It would have been difficult to not feel moved by what the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre and the cast and crew of Sleeping Beauty, the theatre’s Christmas pantomime for 2013, did on Thursday 16th January 2014 for autistic people.
By organising and being part of a relaxed performance of the production, a matinee showing was adapted to the needs of autistic people and by looking at the reaction of autistic people as they left the theatre and the cast as they left the stage, over a year of hard work and planning had been worth every second.
Going along as a 27-year-old who has lived with and got to know a high-functioning form of Aspergers Syndrome inside out through good and bad moments, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew there may be some sensory overload from autistic people who had bought tickets to watch the performance and I knew some of the story may not have been understood, but I was blown away as I sat and took notes with other bloggers.
They understood their audience and they put their audience at ease within minutes of the curtain going up, to use a theatre-based cliché when I really should know better!
Pasquale, an all-round entertainer who must surely be instantly recognisable by sight (and by sound!) to everybody in Great Britain, became tuned into the literal approach of autism immediately. He made a joke about having to go to the doctor to have a mole checked on his back, and then turned around to show off a rather fetching animal who found a home on him!
Straight away, this made me realise not only Pasquale but also Dupree, Evans and a wide supporting cast had understood who they were trying to entertain.
Every instruction to the audience was clear and was delivered with a genuine affection. Dupree asked the audience to say “Faaabulous!” when he asked them how he looked, Pasquale asked the audience to say “Wotcha Muddles!” when he said “Wotcha kids?”, and the audience obliged every time.
There was a connection throughout, with the highlight being when a member of the audience hugged Pasquale as he walked off stage to interact with everybody who had come along to watch, and this is something I was intrigued by.
Had the cast got together to talk about the relaxed performance before it began? What did they know about autism in advance of it? I had a chance to grab a couple of minutes to chat with Evans, an actress who has appeared in ITV’s Coronation Street, Channel 4’s Hollyoaks and Sky 1’s Mile High, amongst other programmes after the performance had ended.
On finding ways of interacting together, Evans said: “We all had a meeting where Martin (Hope, the stage manager for the production) got us all together and took us through all of the changes.
“He told us there were no pyrotechnics or things like that because sometimes they are cues and we might only wait for the bang! We normally wait for the bang, so if there is no bang and we don’t go on, we were just made aware of things like that to make sure there were no massive gaps in the show to be aware of.
“But in terms of us talking to one another, it was pretty much sit back, be really aware of what’s happening and wait and see what happens! If we normally leave a pause for a big laugh or a pause for a big boo, we just had to be aware it might not happen but everybody was so response that it was a really similar show to what we normally do.
“It was such a positive response today that it felt amazing. I actually felt pleased to be a princess!”
Evans is no stranger to autism either. She went on to say: “When I was a teaching assistant at my old high school when I got into the sixth form, there was a boy in my class who had autism.
“I always find it fascinating because I can be quite dramatic and over the top but with this boy, I suddenly found all of the patience in the world. I realised even though I’m quite extrovert, I had a good relationship with him and found a really good way of talking to him.
“I think the trick is to find a new way of talking to people.”
These ways of interacting with a predominantly autistic audience were appreciated and by finding the experience of performing so positive, Hope told me how profoundly affected the cast were by the reaction they received.
A stage manager with 12 years of experience, he said: “They were expecting the show to be vastly different but they actually did the same show they normally do.
“A lot of them were quite emotional because they found it a humbling experience, and they realised how so many people in the audience got so much out of it. That made them really happy.
“The fact they changed peoples lives is something they’ll remember for a long time. I think it affected them more than anybody else would realise.”
Hope and Janine Graeme, the Wolverhampton Grand’s Marketing Officer, acknowledged that worthwhile changes were made.
Quiet areas were set up for autistic people who may feel their senses get overloaded at times during the performance, “Boo!” and “Hiss!” cards were printed for anybody who didn’t feel confident enough to join in and get into the real panto spirit, and training was given to all theatre staff on what could be expected when issues cropped up with autistic people who could or could not communicate.
Following the success of the performance, Hope added: “The whole thing is an experiment. You don’t know how people will react until they’re actually there but now its been such a big success for the Grand, they have something to go from.
“You don’t need to change much of the show. You just need to make people feel a little bit more comfortable so they can leave if they want to, and maybe make it slightly less scary but the majority of the show was very similar.
“I would love to do one in London on a show which was suited to having a relaxed performance. A lot of the cast are nervous about doing a relaxed performance and I could tell there was apprehension but as soon as it started in Wolverhampton, they were fine. The more they do, the more it becomes part of their everyday work.”
Why go to the trouble of adapting a theatre for a relaxed performance though? Why make theatre accessible for all?
Graeme found autistic people have struggled in the past as they haven’t been able to deal with the surprises and overstimulation which can come from a theatre production, so she decided changes should be made to make the experience accessible.
She went on a journey of meeting people who live with and understand autism, and found time to take it all in as the production, and this review of a beautiful show and thought-provoking process, ended:
“I got to meet families and kids of all sorts of ages, and I got to hear their problems they experience with healthcare, education and even going to the shops. I got to understand how much of a nightmare that can be and I realised they must feel small, insignificant and quite embarrassed.
“I took a look at what we (the Grand) do, and broke it down into small bits to support a parent with a child on the spectrum and say “Look, this is the rules of coming to the theatre. This is the order in which things happen. This is how they’re likely to happen.”
“In doing that, we’ve broken down a lot of the barriers and problems. With the relaxed performance, we’ve created visuals to help people on the spectrum to understand what’s happening. That’s worked, and it just feels immense.
“One bonus is that it lifted everybody’s spirits. It kept the show fresh and it reinvigorated it. When you do two shows a day for a long period of time, you just need that little extra push to make you feel great. The relaxed performance did that.”