to catch up with David on a bitterly cold January day to find out how this new accessible vision for the Globe will unfold. The current programme contains one relaxed performance a year, normally in February. Sponsored by Deutsche Bank, it falls under the remit of the Globe’s education department and, rather wonderfully, is free. This is obviously not a financially sustainable model in the long term. David and I talked about the financial implications and how relaxed performances work. Unlike a major production like the Lion King which runs a successful programme of relaxed performances, every play at the Globe is different: different actors, props and directors. There is a collaborative process to minimise sensory issues whilst not taking away from the drama of the storytelling.
While there are challenges to adapting performances, the Globe also lends itself remarkably well to a less formal theatre experience that can work with a more diverse audience. I read a piece by David from 2013 –
“Theatre has its own set of social rules, unwritten and to some mysterious.”
It is true, and for most people something that you don’t ever give a second thought to – sitting in the dark, not making a sound, not allowed to move or ask questions. The lights go down, the sound comes up and an assault on the senses begins which, to some, can be magical and immersive, and to others frightening and disorientating. But with the Globe Theatre many of these ‘rules’ are already relaxed, there is no formulaic seating in rows and rows for example. David has noticed that the seating and standing in the round seems to have a more relaxed effect on the audience. There are no house lights to come up and down, often no microphones and the actors are perhaps more used to the interplay with the audience, the atmosphere at the Globe is special and different.
On their regular relaxed performances visitors are supported with a visual story, there is an in-depth access guide and a chill-out area if needed. They run an Access Membership scheme, which allows two-way dialogue to highlight specific problems. For the next relaxed performance in February David already has a list to be wary of: no clowns, no balloons and no strong smells.
It is exciting to see theatre being opened up in this way, I struggle to get to the theatre with my daughter who has autism, I can’t think of a single time we have been as a whole family. I recently read an article in the Guardian on why parents miss out on culture and theatre when they have children, add a child with special needs and your chances of getting anywhere can become extremely limited. It is not just about parents missing out on culture but welcoming a new generation to theatre too.
It is quite a challenge for David and his team to get it all right, but his enthusiasm and commitment is unwavering and we talk about the training programme he wants to undertake for staff and volunteers. He hopes this will lay the groundwork for the Globe to become the most accessible theatre venue in London, and having support from Emma Rice, the artistic director, will make a huge and important difference.
We have an interesting conversation about the difference between autism friendly, relaxed and inclusive performances. What does it actually mean to put on a relaxed performance? David feels it is not about ‘dumbing down’ and stripping away the uniqueness of a particular play but listening to the visitors and understanding their needs and where possible making adjustments. He tells me how the actors love the performances specifically because the audience doesn’t aways react in a standard way. An autistic audience in particular can take the dialogue and action quite literally, asides to the audience, are readily taken up as an invitation to answer by an enthused crowd.
We finish our conversation considering theatre accessibility as a whole, not just for visitors but for actors too. More inclusive and supportive rehearsal spaces, disabled actors on stage and screen who will ultimately become role models for so many who feel there is no place for them in today’s society. All this starts to filter through from the kind of work David is doing. Sometimes it is small-scale, sometimes it is small steps but they can all make a difference. How will my daughter know that she might want to become an actor if she has never seen an actor give a live performance? How do I show her all the things out there she could do if she wants to?
David is using the confidence he has got from running one relaxed performance a year to running a whole summer programme full of them. Maybe the Globe really is the best place for theatre to become more inclusive. It is a transition theatre, the open air, the history it brings, perhaps it is the best place to start an introduction to theatre.
I am testing that theory out myself by taking my family to the next relaxed performance at the Globe in February. I can’t wait, I am so excited, fingers crossed it all goes well, but if it doesn’t I know there will be more relaxed performances to try and we don’t have to wait a whole year to try again.
I think what I like about the Globe’s approach is that the relaxed performance is not just for people with autism or just for disabled people, it is a just a relaxed performance and anyone can go, it is for all those who find those rigid, unwritten, and mysterious theatre rules too constricting. So families feel they can come, so those who have anxiety about visiting the toilet, so those who don’t like dark spaces or bright lights can come.
We may go in February and my daughters may hate it, they may find it boring (I hope not) but at least I will be giving them the opportunity and chance to decide for themselves. No one will be telling us what we can and can’t do. I think this summer at the Globe it really will be a ‘Wonder Season’, but it will be the wonder of all those who are able to visit for the first time that will make it so very special.
The new ‘Wonder Season’ at the Globe begins in April and it will have a relaxed performance for every play on the main stage, you can find a list of dates for all 6 performances here – http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/your-visit/access/booking-access-theatre-tickets/relaxed-performances and booking opens to the general public on the 15 February 2016. Tickets will not be free as they are for the Deutsche Bank sponsored performance in February, but with the Globe’s Access Membership you may be eligible for a reduced price ticket. Membership to the Access Scheme is on a case by case basis for full details please see their website or email email@example.com.