A relaxed performance is for everyone, and they are becoming increasingly common—every single performance at Battersea Arts Centre is relaxed and it describes itself as a relaxed venue. Three cheers to the Donmar for recognizing the direction of travel and that relaxed performances increase access for everyone. The Marys Seacole performance will be at 11.30am on May 26th and should prove a hot ticket of a play that premiered in New York to wide acclaim.
There are different models of relaxed performance—at BAC there is a chill out room which makes it particularly welcoming for a neurodiverse audience-- but at the Donmar the key features are that everyone is welcome (including babes in arms), the audience can move from their seats as they require, and they will not feel obliged to follow the convention to remain deathly quiet during the show---this will be especially crucial for the babies, but also for anyone who makes involuntary noises or tics. Lighting will be less contrasted and any loud noises (which might make audiences jump) will be excised from the production for that one performance only.
But to think that you’ll be getting less would be a mistake. One of the great things about relaxed performances –and I’ve experienced several– is that they often feel extra-live or more fully alive than a great deal of theatre. It’s true that there is likely to be a great deal more noise and activity in the auditorium than you might be used to from previous visits to the theatre, but it’s worth remembering that in theatre’s long history it really is a recent convention that audiences watch theatre largely in silence as we do today. Audiences in Shakespeare’s time were noisy and engaged directly with what was happening on stage.
Déja J. Bowens and Esther Smith in rehearsals for Marys Seacole. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Is that distracting? From my experience I’d say no because once you know you are at a relaxed performance you tend to relax yourself and stop being alert to the crinkle of the sweet wrapper in the row behind, or the person in the middle of the row who leaves to go to the toilet. Once you know these things might happen you stop worrying when they do happen, and the brain just adjusts and filters them out.
Think of it a bit like what happens at outdoor performances when there are endless distractions all around you, but it doesn’t mean that you enjoy the performance any less, because both you as an audience member and the actors are prepared for unexpected interruptions or noises. We all know the pleasure of the unscripted moment when a helicopter passes over Shakespeare’s Globe at just the right moment, or a bird starts singing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre right on cue. Sometimes it’s the disruptions that make live theatre feel most alive, most special.
I’m delighted to see the Donmar getting on board with relaxed performances because it opens up theatre to a far broader range of theatre goers. My only concern would be if the move towards occasional relaxed performances only leads to every other performance becoming more uptight, or if the theatre becoems an arena where different behaviours are judged more harshly by those who think that all audiences should subscribe to the rules and conventions that they themselves follow.
But when a theatre with the profile of the Donmar and with a serious reputation for staging significant plays starts to schedule relaxed performances it’s a sign that times are changing and I imagine others will watch with interest and follow suit. When that happens relaxed performances will not be the exception but the rule and many will discover their joy.