Parenting: teens

First Hong Kong run for play specially adapted for autistic children

Relaxed performance involves short versions of plays whose audience members can run around, talk, shout, and come and go as they please

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2015, 7:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 5:20pm

One thing you won't be hearing at the upcoming performance of Merlin the Magician at the Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre Theatre next week is "Shush! Be quiet please." Instead, the audience will be allowed to talk, shout and leave the theatre any time they like.

That's because the production is being adapted for autistic children by veteran drama educator Vicki Ooi using a concept called "relaxed theatre". Such performances also feature subdued lighting, quieter sound and a chill-out area outside the auditorium to create a more supportive atmosphere for young people with autism.

Relaxed theatre is a relatively new idea but is fast catching on globally. From a handful of performances in 2009, there are more than 90 relaxed performances taking place around the world this year, according to a study by Ben Fletcher-Watson published in June in the Scottish Journal of Performance.

Merlin the Magician will be Hong Kong's first full run of a relaxed performance. This follows the success of a single pilot show last year, Treasure Island, also led by Ooi, the artistic director of the Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection (Aftec) drama company.

Aftec will stage four relaxed shows of Merlin in Cantonese over two days on Oct 12 and 13. These shows will be a shorter, 30-minute version of the usual 90-minute production. It will stage the full version of the play for the public on Oct 10 and 11 and in primary schools the following week.

Ooi says she was inspired to launch relaxed performances in the city after finding out about the concept on a trip to Britain.

"Every child, autistic or not, should go to the theatre because it is so magical. It opens up your imagination and teaches you how to handle problems," says Ooi, who is originally from Penang.

"For autistic children, their main problem is communication. They are also not able to read signs; they can't tell if a person is bored or angry, for example. Drama teaches them to relate. For them, theatre is especially important, yet they are often denied the experience."

During a relaxed performance, the house lights will fade out slowly or stay at a low level. Sound and lighting effects will be reduced. The audience can make noise and remarks, and can walk around and leave the auditorium freely.

For anyone overwhelmed during the performance or just in need of a snack, a "chill out" area outside the auditorium will be set up for children who need some downtime. They can return to the show as they please.

For autistic children ...  Drama teaches them to relate. For them, theatre is especially important, yet they are often denied the experience
Vicki Ooi

"An easy way to understand the atmosphere is perhaps the opposite of the quiet carriage on the train," says Britain's National Theatre website.

Autistic children prefer routine and predictability. So, to prepare for their visit, teachers and parents will be sent a visual guide with information about the venue and the production so that children can familiarise themselves with the story plot, its characters and what to expect at the theatre.

Actors, production crew and venue staff will be educated on autism, how to engage with autistic children and their potential needs during the show.

"The performers have to know that anything can happen and they have to know how to react. I tell my actors, if you get a lot of shouting, just stop the performance until it's quiet enough and then pick up your lines again," says Ooi. "And if you see the audience running up and down, it's OK, get used to it."

Last year's relaxed theatre pilot, Treasure Island, included a 20-minute show in English followed by 10 minutes when the audience was free to explore the stage and touch the props. Free tickets were distributed to various groups and 111 people attended.

"The feedback was overwhelming," says Ooi.

Teachers from Hong Chi Winifred Mary Cheung Morninghope School who attended the show with their students said the relaxed performance enabled autistic students to experience theatre without their parents worrying about them disrupting a performance. Also, the pace of the performance was comfortable for the children and helped focus their attention. Being able to touch the props after the show suited children's sensory way of learning.

Ooi says the success of the pilot attracted funding from the government and the private sector, which enabled this year's full run of Merlin the Magician. Funding came from a springboard grant under the government's Arts Capacity Development Funding Scheme, the Jessie & George Ho Charitable Foundation and the Shun Hing Education and Charity Fund.

There was sufficient funding to develop a full-day symposium on relaxed theatre on Oct 10 for parents, teachers and other caregivers. It will be held this Saturday at the Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre, featuring talks by experts in mindfulness and autism, art therapy and theatre.

Relaxed performances are also suitable for people with other learning difficulties, sensory and communication disorders, according to a report from the 2013 Relaxed Performance Project Conference in Britain.

In Britain, relaxed performances became a part of inclusive practice in 2009, Fletcher-Watson notes, with the first autism-friendly performances taking place at Polka Theatre in London. The Relaxed Performance Project in 2012 and 2013 saw large cultural organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre work alongside West End venues and regional theatres to produce a series of relaxed performances directed at children and young people.

In the US, relaxed performances have been staged since 2011 at regional venues specialising in children's theatre. In 2011, the first Broadway relaxed performance was staged at New York's Minskoff Theatre, for Disney's The Lion King.

Ooi hopes that more drama companies in Hong Kong will put on relaxed performances because Aftec can only afford to stage one show a year due to limited funding.

The experience is rewarding not only for the children, but also for the performers. Michael Sharmon, who acted in the Treasure Island pilot last year, says it was an "absolute joy" taking part in Hong Kong's pioneer relaxed theatre.

"The performance was enjoyed by all the children," he says. "At the end of the performance a little boy took my hand, showing his pleasure in the show and his trust in the actors."

Where Merlin is casting his spell

Merlin the Magician

Venue: Sai Wan Ho Civic Theatre

Ticket booking: tel: 2520 1716

Relaxed theatre performances HK$20

Oct 12 and 13, 10.30am and 2.30pm

In Cantonese, for ages three and older.

About 30 minutes long with 20 minutes of post-show activities.

Public performances from HK$150

Oct 10 and 11, 2.30pm

In English with bilingual subtitles, for ages three and older.

About 90 minutes long (no intermission).