November 22, 2023

Free Expression is Welcome at Relaxed Theater Performances

NO SHUSHING: During one matinee of “A Christmas Carol” at McCarter Theatre, the usual rules of audience etiquette are relaxed so those with autism, ADHD, dementia, and sensory sensitivities can attend with their families and feel comfortable.

By Anne Levin

When the curtain goes up on McCarter Theatre’s December 10, 1 p.m. performance of A Christmas Carol, midway through the December 6-24 run of the show, the audience isn’t likely to quiet down. In fact, talking and other modes of vocalizing are welcome.

This “relaxed” performance of the Charles Dickens classic is tailored to patrons with differences such as autism, Tourette syndrome, and ADHD. The doors of the auditorium remain open. The house lights are kept partially on. Everyone is welcome to leave and come back in. The usual audience rules of etiquette do not apply.

“The intention is to welcome anyone who would benefit from a non-traditional theater experience,” said Brooke Boertzel, McCarter’s director of education. “This includes autism, PTSD, social anxiety, and even parents with very young children or babies, who can’t take them to a traditional show. This is a situation where expectations are relaxed, as long as they’re keeping themselves and others safe.”

A Christmas Carol isn’t McCarter’s only production that devotes a performance to those with differences. On January 29, kids’ music favorite Laurie Berkner will present a relaxed show at the theater, and it is already sold out.

Other arts organizations have embraced the concept. The December 3, 2 p.m. performance of Princeton University’s 2023 Princeton Dance Festival at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre is billed as a relaxed performance. So are upcoming productions of The Nutcracker by the Roxey Ballet (December 9, 3 p.m. at Mill Ballet in New Hope, Pa.) and the Philadelphia Ballet (December 26, 12 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia).

“The benefit is for people who can’t attend theater with typical audience etiquette in place,” said Aliza Greenberg, an accessibility consultant who worked with McCarter on A Christmas Carol. “It looks different with each theater, depending on their experience doing this. Not every autistic person is sensitive to sounds and lights. Some are actually sensory-seeking. It’s really about striking a balance. We want to take out the very jarring effects.”

The actors in A Christmas Carol are given preparatory materials to make them aware that the audience responses to the loud noises, rolling fog, and stage effects won’t be the usual ones. “We let them know what they might expect to see and hear, but we don’t have to change anything at all,” said Boertzel. “They might see more fidgeting, but they don’t need to wait or pause.”

All of the doors remain open and lobby spaces are outfitted with engagement activities. “The upstairs space is a calm-down space, where tables have materials for coloring and things like that,” said Boertzel. “The concessions remain open throughout the whole performance. But downstairs, we have a quiet room outfitted with a lot of sensory materials. There are chairs, small toys, weighted blankets, tents — a variety of things that children and adults can engage with.”

There are those who don’t even enter the theater, preferring to stay in the lobbies. “That’s fine,” said Boertzel. “They can hear some of it. Some theaters project what is going on inside. We don’t have that yet, but we might in the future.”

Greenberg’s consulting work has taken her to different theaters. “I’ve sat outside in the lobby with audience members who are too anxious to go in, and gone through the prep materials with them, and they become more comfortable,” she said. “I’ve seen them jumping and vocalizing and doing things that would otherwise be shushed. This is a no-shush zone.”

McCarter is part of a cohort of theaters in the tri-state area that present relaxed performances. “We come together about sharing marketing and best practices,” Boertzel said. “It’s part of an awareness to be more inclusive in our practices. It’s really lovely to see other theaters are doing this as well.”

While the relaxed performance of A Christmas Carol is not traditionally a big seller, “they are very well appreciated by the families and individuals that take advantage of them,” Boertzel said. “Coming out as a family can be so challenging, and the appreciation they express is wonderful. There’s a special sense of energy and joy in the space.”

“This not just for people with disabilities,” said Greenberg. “It is definitely an experience where the whole family can see theater together, which doesn’t often happen.”