Our Education Manager Rachel Sears talked to Arts Access about The Court Theatre's relaxed performances. Check out her interview below....

Relaxed performances at The Court Theatre
What are relaxed performances and what are the benefits to a theatre company in providing them? Rachel Sears, Education Manager at The Court Theatre in Christchurch, talked to Arts Access about the challenges and the benefits.

Background: about The Court Theatre
We’re tucked aware in Christchurch’s suburb of Addington and are New Zealand’s largest theatre company. Currently we live in our post-earthquake refuge - an old grain shed – finding ways to share the magic of theatre with the people of Canterbury.

The company is made up of 60 permanent staff plus hundreds of artists and artisans who produce 19 productions each year. Over 150,000 ticket buyers enter The Court each year to feast on the varied offering of theatrical works, all created and produced on-site.

The Court has matched the ever-diversifying Christchurch population and creates and supports work for everyone in our community including children and families, for the Tangata Whenua and for Christchurch’s growing Pasifika communities.

A strong education programme at The Court fosters and nurtures the future of theatre in New Zealand. Those involved in the education programmes find a safe space to play and explore in a place free of judgement, where everyone’s individuality is celebrated.

What are relaxed performances?
A Relaxed Performance is a dedicated performance of a show designed to welcome those who will benefit from a more relaxed performance environment, including people with an Autism Spectrum Condition, sensory and communication disorders or a learning difficulty.

This means there is a relaxed attitude to noise and movement during the performance, and some minor changes made to the light and sound effects. The auditorium has a smaller than usual capacity so patrons can move around more easily. There is also a chill-out area available in the foyer. 

We mainly offer relaxed performances for our family friendly school holiday shows but all ages are welcome.

After booking all patrons receive a show specific resource pack by email. This pack provides a social story for parents and careers to use to prepare for their trip to the theatre. There are also available to download from our website if you want to take a look.

How did relaxed performances at The Court Theatre come about? Why, when, how

We were looking for ways to grow our accessibility offer and were inspired and excited by the work our international peers were doing with relaxed performances. We wanted to give it a try.  We presented our first relaxed performance of The Little Mermaid in July 2016 and have run one every school holidays since, we also presented a relaxed performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time in April 2017.

What are some challenges in providing relaxed theatre performances?

  • Timeframe – there is quite a tight timeframe between the show being ready to watch and the relaxed performance happening. In this time, we must make assessments and judgements about technical or artistic changes needed for the relaxed performance and create the resource pack that goes out to all patrons in advance of attending the show.
  • Finding an audience – we are slowly fostering a committed audience for our relaxed performances and discovering new partners who can help us connect with new communities. It has felt important that we were able to make the commitment to offering these shows every school holidays which means people are now more aware of this offer and know what to expect.
  • Learning the language and the meaning – a ‘relaxed performance’ is an international theatre term and we were the first organisation to offer one on the South Island of New Zealand, this means that we have had to educate our audience at the same time as our staff team to understand what we are talking about.

What are some key benefits to The Court Theatre of providing relaxed performances?

  • We get to connect with a new audience who might otherwise not come to the theatre – we love storytelling and we love finding new people to share stories with, it’s what we do!
  • Our actors get a unique and meaningful experience – performing for a relaxed performance has become a favourite moment for many of our kids show performers. During a performance of Snow White last year, the relaxed performance audience got heavily invested in the journey of a character who was struggling to feel brave enough to talk on stage, the performers found the audience reaction so honest and real that it was hugely emotional affecting for them to be part of.
  • It helps us focus on the story – without flashy lights or loud noises we can still tell a great story and sometimes it can be good to be reminded of that.

How do you evaluate the impact of the relaxed performances?

Because our audiences are small we can communicate directly with the patrons. We ask all patrons to let us know how they found the experience and make it clear that we are open to learning and developing our relaxed performance offer further. Most importantly we have a dedicated team of ushers who staff our relaxed performances which means that they can develop relationships with our audiences and build an understanding of what works and what doesn’t for these shows.

Five key tips for anyone wanting to present a relaxed theatre performance.

  • Ask for advice – find partners to work with, local charities, parent groups, Art Access Aotearoa – these organisations will help you create the most accessible offer you can.
  • Be willing to learn along the way – each relaxed performance we do is part of our learning and helps us develop the next one.
  • Choose the right show – choose a show that you think will appeal to a wide audience and that isn’t hugely reliant on sensory elements. We offered a relaxed performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, we felt it was important to offer a relaxed performance of show where the central character was living with a learning disability, however the show included so much sound, lighting and AV that we found it hard to meet the balance between being true to the vision of the director and creating an accessible version of the show.
  • Get the team on board – spend the time and energy getting the performing and production team on board, it will help make the project a success.
  • Go and watch a relaxed performance or check out videos online about relaxed performances that have been run overseas. Get in touch with Rachel at The Court if you would like to come along to one of our relaxed performances, we’d love to help in any way to support other theatres to try this out.