Festival and King’s Theatres in Edinburgh have been building a programme of ‘relaxed performances’, for audiences with mild to complex additional support needs, for a number of years and have hit their peak this year with their fullest ever programme including performances for children from Edinburgh’s special schools, and performances for audiences of all ages with additional support needs.

The Fountain interviewed Cerin Richardson, Head of Creativity and Diversity at the Festival and King’s Theatres about what inspired them to do this and what they have on offer.

TF: It’s fantastic that you have made theatre more inclusive with this approach. Where did the inspiration come from that brought this about? There must have been a key incident that made this a prominent issue and allowed for the decision regarding The Snowman to be made?

The inspiration for the Relaxed performances came from the fact that we were hosting an annual dance show for one of Edinburgh’s special schools – Pilrig Park – and they had been performing on our stage for 10 years but never coming to see shows during the rest of the year. When I started at the Trust in 2012 I asked an intern to do a bit of research on what the barriers were for special schools attending shows and the three things that came back were; timing of shows, mornings were best universally for the special schools and we were only offering matinees as the earliest performances of the day; cost, including transport; appropriate product. So knowing this we approached Birmingham Rep who were bringing us The Snowman – highly visual, simple narrative, no speech, great music – and they agreed to doing a Relaxed performance for us.

TF: How specifically are you making these performances more accessible for children?

We are making the performances more accessible by consulting with the visiting companies over technical changes that can be made. All sudden noises or strobe lighting is removed and the volume is reduced. The auditorium lights stay on throughout the performance and movement in and out of seats is an acceptable part of a Relaxed performance. We live stream the show onto plasma screens in quiet areas around the theatres so children can leave the auditorium but still keep watching the performance if they want to. There is also audio available on the screens.

We offer audio description for people with visual impairment and create a social storybook for everyone to familiarise themselves with the trip to the theatre with images from the production they are going to see too.

We offer a storyteller who goes into community settings and schools before the relaxed performances and uses sensory objects to tell the story of the performance they will be coming to see to help familiarise them and prepare for the experience.

TF: I noted the performances whereby you will have relaxed performances are Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel and The Polar Bears Go Up. What made you focus on these?

Our choice of performances this year are based on our relationship with Scottish Ballet and their commitment to deliver a relaxed performance with us. The panto is so popular we always want to make sure this is accessible for everyone so we are doing two relaxed performances of Jack and the Beanstalk, and for those for whom the Panto will still be too over sensory and frightening we are offering the more gentle and intimate performances of Polar Bears Go Up.

TF: Are there plans to make any of the performances in 2017 aside from the Variety Show relaxed also? What more can we look forward to seeing?

Looking ahead we will have a Relaxed performance of Scottish Ballet’s Nutcracker next Christmas and Birds of Paradise’s The Tin Soldier as well as several smaller scale Studio performances.

TF: What is the one performance you personally would love to see using this approach to give it that inclusivity?

The show I would most like to see relaxed would be one of Cameron Mackintosh’s touring musicals, Mary Poppins or Matilda for example. These would be amazing to make fully accessible.

TF: What other exciting performances have the Festival and King’s Theatres got within it’s programme for 2017, as it’s been another fantastic year?

You have our listings Keira for 2017 – lots of great shows coming up!