So I am honoured to have been approached and asked to write a post championing a powerful National campaign , making theatre accessible for all . The Relaxed Performance Campaign has been set up to make theatre more accessible to those with Hidden Disabilities by showing more relaxed performances on certain days that are kinder to the senses. Aspects of the performance are amended, such as the lighting and the sound, to be kinder to the sensory sensitivities that these individuals may have.
This post does contain video footage and quotes from those involved with the campaign, used with their permission. This post does not contain any affiliate links.
The Relaxed Performance Campaign was set up and is run by ITV’s Dancing on Ice Judge Jason Gardiner our very own Autism Ambassador and chair of Autism Support Crawley Maria Cook .
Maria does a lot of work in West Sussex and for Gatwick Airport with spreading Awareness of Autism, building links within the community and making things happen for our individuals with Hidden Disabilities.
Maria runs coffee mornings, committee meetings , and parent and carer support groups, she does fund raisers and family events where parents can get together and talk through their challenges and not feel alone . She is very hands on in her involvement with community projects to make places more accessible for children and adults with hidden disabilities such as Autism. Purely voluntary Maria realised the day her son Ryan was diagnosed with profound Autism, that she wanted to make a difference. She is very well known locally and well respected for the work that she does. One project she has been involved with is to install a wheelchair swing in our local park for children with disabilities.
Having a son of her own on the Spectrum, she lives with Autism and it’s complexities on a daily basis and is an excellent advocate for the condition. With the support of her husband Lee , who is also very passionate about this cause ,and extremely supportive of her, they make things happen for the community.
The Relaxed Performance Campaign is just one of the many initiatives she is managing and I am so proud to be a part of this. She approached me asking if I would like to be involved with the campaign and write a post about it. Of course i was more than happy to get involved. Having a passion for theatre myself and of course being an advocate for spreading autism awareness, I am delighted to be writing this post to give you some information about this campaign , how it can help you and what the future holds.
First of all I would like to direct you to the Relaxed Performance Campaign Facebook page, where you can find out a wealth of information and find out about up coming events . Maria is always looking for parent volunteers , if you have a few hours spare to help , she would love to hear from you.
The Facebook page link is:
Details of this amazing campaign can also be found on Instagram and Twitter.
Background to Relaxed Performance
The RP campaign actually started in January 2019 but was launched officially in March. Maria has been interested in setting up the RP Campaign for the last 4 years as she was never able to access the theatre or pantomimes with her son Ryan. Maria felt that it was unfair that families with children with additional needs should be missing out on a British family tradition and she made it a personal mission to change this. She saw on social media one day that the lovely Jason Manford was performing in a show called “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang” and the advert she saw was for a relaxed performance version of the show. When she saw this it lit a fire in her belly and she realised that this is what she wanted to achieve, relaxed performances everywhere, and specifically relaxed pantomimes.
From that point on she made it her personal mission to bring relaxed performance to the Hawth Crawley and make a relaxed performance version of the Christmas panto. Having made her decision and realising what she wanted to achieve she just needed to find a starting point.
As chairperson of Autism Support Crawley, Maria and her charity were short listed for a Community Award for best local support group. The award ceremony was held at the Hawth theatre in Crawley and she attended with her husband Lee and some other trustees. Sitting in front of her in the auditorium was the general manager of the Hawth Theatre himself and hosting the award ceremony was the producer of the annual Christmas panto held at the Hawth, Paul Hendy who has also been on ITV , so Maria though to herself, its now or never, and decided to seize the opportunity.
Autism Support Crawley actually won the award which is a huge accolade. When presented with the award on stage Maria approached them there and then with her ideas and told them she wants a Relaxed Performance Panto. After the award ceremony they all met up and discussed the plans and that is how it all began.
Maria spoke to Dave Watmore , general manager of the Hawth and Paul Hendy of Evolution pantomimes in the bar after the award, and they were very very interested in the idea and jumped onboard. Maria explained that she believes it is unfair that families and siblings of children with disabilities and the children themselves were missing out on the panto and she felt extremely passionate about changing this.
They put their heads together and together with Maria’s knowledge of Autism and being a parent carer herself and their knowledge of the theatre they devised a plan to get the Relaxed panto up and running. Maria already had a lot of ideas about how to tweak the performances to make them more sensory friendly.
Since this conversation there have been 3 years of relaxed pantos and a few other relaxed performances in between. The campaign has been so successful so far with over 300 people attending the Relaxed panto this year that would not have normally had the opportunity. When she talks about this i can see the passion in her eyes and hear it in her voice. Click on the link below for some moving video footage of children talking about Relaxed Performance.
Last panto season at the Hawth was Aladdin and the star of the show was Jason Gardiner, they ran a relaxed performance of this panto . Jason Gardiner was fantastic , I myself actually did go and watch the show, also known for his very honest comments on the Dancing on Ice judging panel and known on the show as Mr Nasty, Jason actually has a heart of gold and is extremely passionate about this campaign himself. He has become a close family friend to Maria and particularly her son, who he has become inseparable from.
Jason had heard about the Relaxed Panto through Maria’s social media posts and hashtags and he expressed an interest as it is something that is close to his heart. He approached her , asking to meet her after the panto and asked her all about it and what she had achieved so far. Jason arranged a meet and greet for after the relaxed showing of the panto , for all audience participants, front of house , cast and support staff and Maria said it is an occasion that will live with her forever. Such an emotional and profound experience that reduced people to tears.
Jason will say the moment that changed his life forever was meeting Maria’s son Ryan. Ryan is profoundly Autistic and needs a lot of care. During the performance Ryan got so excited whenever Jason appeared on stage and was drawn to him, and after the show when he met Jason, still in full costume and make up, he ran up to him and gave him the biggest hug. Ryan picked up the passion and kindness of Jason and he was drawn to him. Jason says that is the moment that he realised he needed to do something for the campaign, and he has been driven and passionate about this campaign ever since. Maria gets very emotional when she talks about this and how Jason and Ryan are now inseparable and the best of friends. Ryan idolises Jason and they have regular contact.
Once the “Dancing on Ice” season had finished Jason and Maria put their heads together to come up with a plan on how to move the campaign forward from there. Jason lives in the theatre world and knows all the top end people from the west end shows in London. Jason’s mission from day 1 has been to make the relaxed performance nationwide and he wants every single theatre and production company in the UK to make adaptations to shows and look at ways they can cater for those with additional needs.
The following is taken from Jason’s official press release. “On January 2nd, 2019, I had a life altering experience when I took part in my first Relaxed Performance at the Hawth Theatre. Being an actor on stage during this special performance was deeply humbling and very illuminating. After the show my cast mates and I went front of house to meet our incredible audience of kids and their families, many of whom were members of Autism Support Crawley. The genuine joy, excitement, and love that we were shown by every single child with Autism, significant social communication needs and learning difficulties, their siblings, parents and grandparents had such a profound affect and compelled me to learn more”.
Taken from Jason’s official press release “
Talking with Maria Cook ( chair, Autism Support Crawley), I now understand that most children and adults, their families and carers living with not only Autism, but other Hidden Disabilities such as ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder to name but a few, can’t go to the theatre as it is too overwhelming and the ‘rules’ and expectations are too demanding to conform to. This hit me very hard as I truly believe theatre should be available to everyone, especially children with Autism and other associated conditions. The benefits they get from attending the theatre cannot be overstated, but moreover, it allows them to share this experience with their families in a safe, understanding and accepting environment.
With the endorsement of Autism Support Crawley and other recognised Autism charities we aim to spearhead a national awareness campaign to make Relaxed Performances something that all UK theatres and Producers offer as common Practice”.
Jason looked at ways the theatres can make regular performances into relaxed ones and the relaxed performance team put together a guide on how the theatres can achieve this. This can now be sent to all the theatres across the UK, so they can make the minor adjustments needed.
Because Jason has so many celebrity connections he decided to have T Shirts printed off for the campaign and have everyone wear one and become involved. Maria made social media pages for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and spread the word across all possible platforms. In march of this year he announced the launch of the Campaign on “This Morning” with Phillip and Holly. The link below shows the interview.
As soon as Jason went live on national television, Maria said her phone went crazy with people wanting to connect and follow on Social Media and that’s when the campaign really gathered momentum. They were contacted by theatres, companies , people with autism, Parent carers , so many people wanting to get involved and Maria said it was so overwhelming and she realised at that point that she needed more people on board.
The following is taken from Jason’s official press release ……
“I launched the campaign on This Morning, thanks to Holly and Phil who made that possible. Now I’m reaching out to all my high profile chums and colleagues to ask if they will support us by wearing our Relaxed Performance T-shirts which have been proudly donated by Moonpig.com. We are asking everyone who agrees to take part to simply take a selfie wearing the T-shirt and post it on all social platforms including the campaign’s accounts and hashtags:
Facebook Relaxed Performance
#RP“ ( Jason Gardiner official press statement content)
The online company “Moonpig” became a sponsor for the T Shirt campaign, through Jason’s contacts and things have been moving forward faster and faster ever since.
HOW THE SHOWS ARE ADAPTED.
Jason and Maria and the RP team have devised a manual that they send out to theatres , detailing the small adaptations that need to be made to regular performances, to make them relaxed. Small things like the lights will be a little brighter, usually about 30% brighter, depending on the auditorium, lower sound and no surprises through out the show such as the cast spraying water or running out into the audience or any sudden loud noises.
The theatre will then run regular performances but will allocate a particular day to a relaxed performance and this will be advertised across social media and on bill boards.
The cast of the show will then be briefed on the relaxed performance and told about how to implement the changes that are needed. When talking to the cast of the shows , most of them will say they prefer the relaxed performance version of the show as the audience will be more engaged and because the lighting is brighter, they can actually see the audience and how much they are enjoying the show.
Front of house adaptations range from turning off large TV screens with bright flashing graphics, and maybe turning music down lower or off , and keeping flashing lights to a minimum, as flashing lights can trigger an epileptic fit.
Loud noises and flashing lights can be extremely uncomfortable for an individual that has sensory processing difficulties. They have looked at tannoy announcements and ways to reduce the impact of those. They have briefed staff and cast members on what to expect when dealing with an individuals with Autism. They explained how to deal with people with special needs.
They have also implemented a system where the theatre will open the doors to the audience a little earlier, to give them time to buy their tickets and find the seats and get themselves comfortable. All these changes are minor and not expensive yet so effective.
THE FUTURE OF THE RP CAMPAIGN
The overall goal of the campaign is that all theatres and shows will have relaxed performances across the UK. They want the RP to be held on suitable days ie not school days, so the whole family has access to these showings.
They are also going to look at adults with Autism and how they can make RP applicable to them as at the minute the focus seems to be primarily on children with additional needs.
They want to change the way that RP is advertised as they feel it could be a lot better. Since starting the campaign there have been 349 Relaxed Performances that have either taken place or are scheduled, however Maria and Jason feel that the advertising is not doing the campaign justice. They want to change this and make the advertising more effective. They want to reach out to more people and families.
Maria and Jason have stumbled across some set backs during the campaign mainly with convincing some theatres that putting on an RP is financially viable , as some believe they will lose money. By attracting more families with children that have additional needs , to the theatre, surely they will make more money. Maria and Jason believe that it is a basic human right to be able to have access to the theatre and that everyone should be included and have that opportunity in their life, including those with additional needs. Jason himself has said that “theatre can change lives”,and that is what is at the heart of this Campaign.
HOW THE PUBLIC CAN HELP THE CAMPAIGN.
Share , share , share……..on social media, on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIN , everywhere, share the RP pages and support this amazing campaign.
Maria has a very small but committed RP team that work with her behind the scenes, and they have helped the campaign immensely. What Maria would like is anyone that has links to Special Educational Needs, such as Autism, and any other Hidden Disabilities or additional needs, such as individuals with Autism, parent carers, charitable organisations, to come on board and follow the RP campaign on social media, spread the word, re tweet and share, contact theatres and production companies and get the message out there.
Locally in Maria’s area she is always happy to accept volunteers to the campaign, ideally people with time on their hands, that are able to attend meetings, people with some IT skills, people that are positive and supportive of the campaign that are willing to champion it. Numbers are important and what the campaign needs is followers and supporters to spread the message nationwide.
Theatres and production companies need to know the reasons why relaxed performances are so important. It’s not just a tick box exercise, this campaign is giving people the chance to fulfil dreams and live the best life they can and have the same opportunities that neurotypical people have , and why shouldn’t people with special needs, have the same opportunities and access to a great British tradition that is the theatre and Christmas Panto.
Thank you for reading . Please share , like , comment , follow and if you have any questions please contact me ❤️🎈
Have a look at the videos below to see how the campaign is affecting lives..