I saw a play recently in a dark, proscenium arch theatre, in which a character asked ‘Does anyone have a sandwich?’ * A gentleman from the stalls replied ‘yes’, rather loudly, which led to a pause in the action as the actor broke from the performance to address said heckler. ‘This is a stage,’ said the actor, ‘the questions up here aren’t real questions.’
If there is one thing Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank challenges, it is the sanctity of the rhetorical question. In a house of 1,400 teenagers, any question addressed to the audience invariably elicits a vocal response. To theatre-goers in the dim and hushed environs of the Globe’s proscenium arched cousins, such reactions may seem uncouth, brutish or rude. Indeed, here at the Globe we would not expect such responses during Romeo and Juliet in our summer season. However, during Playing Shakespeare they are expected and, as such, testify not only to the engagement of the audience but its honest and active reaction to the play. Theatre has its own set of social rules, unwritten and, to some, mysterious.
The Relaxed Performance Project, headed by the indefatigable Kirsty Holye (Access Manager at SOLT / TMA), aims to make theatre accessible to those people for whom the unwritten rules don’t work. Across the country, venues have been adapting their performances and altering their practice to create more relaxed environments for the benefit of families with children with an Autistic Spectrum Condition, sensory and communication disorders or learning disability: house lights have been kept up, sound levels adjusted and chill-out areas have been provided. Front of House staff have been provided extra training thanks to the support of SOLT and the Prince’s Foundation and through the kind funding of the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation. In general the message has been to lead the way in not policing the behaviour in others and in fostering an atmosphere of tolerance to involuntary noises and other behaviour rarely seen in an auditorium. Sterner sensibilities can only be imposed and followed by those who view society in a mainstream way, and the Relaxed Performance Project has repositioned this from being the main emphasis of theatre-going.
On 16 March, we had our first Relaxed Performance, it being Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank’s Romeo and Juliet. Preparatory materials were sent out to the families who booked, many of whom had never come to the theatre as a family before. One needn’t stretch one’s imagination too hard to understand the anxiety of trying to adjust to the conventions of attendance when a member of one’s family has a physical reaction to certain stimulus. From what I have already described of a relaxed performance I would forgive you for thinking that the Globe is already a relaxed environment. Right enough, the sun (or cloud cover) dictates the light levels within the theatre, and as our actors do not use microphones there is nothing to adjust there (as there would be in a West End musical). Equally, as I stated above, Playing Shakespeare creates performances in which reactions are not as predictable as they may otherwise be. Yet the Globe can be a very loud place (especially when a Chinook is hovering ominously over the Yard), and the visual stimulus on stage can be overwhelming. Beyond these elements, however, it is still the social norm to consider silence as the prime symptom of attentiveness.
The performance was a massive success. Our actors are deft at tackling with environmental shift, and reminded me that part of acting at the Globe is being prepared to respond to the house in unusual ways. They were all genuinely enthused to be involved in this first for the Globe. What inspired me most was the visceral reaction the children had to the tragedy. After the jig we spoke to some of the audience and one young man, who had been deep in the world of the play, told us that he had a very good time but that he was very sad. I figure that’s really how a great tragedy should leave one feeling. The feedback has been a humbling joy: reading the letters of those who have never had the opportunity to enjoy a play or Shakespeare before either alone or with their families is a wonder. Just a little acceptance can actually change a person’s life.
In conclusion, let me return to that dark theatre and the sandwich question. Perhaps the man in the stalls was some whimsical naughtikin, perhaps he was a simply giving a genuine answer to what he thought was a genuine question. Certainly it is worth pausing to consider if the actor was correct in saying that the questions on stage are not real questions. In fact, if I were the argumentative sort, I may posit that the questions on a stage are just as real as any other. It may be the case that they are not real for him, but I might suggest that the homogenising effect of silence in a dark auditorium gives us an unwarranted privilege to presume that we are all responding to a performance in unison, and that there is an inherit correctness in that unity. The Relaxed Performance Project, and our own relaxed work here at the Globe, gives the opportunity to reflect on the audience as a collection of individuals and to embrace a world of magnificant diversity.
My thanks to the Romeo and Juliet company, Becky, Adam and Ollie in Stage Management, Phil Dunning from Box Office, the Front of House team, Globe Education and the continued support of Patrick Spottiswoode, Georghia Ellinas and the team, all the ceaselessly enthusiastic colleagues in Communications, and the Visitor Services team for making this all happen.
* It turns out that unbeknown to David that the ‘heckler’ was in fact an actor and these lines were part of the script. However, this is a very possible scenario in a relaxed performance and the play in question was actually a very clever twist on this very questions David raises.
-David Bellwood, Communications Assistant
“So pleased that you are reaching out to this great group of people within our world. As an Asperger’s mom it makes me feel good that large groups like yours would notice and care for them.” – Cara
“That is just wonderful, speaking as a Parent of two Autistic Children, I think what a wonderful wonderful thing to do! One of my Children, who is severely Autistic, can quote Shakespeare, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and helped draw stick men pictures for a stop go animation for his Romeo and Juliet project, he really enjoyed it! It’s lovely to give children a chance to engage with Theatre. I am afraid some people are very unaccepting of the differences of our children, in the way they behave, and not much slack is cut or care given in trying to understand how they feel, so very impressed, would love to get them there one day! Well done all!” – Rufus