Toronto theatres relax rules and increase acceptance
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Toronto theatres relax rules and increase acceptance

A theatre critic celebrates a growing trend in the city's independent theatre scene: relaxed performances.

A performance of What Dream It Was. Photo by Tamara Romanchuk, courtesy of Ahuri Theatre.

Theatre-going and Crohn’s disease are not a great mix. Theatre-going and a functional tremor—another awkward blend. And yet, says director Erin Brubacher, “Theatre is a place to be alive.” Brubacher’s latest show, Kiinalik, These Sharp Tools, had a run at Buddies in October that included relaxed performances, the better to include audience members with disabilities. It’s a decision that should be applauded and, as just the sort of audience member who stands to benefit, something I want to encourage.

As someone with both Crohn’s and a functional tremor, reviewing a show can be more of a challenge than it seems. Sometimes I need to step outside because of a severe tremor fit, or make a desperate bathroom run, or have shown up late because of my condition only to find the doors have already been closed. I’ve been forced to return to the same show more than once, just to see it through in its entirety.

Even if this had nothing to do with my work, the ability to enjoy a night out at the threatre is so central to the sense that my life is still liveable, that it resembles something normal. The fewer of those opportunities that exist, the more glaring my condition becomes. There is a keenly felt sense of exclusion from experiences people otherwise take for granted. In the face of that struggle, the gradual spread of relaxed performances throughout Toronto’s independent theatre community in the last few years has been both exciting and very welcome.

A relaxed performance is a show designed to accommodate those with conditions that make the usual rules and traditions of theatregoing unviable. Restrictions are eased on late entry or re-entry. Sometimes there are volunteers to help people leave and return as needed. Consideration is given audience members who need to move around, or for outcries that might come from people with Tourette’s or those on the autism spectrum. Adjustments are made to lighting, and sometimes producers or performers offer content warnings, flag difficult moments, or explain the rationale behind any of these changes.

While groups like Young People’s Theatre have made regular use of these techniques for children’s shows, Theatre Passe Muraille has been at the forefront of adopting these practices for audiences in general, offering relaxed performances for the last two years. Artistic director Andy McKim felt inspired by open houses and workshops of companies from Europe that made use of the practice. “It struck a chord right away,” said McKim.

“The performances were more hospitable, more inclusive; in a word, relaxed,” said McKim. In England, relaxed performances have been a matter of course for years now, and McKim availed himself of advice from British experts on how to implement the concept here.

“It opens the heart and mind to other experiences,” said McKim, noting that the changes benefit not only theatregoers with disabilities, but those sharing the audience space with them.

While the trend was slow to catch on, theatres now offering relaxed performances include Canadian Stage, the Al Green Theatre, and Buddies in Bad Times, which just staged their first relaxed performance last October as part of the run of Kiinalik, in partnership with Theatre Passe Muraille.

“We’d been thinking about doing it for a while, but it had taken a bit to get organized around it,” said Evalyn Parry, artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Parry pointed to conversations with McKim, and training sessions offered by the British Council on relaxed performances for having helped the along the process, which she feels is a natural fit for Buddies’ goal of inclusivity in theatre.

Far from finding these changes to be compromising, companies and audiences have often found them liberating.

In ordinary theatre shows, “we’ve trained audiences to censor their reactions, to be reverent,” said Brubacher, giving rise to an atmosphere that can sometimes stifle feelings of real connection. In relaxed performances, “we give people the permission to have agency over their own experience,” she added.

“Increasing access doesn’t compromise artistic integrity,” said Liviya Mendelsohn, manager of accessibility and inclusion and artistic director at the Miles Nadal Community Center. Ahuri Theatre staged their Dora-nominated run of the all-ages show What Dream it Was at the center last February, where all of its performances were relaxed.

“Every company is interested in building audiences,” said Mendelsohn, who says in that regard that relaxed performances make perfect, pragmatic sense.

Despite the growth of relaxed performances, major theatre companies like Mirvish have yet to catch on. “Independent theatres are used to experimenting, they’re some of the first to try new techniques,” said Mendelsohn. “This is a public commons,” said Parry, on the place of independent theatres to provide focus for communities more sadly accustomed to going without in the main.

On a personal level, I don’t need the accommodations of a relaxed performance every single time I go to the theatre, but the difference in experience can be like night and day. When there is an audience and company inclined towards acceptance instead of judgement or exasperation, when I don’t have to spare even one strained thought worrying about how I’m going to stifle a particular health issue if it crops up, I’m free to just give myself over to the show as it unfolds. Which is not just great or a relief, but the way things ought to be.


CORRECTION: The original version of this article misspelled Liviya Mendelsohn’s name. Torontoist regrets the error.