Christmas seems a long time ago doesn’t it? Easter is nearly upon us already, but there is a little blog I have been wanting to write about a trip I had to the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. I am lucky that the writing and blogging takes me to places that I wouldn’t normally go. I often say in my blogs about autism that museums need to go and see what is out there in terms of autism support. Going to the theatre or cinema and seeing how relaxed events are run can give you ideas as to how they might work in your own museum environment.
With that in mind I took a trip just before Christmas to see a relaxed performance at the National Theatre of ‘I want my hat back’ by Jon Klassen. Sadly my kids had something on in the afternoon so I knew they wouldn’t manage both events. My eldest daughter is autistic and it would be a big enough trip to come up for the play, we wouldn’t be able to do anything else that day. So feeling slightly at a loss without my kids I went on my own.
It is a sad fact that there are lots of barriers to visiting cultural events, autism can make life difficult for our family. Busy noisy places, lots of people, the unknown, I could go on and on. But I have never been to the National Theatre and I am not entirely sure why. I think I may be putting up a few barriers of my own.
The play was on at the temporary theatre, a perfect space for a family audience and a relaxed performance, fairly small, intimate and filled with a relaxed friendly vibe. On my way there I saw lots of families enjoying a Christmas trip up to town, so many families visit a panto this time of year. I still have nightmare flashbacks to the last time we attempted a panto, my daughter was about 6, we went with the school before she had a diagnosis. Lets just say it didn’t go very well. I think the chance to go out as a family and enjoy a Christmas treat is often taken for granted. Many autism families feel very isolated and don’t feel they can take part in activities just for ‘fun’.
I get there early and grab a coffee, I am unfamiliar with the story and treat myself to the beautifully illustrated book. I notice a few visitors wearing colourful hats and I can see this is a well loved story for many visitors, for me it is completely new. As ever it can sometimes be the journey to an event that causes problems for autistic visitors. If you can tackle train or tube, and the busy South Bank, you then have to wait for the performance to begin. The noise level in the foyer steadily rises and kids begin to run around. I find myself mentally assessing how my own daughter would cope. I nip to the loo and find the dreaded jet engine hand driers, a noise so loud it deafens the average visitor, but for a visitor with sensory sensitivities it can be the cause of a lot of distress. There are no hand towels so I use the hand drier, I turn to go and see a small boy with his hands clamped over his ears clearly in distress. My heart sinks that I have upset him, not a good start.
Then in the foyer, over the hubbub, I hear music, and the actors are coming, they are dressed in charming knitted leiderhosen and they wind around the foyer playing various instruments. It is a delightful way to start and prevents that stark, often difficult transition into the theatre space and start of the play. The children are entranced and follow them into the theatre space, we follow them in and find our seats. I should also add I have an in-depth visual story of the play, it tells me what is going to happen, who the characters are and also what the National Theatre space and foyer looks like.
I simply love the start just before the play begins, there are a few potted plants dotted around and children are invited up to take christmas decorations out of a suitcase and hang them on the plants. It is a lovely distraction and a welcoming feeling, there is no sitting in seats struggling, playing the waiting game before the play begins. It is a joy to see little ones crawling across the stage, there is no them and us, no hard delineation it feels like the rules are less rigid and defined.
I note families of all ages, perhaps slightly more from the younger age group. I see a few clutching the visual story, a slightly older girl on the front row frequently returns to her copy for reassurance. I think I only notice one parent take their child out during the performance but that is totally fine and there is none of the usual pressure to remain for the whole performance or the worry that you are disrupting others.
The play itself is a joy, beautifully acted, funny. Even though I don’t have my children I become the child and laugh and relax as I get swept up in something so simple as searching for a hat. I have a wonderful time, I am miserable I have not been able to bring my kids, I think they would have loved it.
Afterwards I contact the National Theatre and ask what adjustments were made to the content for the relaxed performance, it is often hard to know how the original is performed. The sound was softer, the musicians muted their instruments a touch, some of the rapid movements were re-choreographed so they were a bit less sudden, and house lights weren’t brought down all the way. Simple steps really nothing that massively changed the content.
I can’t wait to take my kids here for a relaxed performance, I will be looking out for the next one. But as I said at the beginning there are many barriers to accessing culture, autism is just one. I look around and the audience feels very white, very upper middle class, it is somewhere I have never thought of bringing my kids even without the issues autism brings. Autism makes me thinking about what we can and can’t do, it makes me think about why it is important to try. I think some of my own prejudices and feelings have made me put up my own barriers too.
I may have visited at Christmas time and it seems a long time ago but this trip has made me think a lot about barriers, the ones we put up and the ones other people put up. Access can be as simple as a visual story, an adjustment to lighting and sound but equally it can be complex. Autism is in a way my blindside, I have not thought past it or around it and I think I am only just beginning to understand the barriers to accessing culture are much bigger than I imagined.
With thanks to the National Theatre for the tickets.