I can’t actually think of a time when we have all visited the theatre together. With two autistic children it is a sensory overload just waiting to happen. Quite frankly I am loathe to pay out for something that we probably won’t even get into, let alone sit through.
Barriers include: travelling into London; busy, noisy places; expectation; excitement that spills over into anxiety; new, unknown places, and that is before we even get into the theatre, foyers are often busy and noisy, no quiet space to sit for a minute, perhaps have a drink and refresh from the journey. Dark spaces where you don’t know what will happen, loud music or sound effects, confined in seats, the pressure of not knowing when it will end, if you can get up, what if you need the toilet? Will you find your way back to your seat? Will you disturb everyone else?
Sometimes I can get free tickets to a show and then I go and write a blog. Which is great, fantastic and we are very privileged to have this opportunity, but equally I don’t want to use my kids as an experiment about what works and what doesn’t. I hope getting to share the experience will encourage others to give it a go, sometimes just hearing about what goes on can really help with anxiety levels and help you prepare for a visit. I guess I hope it encourages you to try new things too.
The financial barrier may have been lifted but the usual worries are still there for me. I bring my other half along because if one of them has a panic attack I can’t leave the others, I don’t want to have to pull everyone out. Going out to the theatre should be fun but quite often there are layers and layers of anxiety involved and you can see why it never happens.
But this half term we thought we would give it a go. A trip to the National Theatre, we have never all been here before. I have visited some shows on my own but I really want the whole family to experience the transformative nature of theatre. My eldest who is autistic has started a Drama GCSE so this opens her mind to so many possibilities and ideas. The regular trips we make up to London for autism museum events is giving her the confidence to travel and beginning to lessen the stress of the first part of the journey.
We are going to see Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale!’ (yes, I know, I thought I was being a bit optimistic with the youngest at just 8 years old). This performance is aimed at young audiences and at only just over 1 hour it seems to me a great way to introduce my youngest to a bit of the Bard.
The performance is actually taking place in the Dorfman Theatre, the entrance is round the side of the National Theatre, it is a smaller space which is good as the main foyer can get pretty busy. (The Dorfman is a flexible space and seating can change so I definitely recommend asking how the layout will be or checking if it is in the visual story because it may change with each production.) What I really love about specific relaxed performances is the visual story that supports your visit and the chill out spaces that are often provided.
We don’t actually use the quiet space when we get there, we find a table and grab some crips and a drink. Bizarrely I get a migraine on the way to the theatre, it makes me hyper sensitive to visual stimulus and I am the one who ends up finding the patterned table and chain link wall a struggle. It reminds me how easily the visual can overwhelm.
The visual story is brilliant, it tells us about the theatre and the set, the different characters in the play and what is going to happen. Although this is a relaxed performance not everyone in the theatre has additional needs, there is a group of school girls and they are all clamouring for a copy of the visual story. I say this time and time again and I know there is a cost involved in production but it benefits all visitors regardless of need.
The Dorfman Theatre works very well for a first visit and for young children as it is small and you are close to the action. Sitting around the stage on all sides also makes it feel less like a traditional theatre experience with rows and rows of seats.
I have never seen A Winter’s Tale performed and I loved it. I loved my eldest two daughters sitting either side of my son, giving him a little running commentary using the visual story to make sure he knew what was happening. I love the fact the youngest was a bit scared by one of the puppets but the actress Aisha Toussaint who plays Perdita, acted with it with such compassion he came alive and lost some of the strangeness. But whatever the youngest was feeling he coped with it, being a bit scared is ok, sometimes I feel with my children the things you take for granted have to be, in a way, explicitly taught and explained. You don’t have to like everything you see you can be a bit scared but that is ok, we are here for each other, we will support each other.
I never thought Shakespeare would be for my son at 8 years old. I think Shakespeare, if you don’t get these early experiences which are about fun and creativity, just becomes work you study at GCSE to such a intricate extent that it loses the flow and fun. It becomes all about explicit meaning in words and language.
This performance adapted by Justin Audibert doesn’t shy away from difficult concepts for children; jealousy, death, sadness, but also love and how important forgiveness is. Particularly for autistic children that might find it hard to vocalise feelings and what they mean, I just feel it is so important to access theatre as it provides hopefully a safe space to experience and explores these feelings.
At the end of the performance we got a chance to meet the actors and the puppets, for my eldest this was a dream come true. She loves having a chance to ask about the puppets and whether they had specific training to work with them. Aisha Toussaint was fantastic in explaining to her how they initially worked with newspapers fashioned into puppets before they worked with the real thing. My daughter has done a workshop at the Old Vic using this technique too so it was fantastic for her to relate her practice to seeing a live performance on stage.
For my son this part of the day was just too much, he couldn’t face meeting the actors or the sheep puppet which was his favourite. It is hard when things don’t quite work out and it brings things home to me, the reality perhaps. But that is life, somethings work, somethings not so much. But it should never stop us trying.
We recieved free tickets to this particular show, but I definitely recommend having a look at the National Theatre future programming. They often run relaxed events and are happy to answer your queries if you have specific concerns. I think the Dorfman Theatre certainly works well as an introduction to live performance.
My daughter has written a few paragraphs herself so you can hear from her about how she found it. –
The Winter’s Tale performance was something I was really excited for, especially after I have a deep love for the theatre that stemmed from The Old Vic. The National Theatre made the trip a lot easier for me with the aid of the visual story, which pointed out all the areas of the building, the characters, the set and the plot. Calming my nerves was really important otherwise I would not have enjoyed the performance as much, but I had almost no anxiety when going into the theatre.
The actual theatre room itself was really pretty and sitting right at the front just made me more ready to enjoy the performance. The time came to watch and I was entranced by the story, the actors portraying it so well, even if the target market was for a younger audience. I had never heard of this play until I saw the adaptation and but I would go again.
Finally, we had the chance to meet the incredible actors straight after the show; They answered our questions, showed us the puppets and we showered them with praise and compliments. I know that it isn’t very often that you get to meet actors of a show so being able to take part in that experience was amazing!
We received free tickets for this performance.
For more details on relaxed performances at the National Theatre please see their website – https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/your-visit/access/relaxed-performances