At special children's theatre show, focus is on the audience reaction

In 'relaxed theatre' performances for autistic children, those watching are encouraged to express themselves - even by walking out. Teachers and carers hail first such run in Hong Kong and say their charges got a lot out of it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 5:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 5:18am

A typical play review evaluates a production based on factors such as staging, acting and direction. But in reviewing the Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection’s staging of Merlin the Magician last week, I found myself paying more attention to the audience than the stage.

This wasn’t your typical play. It was one of four shows in Hong Kong’s first full run of a "relaxed theatre" performance, which modifies the theatre-going experience to suit young people with autism. Among its features are subdued lighting, quieter sound and a chill-out area outside the auditorium.

Judging by the enthusiastic response of the 200-strong crowd at Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre Theatre – which included autistic children and adults, their parents and special education teachers and practitioners – the play was a resounding success. Most of the audience was watching a relaxed performance for the first time.

“You could see that the kids really enjoyed the show and were engaged in the performance,” says Cymie Yeung, manager of arts accessibility from Arts with the Disabled Association Hong Kong, who was in the audience.

“It was a very good environment and atmosphere for autistic people to join and participate in theatre. In regular theatre shows, you’d have to follow all the rules.”

Before the play (which ran in Cantonese) began proper, Frak, servant of the evil wizard Bavmorda, came on stage to address the audience. She asks if everyone has eaten and if the sound level if okay, to which the children shout, “Yes!”.

She tells them if they’re happy or excited during the show, it’s perfectly fine to express it. And it’s OK too if they’d like to leave at any point.

She then gives a synopsis of the play – which the children have actually heard at least once before, as their guardians were sent a visual guide with information about the venue and the production so that the children could familiarise themselves with the story plot, its characters and what to expect at the theatre.

The story is set a long time ago in England, a time of powerful magic and witchcraft. England is in trouble, as no one knows who the next king should be. Bavmorda wants to take over England and the world, but Merlin stops him by stealing his powers and locking them up in a necklace.

Years later, Merlin meets a boy called Arthur. He thinks the boy would make a great king and becomes his teacher. Merlin gives Arthur the necklace to look after.

After a failed attempt by Frak to steal the necklace from Arthur, Bavmorda tries himself. He tells Arthur that Merlin is a bad man who exploits the boy as a slave to cook and clean.

Bavmorda eventually tricks Arthur into giving him the necklace. “No, no, no!” yell the children in the audience, trying to warn Arthur in vain.

(At this point, one audience member stands up and runs out of the theatre with loud stamping, quickly followed by a chaperone. Neither the audience nor actors seem to mind.)

It turns out Arthur was wise: he saw through Bavmorda and gave the evil wizard a fake necklace. Merlin is very pleased and Arthur becomes the King of England.

The relaxed performance was a truncated version of the regular play – about 25 minutes compared to 90 minutes. It’s an ideal length, because though for most part the children sat silently in their seats, after about 20 minutes you could tell they were starting to get restless, fidgeting and making some noises.

It was therefore a brilliant move by director Dr Vicki Ooi to include two interactive pauses where Frak teaches the audience two songs with actions. The children followed without skipping a beat.

At the end of the show, Merlin performed a magic trick, whereby his whiteboard self-portrait doodle came alive. The children were obviously thrilled, and afterwards each was given paper and a pencil to create artwork of their own.

Post-show, the actors mingled with the audience, exchanging banter and posing for photos. The children also had a chance to get on stage to touch the props and take more photos.

“The show was very good; the children felt very relaxed and comfortable,” says Tong Chun-ho, a social worker who attended with eight children from ELCHK Lutheran Academy. “The children showed greater attention than usual because it was so fun and attractive.”

His colleague Hannah Cheung, a special educational needs coordinator, says it was a rare opportunity for the children to have an outing together. They had lunch at McDonald’s before the show.

“They asked, 'Can we eat popcorn in the cinema'?” says Cheung. “We told them this was not the cinema, but the theatre.”

Hopefully, more people with autism and other special educational needs will be able to have the chance to experience theatre. Ooi says the sensorial aspects of theatre are compatible with the way autistic children learn.

In total, 748 people from 20 special schools and five organisations that work with these young people (mostly aged six to 16) attended the four relaxed performances of Merlin – the 450-seater house deliberately kept half-full so the audience would feel more comfortable.

Compared to last year’s single-show pilot of Treasure Island, attended by about 100 people, this is fantastic progress. But Ooi says her theatre company can only afford one run a year due to limited funds. Some groups had requested extra shows in English, but there was no budget for this. To save on production costs, the set and props were taken from the regular performance of Merlin, which also had public shows last week.

Ooi says she’s willing to lend her knowledge and expertise to any theatre companies interested in putting up relaxed performances. Let’s hope more sponsors and theatre companies step forward because it’s clear theatre has a positive effect on children with special educational needs.