Leaving the Lights On

I’m at the Royal Exchange for Happy Days. When the play starts, the lights don’t go down, the doors stay open, even the exit signs stay on. A baby crawls towards the water next to the rotating hillock in which Maxine Peake sits, and I wonder how deep it is.  Maxine directs her next line to the baby and they sit up and smile. In the background there is a tinkle through the open door as bar staff try to clear up quietly. Normally that would annoy me but today it doesn’t. Surprisingly there are no rustling crisps or sweets, no mobile phones, and very little interruption. Above me in the gallery I hear the sound of small feet running. This is the relaxed matinee performance.

I hate the moment when theatre goes black. That feeling that you’re trapped. I’ll let you in on a secret, I pass out in the theatre every year or so. Usually it’s a combination of overheating and claustrophobia. When I do pass out I get 30 seconds’ warning. You can’t imagine the relief at knowing that there is an open door that I could walk through at any time without an entire theatre judging me.

From the Royal Exchange’s website:

Relaxed performances are designed to welcome anyone who will benefit from a more relaxed performance environment and who might be anxious about attending the theatre for a range of reasons. Traditionally this has included people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, sensory and communication disorders, or a learning disability. For each Relaxed Performance we make small changes to the staging, there is a relaxed attitude to noise and movement and we have breakout areas for use during the performance.

A few months back I went to Hope Mill to see Abooo Theatre’s The Replacement Child in a relaxed daytime performance. Along the front of the stage were lined up several playmats with babies and young children sitting and lying. Periodically a parent would take their child out of the theatre and then return. The lights were left on, the atmosphere was relaxed, there was a tolerance of a low level of noise. It worked really well; parents who otherwise would have been unable to attend, saw the show.

I’ve never seen a dementia friendly show but I have seen how such performances light up my mum’s life for days afterwards.

Do performers have to work harder in relaxed performances? I suspect yes. The traditional dynamic that the performer is on stage and the audience must pay silent attention is replaced by an agreement that if the audience makes noise, or do something unpredictable (to the performer) then it is up to the performer to adapt.

But maybe that is how it should be anyway. Maybe we should be taking elements of the relaxed performance and incorporating them into every theatre show. Perhaps theatre is more inclusive if we leave the house lights on.


Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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