Opera for all: The impact of Relaxed Performances

28 Mar 2019

Five years ago, Victorian Opera staged the first Relaxed Performance in the state. Since then the company has presented an annual performance which adapts theatre conditions to open up opera to audiences with disabilities and sensory sensitivities.

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Photo: Hilary Walker for Victorian Opera

The traditional theatre experience does not suit everyone. Darkened auditoriums, closed doors, flashing lights and unfamiliar sounds can make some people feel anxious. This not only includes people with autism, learning disabilities or dementia, but also those living with anxiety or who have experienced trauma.

In 2014, Victorian Opera joined forces with Arts Centre Melbourne to run a Relaxed Performance pilot program as part of bigger project around accessibility. Working with Arts Access Victoria, the company presented a rehearsal of Hansel and Gretel to focus groups. This resulted in an extended round-table discussion which provided feedback and advice on how to modify the production for a range of audiences. For example, autistic children find it difficult to differentiate between reality and what is happening on stage, so each cast member walked out before the performance to introduce themselves and their character. If there was something violent or aggressive in the show, the singers would stop and explain what was going to happen and demonstrate it before performing the scene.

The first Relaxed Performance sold out in six hours. For most of the children, it was their first time in the theatre. Audience members who had violent outbursts before the show were transfixed by the music. Restless children sat still with sheer concentration on the stage.

‘None of us had ever been to the opera before,’ said Amy who attended a Relaxed Performance of Hansel and Gretel. ‘My sister was enthralled the entire time and didn’t like it when it ended. My sister has GDD (Global Development Delay) so for her to watch the entire show was nothing short of extraordinary.’

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Using the experience from Hansel and Gretel, Victorian Opera’s annual family production is now planned with a Relaxed Performance in mind. However rather than modifying the content, the focus has shifted to ‘relaxing’ the environment. This includes: only selling 60% of the seats so there is room to move; leaving the auditorium doors open so audience members can come in and out; and keeping the house lights on but dimmed.

Just as important is the set-up outside the auditorium. Quiet ‘breakout’ spaces in the foyer with beanbags and additional trained ushers all help make a welcoming experience. Audience members are also provided with a Visual Story describing the venue and the story of the show to prepare themselves for their visit.

Relaxed Performances not only have an impact on audiences but also on the creative team and performers working on the show. It provides an opportunity to look at a production from an entirely different perspective, reconsider aspects which are taken for granted and connect with new audience members.

Victorian Opera’s Elizabeth Hill, who directed the first Relaxed Performance, still gets emotional recalling her first experience with the focus groups. ‘There was a six-year-old autistic boy who came to watch the rehearsal. Afterwards one of the singers walked over and asked him “Did you enjoy that?” and he said, “That was awesome!” and his mother burst into tears. That’s when we found out it that he hadn’t spoken for 6 months. It still makes me cry because it was such an amazing experience.’

When asked why Victorian Opera puts on Relaxed Performance, Elizabeth says, ‘Because everyone deserves to experience theatre. You can’t underestimate the power of music and it’s important that these audience members are exposed to it in a supportive environment.’

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Courtesy Arts Centre Melbourne, Photography Jason Lau

Victorian Opera’s next Relaxed Performance is Alice Through the Opera Glass on Friday 14 June at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse.

Supported by The Marian & E.H. Flack Trust and the Mazda Foundation.

School Group bookings via Arts Centre Melbourne, Arts Learning Department on (03) 9281 8582.