For many children and adults with developmental disabilities, health issues, special needs or sensory difficulties, attending a musical theatre performance has been a challenge.
Whether they face a struggle to stay seated during an entire show, react negatively to flashing or strobe lights or whether they face mobility issues, many find it difficult to attend a performance because of the constraints of traditional theatre practices and etiquette.
But a pilot project launched by Victoria Playhouse Petrolia (VPP) in conjunction with Community Living Wallaceburg has allowed hundreds of these individuals from Lambton County and beyond to attend first-rate musicals in a relaxed and casual environment where they can sit back and enjoy the show.
VPP introduced three special relaxed performances into their 2018 season where those with disabilities or sensory issues could attend without facing traditional challenges.
Relaxed performances are slightly condensed versions of the regular musicals that feature several accommodations, including brighter house lights, more liberty of movement and speech for audience members and a change in volume levels that help make the show a far less stressful and anxiety-ridden experience for attendees and their caregivers.
“These are performances for people who wouldn’t be comfortable at a regular performance,” said Community Living Wallaceburg executive director Deborah Hook. “You know as an audience member there’s kind of an etiquette – you’re in your seat, you don’t make noises, you respect the people around you. And in a relaxed performance, everyone in the audience and onstage knows that the sort of etiquette that takes place in a regular performance is not there. The needs are different.
“If someone makes noises or just can’t sit still, they can just get up and move,” she continued. “That’s just part of the performance. So it’s really an opportunity not only for those with disabilities but also for little kids or seniors who don’t get to go to theatre for a variety of reasons.”
VPP staff, volunteers and performers made the accommodations seamlessly, said VPP marketing manager and performer Callandra Dendias.
“It kind of depends on the show itself in terms of how we handled it, but typically we did things like leave our doors open, we left the lighting in house at half so it was a little bit brighter,” Dendias said. “We were also very happy to accommodate people who need some space around them.
“We went into it knowing that it was going to be a vocal crowd, there would be a lot of movement, but our performers are just so wonderful and engaged with the audience anyway that there were little, special moments during these relaxed performances that happened organically,” she added.
It was Hook, a long-time attendee of VPP shows, who first thought of the idea of asking artistic director David Hogan whether the theatre would be agreeable to hosting relaxed performances.
“I had been coming to the VPP for a long time,” Hook said. “And I saw the warmth and the animation and the feeling here. So with the people we work with and support, I thought it would be a really cool thing to bring relaxed performances to our region with the VPP.
“This is something that goes on in Stratford, it goes on in the U.K., so it’s kind of a movement of sorts,” she continued. “And I thought the VPP would be the perfect group to initiate the southwestern region to this kind of performance.”
Hogan had no hesitation about introducing relaxed performances into the 2018 season.
“We just stopped and we did it,” he said. “We made it happen.”
Feedback from the attendees for the first two shows (the third ‘relaxed performance’ of Mark Payne’s East Coast Kitchen Party takes place Sept. 13) was overwhelmingly positive, Hook said.
“They loved it. Just loved it,” she said. “For many of these people, they never get to the theatre. So to be able to come to the theatre and enjoy a professional, high-quality performance was exciting for them.
“For some people with disabilities, music is one of the things they most enjoy, so taking in a musical performance like this is such a treat for them,” Hook continued. “And of course the cast met them down in the lobby and people were signing autographs and taking pictures. These are things that are completely out of the ordinary for these folks and they just loved it.”
For performers, too, the experience was nothing short of spectacular, Dendias said.
“From the performers’ standpoint, after we finished the Good Ol’ Country Gospel relaxed show, we all looked at each other and said ‘that was a magical show’,” she said. “Music is universal and to see everybody enjoying it however they enjoy it is such an electric feeling.”
Looking ahead, Hook, Hogan and Dendias said they are interested in organizing more relaxed performances.
“It’s been a huge learning experience, but it’s been a great experience and we’ve had a lot of fun,” said Hook. “For us, the more opportunities we can have for people with disabilities in our region, the better.”
Tickets for the third and final ‘relaxed performance’ of the VPP’s season, the Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. showing of Mark Payne’s East Coast Kitchen Party, are still available at the box office at Petrolia’s Victoria Hall (411 Greenfield St, Petrolia), by calling 519-882-1221 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.