I was lucky enough to grow up going to the theater. As far back as I can remember, my family attended productions at PSF and DeSales University. Although I may not have known it at the time, the thrill of being a kid sitting down for a live performance with a cast just a few feet away still feeds into my career as a theater artist. I continue to work toward the goal that everyone can experience that same jolt of excitement that I had so many times as a kid, as well as the feeling of community and acceptance.
Part of PSF’s mission is to “enrich, inspire, engage, and entertain the widest possible audience,” which includes our efforts to open opportunities for live theatre experiences to those who would otherwise not be able to attend. In the fall of 2016, PSF was approached by a cohort of other theatres who were joining forces to introduce or increase their offerings of Relaxed Performances – special sensory-friendly performances that are adjusted for those on the Autism spectrum or patrons with a wide range of sensory, learning, or communication differences. Through major funding from Theatre Communications Group and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, PSF joined these theatres from across southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware to increase Relaxed Performances exponentially in just a few years.
Not only was this an opportunity to forge meaningful bonds with partners throughout our sector, but the process of getting to know a whole new portion of the theater audience was eye-opening. We learned from industry experts how best to accommodate these patrons, we attended Relaxed Performances at top theaters in the country, but most importantly we met the parents and caregivers who were now able to bring their children to the theatre for the first time because of the performance’s established “relaxed” environment. These families’ lives are unpredictable and sometimes exhausting. They often feel unwelcome or judged in the most everyday situations, like the grocery store or the park. To be able to welcome them into a live theatre experience with open arms has been a privilege.
The adjustments and accommodations we make at Relaxed Performances typically include a reduction of startling sound or lighting effects, freedom to vocalize and leave seats during the performance as needed, and freedom to use personal electronic devices for communication or sensory reasons. Noise-cancelling headphones and a variety of stress sensory toys are available in the lobby to borrow, and there is also a quiet area in the lobby for patrons who need a break during the performance. PSF provides pre-show preparation materials to help attendees anticipate the many unfamiliar experiences that come with visiting the Festival and seeing live theater.
The single most important accommodation, however, is the establishment of a “shush-free zone,” in which patrons are free to experience the show in whatever way is most comfortable, and all modes of expression are not only accepted, but expected and celebrated. Everyone in attendance is aware of the relaxed nature of the performance, with the aim of creating an environment that is inclusive and judgement-free.
I grew up in the theatre, so all of the rules we’ve established over the years – sit down here, applaud now, watch quietly – are familiar and unspoken. I never imagined that breaking down all of those long-established rules for a day could come quite so easily and result in such a bravely welcoming environment. Each year, PSF now offers multiple opportunities for patrons who need these accommodations to enter our theatres with little to no worry. I’ll never be able to imagine the daily struggles of these kids, trying to find a way to exist in a world of people whose brains work completely differently than theirs. But the chance to see the excitement on their faces, the sigh of relief from their caregivers who are safe to let their child be themselves in our space, the way our artists become passionate about this work, and the thrill of experiencing stories together as a community, it’s all priceless.