British Council – Canada
Exploring accessibility in the Canadian theatre landscape through the implementation of the Relaxed Performances framework.
As part of Progress, the international festival of performance and ideas, the Theatre Centre in Toronto hosted a one-day event called the Republic of Inclusion in February 2015. Curated by Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley, the event called for “a rigorous and provocative discussion about the state of inclusion in our theatre community. A conversation for theatre makers, audiences, leaders, funders, all those in the performance world, and those who are being left out.”
While several interventions were led by Canadian disabled practitioners, British theatre-maker Jess Thom, known for her project Touretteshero, was invited to speak on her confounding experience in a theatre in London. In this anecdote, she recounted specific ways in which theatres were inaccessible because of their attachment to institutional traditions. Frustrated by her continued marginalization as both an artist and audience member, she began advocating for proactive change in mainstream theatre spaces. During her monologue at Progress, she often referred to Relaxed Performance (RP) as a necessary shift in theatre. Relaxed Performance is a practice that aims to rethink theatre conventions and make performances more accessible to both artists and audiences. Thom’s presentation ignited a stimulating conversation amongst participants at the Republic of Inclusion and anchored several relationships that shaped British Council’s commitment to building capacity for cultural workers around access and inclusion in the arts.
We learned from British Council and Bodies in Translation’s 2019 report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility in the Canadian Theatre Landscape that “interest in curating accessible experiences is growing among many in the Canadian arts scene. The question of what this means is driving conversations about how this might be accomplished, concretely: What is an accessible arts experience? How does it look different in different segments of the arts landscape? What are the policy implications of accessibility? How does accessibility in the arts relate to larger debates about accessibility in disability studies? What is access, and what is inclusion?”
“Access is about more than simply installing a removable access ramp; it is about more than checking boxes that guarantee compliance with governmental accessibility requirements; it is about more than stating that you welcome a variety of needs in your space. The question of how to ensure that arts patrons can be themselves in arts spaces—and how to open up arts spaces to those who have never considered themselves “arts patrons”—is a critical question for our time.”
Originating in the United Kingdom in the 1990’s, Relaxed Performance (RP) aims “to open up the theatre space to welcome differences. Rather than needing to stay seated and listen silently, these performances invite attendees to move, speak, leave and return, eat, and more. Other modifications to the theatre environment are also often present in RP spaces: for instance, the house lights are often left partially on and sound levels reduced; strobing lights and flashes are reduced or removed; a “chill out space” for people to visit if they wish to take a moment out of the main theatre audience space is provided; actors come forward at the beginning or back at the end of the performance as themselves rather than their characters; and audience members are told what to expect both through the provision of a “visual story” describing the space and performance and through guidance at the beginning of the show. Ticket prices are also often reduced, to provide financial access. These measures are put in place to build a space where people can feel more at home in a theatre and go above and beyond standardized accessibility practices, such as providing accessible washrooms and ramps. In all, these practices remind those in the theatre field and prospective audiences that access is about much more than physical space modifications.”
“RP’s have begun to migrate to the Canadian theatre sector over the past five years. Originally, these performances were geared toward those with sensory differences (e.g., Autism) and were often referred to as “sensory-friendly.” They have since been imagined as providing access to anyone who may feel excluded from “typical” theatre contexts, including people with learning disabilities, Tourette’s syndrome, people bringing children to the theatre, people living with chronic conditions, people unfamiliar with the culture of contemporary theatre, and more. With the growth in interest in RP, there has been a push for more training around how to provide RP to diverse audiences.”
From 2015 to 2020, British Council developed the Relaxed Performance programme, a multi-year initiative actively advocating for access in the arts through RP research, training, and resource sharing.
The many facets of this programme were inspired by the advancement in policy changes and actions towards disability arts in the UK. British Council and its collaborators in Canada initiated the programme to support and strengthen the arts sector to become more proactive and engage in the global discussion on arts, disability, and human rights.
In October 2015, in collaboration with Harbourfront Centre, British Council invited Include Arts (UK) to Toronto to offer a pilot RP training session to 30 arts professionals. Following this pilot, British Council in partnership with Include Arts and Tangled Art + Disability (Canada) designed an RP “train the trainer” programme for 5 facilitators called Access Activators. Access Activators learned to deliver RP trainings to arts-centres and organizations. With the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, Access Activators delivered RP trainings to 25 arts and cultural venues across eight Canadian cities between 2016 and 2018. Designed for cross-organizational appeal, the trainings includes learning for front-of-house staff through to executive and artistic directors. Approximately 200 Canadian arts and culture workers received British Council’s RP training and many of those trained have begun to deliver RPs. In February of 2020, 20 d/Deaf, disabled, and allied arts and cultural workers from across Canada attended a four-day Access Activator training programme at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, expanding the cohort of Access Activators in Canada. We are seeing a wave of engagement with RP principles and practices across the Canadian arts and culture sector through British Council’s RP trainings and the Access Activator programme.
In 2019, British Council in collaboration with Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life (a disability arts and culture partnership project at Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice at the University of Guelph), released their report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility In The Canadian Theatre Landscape. The Relaxed Performance report summarizes the first research on Relaxed Performance in Canada and outlines findings from research on British Council’s 2016-2018 RP trainings. The report engages the experiences and impacts of RPs from the perspectives of those working on, attending, and writing about them, and offers recommendations for training, research and theory, community building, and policy. The summary booklet Report Highlights: Exploring Accessibility in the Canadian Theatre Landscape was produced in 2020 to highlight findings from the 2019 report.
Moving into 2020 and at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, British Council, Tangled Art + Disability, Bodies in Translation, and Canada Council for the Arts, came together to create the Access Activator videos series: 3 short, informational videos that engage arts practitioners from the UK and Canada to explore the principles and practices of RP, its relationship to digital media, and the effects of RP in a broader social context. Each video is available in multiple formats and languages for increased access.
In an effort to extend the reach of RP trainings, the British Council and Bodies in Translation partnered with three universities in Ontario in 2019-2020 to launch the RP Curriculum Pilot. This pilot introduced RP training modules into existing university curriculum in theatre, fashion, and music (choir). Up to 240 students at Ryerson University, York University, and University of Guelph learned to incorporate RP principles into their mid-term and final projects, which were open to the public.
To draw from a more specific example, in a fashion course through the Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson University, undergraduate students designed and produced an accessible fashion show called Beauty to be Recognized. Grounded in the principles of RP, crip theory, and disability justice, the show underscored the students’ mission to challenge stereotypes about disability and express disability as desirable in both fashion and the world. During the planning and development phases, students learned from experts not only about incorporating RP frameworks into a fashion show, but also how to apply critical disability and crip theory. Through the learning and execution of the show, the students transformed traditional conventions of fashion and created an experience that honoured the embodied differences of all involved.
During the course of the RP Curriculum Pilot, British Council and Bodies in Translation conducted further research and produced the 2021 report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring University-based Training Across Fashion, Theatre and Choir, which chronicles findings from the pilot. The 2021 curriculum report has also spurred the Relaxed Performance Pedagogical Tool (scheduled for release in 2021). The RP Pedagogical Tool is an easy-step-guide that outlines the vital practice of RP implementation in higher education classrooms. The tool pulls highlights from the pilot findings and recommendations, and includes tools around teaching, praxis, and policy that are grounded within a disability justice framework.
The Relaxed Performance programme presents a landscape of RP in Canada, one that is rapidly growing and transforming. As a starting point for broader and more nuanced conversations around access and inclusion in the arts, RP remains a vital practice which recognizes the value of context and welcomes evolution.
The overall success of the RP programme in Canada has motivated the development of RP programmes throughout the Americas: programmes in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico bring more cultural specificities to this rich model and drive accessibility in the arts and culture into action on an international scale.
Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility In The Canadian Theatre Landscape by Andrea LaMarre, Carla Rice, and Kayla Besse summarizes the first research on Relaxed Performance in Canada. Commissioned by British Council in collaboration with Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life , a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant at the University of Guelph, Relaxed Performance presents findings from research on RP training across Canada.