This week, in an article written by Erica Nagel, I was introduced to a new method of theatrical inclusion called Relaxed Performances (RP’s). RP’s are designed to offer sensory- friendly performances of fully produced plays so as to invite members of the theater going community who are sensitive to sensory overload (ex. those on the autism spectrum) to experience the theater. This inclusive form of theater is highlighted by Nagel through her work with the McCarter Theater of Princeton. This theater takes specific steps to insure that shows during their run are specifically tailored to those with special sensory needs. They take actions such as removing loud sound cues, removing strobe lights, and lowering the actors microphone for a singular performance and invite members of the community who could benefit from this modification, to come. Nagel notes that “RPs are often thought of as performances that have been significantly modified or shortened, but an essential component of RPs is that they are executed at the highest artistic level—as they would on any other night—with slight technical adjustments that soften the sensory experience.” The fact that extreme artistry and conscious inclusion can exist in the same room is an excellent example of the ways in which other places, including Boston University, can help create a space for artists/audience members with special needs.
The model which McCarter produces inclusive theater is one that I think Boston University can pay attention to when producing shows. At the School of Theater, performances vary in size both in regards to their performance venue and technical ability. In the black box theaters there are a limited amount of seats for audience members and the light sound capability is limited just by the space on the grid and technical ability of the speakers at hand. At larger performance venues such as the Huntington and Calderwood, there is a more grandiose theatrical spectacle due to the size and capability of a 500 seat theater and technical support of a $30,000 budget.
However, I see no reason why Boston University can not extend its inclusion platform to be aware of those who are hearing impaired, on the spectrum, or in need of wheelchair access to a show. I would love to see space in the School of Theater for RP’s to be done during the run of the show. I think this is important for many reasons. First, opening our shows up to more people outside of the theater community is not only imperative to the visibility the School of Theater but can make Boston University stand out in a way unlike other training programs. Encouraging actors, writers, directors, and design students to think in a broader inclusive spectrum not only creates better theater artists but better theater thinkers. I believe the standard that McCarter Theater has set is a beautiful example of the ways in which theaters can challenge each other to be better. How are you including the most members of the community to see your show? How are you making theater an experience for all? These questions allow us as theater artists to remain in conversation and keep audiences diverse and interested.