Features Essays Published 16 September 2019

Relaxed venues, liberated audiences

"To react and respond is just human": Maddy Costa writes on how audiences are silenced, and the complex history of ideas of 'civilised' behaviour.
Maddy Costa

Battersea Arts Centre, a fully relaxed venue, at the time of Trump’s visit last year. Photo: Manuel Vason

There’s something peacock-gratifying to the ego about seeing your own name in academic print. So thanks, Dr Kirsty Sedgman, for repeated references in your book The Reasonable Audience to a blog I wrote for the Guardian in March 2015 about relaxed performances. The post was prompted by a discussion at Battersea Arts Centre in London, which raised the possibility of all theatre performances being relaxed, with occasional “uptight” performances being programmed to accommodate those who prefer to experience live theatre in a strictly controlled and rarefied atmosphere.

Hosted by artist-activists Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones, the discussion – and an ensuing partnership with Thom and her company Touretteshero – led directly to BAC beginning to operate as a relaxed venue early in 2019. That means every performance starts with an announcement that latecomers are welcome, as is a return to the performance for anyone who needs to leave to use the toilet or get a drink or just have a quiet moment in the chill-out room, and movement both physical and vocal within the audience is accepted. I’ve seen a few shows at BAC this year and can honestly say it’s been transformative, both in terms of the liberatory spirit within that building and how I feel when I see theatre elsewhere.

Inspired by those and by Sedgman’s book, I want to return to the thinking of that Guardian blog post and continue the argument. But first, a couple of acknowledgements. One: I’m part of the Creative Partners Sounding Board at BAC, a group of artists who are paid to meet with BAC staff four times a year, and wrangle with them about the work they’re doing. I’ve written this independently, without discussing with BAC. Two: I don’t have access needs or identify as disabled; instead I have two children which has, in different ways over the past 12 years, shifted my access to public space (as Sedgman puts it, motherhood “disrupted my ability to fit invisibly into public life”). Three: I’m not an actor or theatre performer, so don’t have an embodied experience of how different playing for a “relaxed” audience might feel.

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The blog for the Guardian started at the Royal Court, with a group of young women settling down to watch Teh Internet Is Serious Business with bags of Maccie Ds and increasing enjoyment. They are still some of my favourite audience people ever. The incident that prompted me to write this celebration of the principles of relaxed performance happened at the Bush Theatre, watching Strange Fruit by Caryl Phillips. It’s a dense, intense play, pummelled by pain, not least in the cruel way one of its main characters, played by Jonathan Ajayi, treats his girlfriend and mum. During it there’s a sex scene and, because the play is staged in the round, Ajayi’s naked bottom was pretty present to an older couple sitting in the front row – prompting the woman to say something to her husband and daughter audible enough to trigger laughter on that side of the room. Her daughter laughed too but was clearly mortified, and spent the rest of the performance concerned to keep her mum hushed. What a shame, I thought, that she feels she has to do that.

I’ve been in the daughter’s position before: also at the Bush, where my mum leant over to me during a performance of Taylor Mac’s Hir to comment on how accurate and recognisable she felt the depiction of domestic violence to be; watching David Eldridge’s Beginning at the National, when she effervesced with delight at the unfolding love story; another time at the Coliseum, when she hummed along with the Sugar Plum Fairy theme during a Royal Ballet performance of The Nutcracker. And I’ve been in plenty of rooms where the age dynamic has flipped, performances at the Young Vic and Almeida where young people have been hushed by teachers and ushers for vocalising how the story and characters were making them feel.

I find this silencing awful, because to react and respond is just human. OK, humming along to The Nutcracker is on the daft side, but when my mum is engrossed by a play, she questions characters, sympathises with them, connects with their experiences moment by moment. I dislike silencing her because I see theatre as a dialogue – even though theatre itself rarely seeks to support that dialogue.

Reading Sedgman’s book – and hearing her deliver a crisp presentation at Slung Low’s Wild Conference in July this year – I’ve come to appreciate more fully how the demand for silence and stillness in so many theatre performances relates to colonialist attitudes shaped to reinforce a white supremacist, patriarchal hierarchy. As it happens, the young people at the Royal Court were black, the family at the Bush were black, and my mum is a first-generation immigrant from Cyprus of, we like to joke, peasant stock. Identifying them might seem to play into assumptions that tend to be made about “disruptive” behaviour: perhaps I should have started with a different anecdote, from a performance of Against at the Almeida, when a white woman sitting in the balcony, enraptured by Ben Whishaw, erupted when his character failed his unrequited lover on stage. It was gorgeous, hilarious, a sign of this theatregoer’s deep investment in the action and easily the best moment of the night – as are most such reminders that theatre is taking place live, a communion of bodies breathing, thinking and feeling together.

In an article published on Exeunt at the start of 2018, Alice Saville gave plenty of far more negative instances of middle-class white people demonstrating the kind of entitled behaviour that exposes their lack of “respect and care about the space, as participants in a special event”. She notes that “young people, working class people and/or people of colour are disproportionately likely to have their behaviour policed and criticised”, and Sedgman is acute on the ways in which this institutional and interpersonal policing is informed by Victorian notions of civilised decorum. In her presentation at the Wild Conference she referred us to Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, a collection of lectures published in 1869, which proposed that “culture could be used as a tool to civilise the new, newly imagined masses and thereby prevent anarchy. … High arts,” Sedgman continued, “were reimagined as a purely aesthetic experience requiring complete absorption to work – and that necessitated the elimination of all distractions.”

The Reasonable Audience further develops the argument that “the model of spectatorship that demands silent absorption is bound up in white supremacist culture and civilisation campaigns”, specifically “a coordinated (classist, racist, sexist) manoeuvre by the elite to separate themselves from the new mass society”. Enforcing this, audiences themselves become “complicit in an exclusionary exercise of social power”, and “bound up in systems of white western privilege”. Chillingly, Sedgman notes that calls for civilised behaviour become more pronounced and “more elaborate at a time of significant ethical decline” – a time when refugees escaping a war zone might be categorised as a swarm of insects and left to die in the Mediterranean, for instance, or when citizens of an empire might suddenly have that citizenship erased and be forcibly returned to the country of their birth.

It might seem a flying leap from how audiences behave in a theatre auditorium to how anti-immigration, essentially fascist politics are conducted, but Arnold’s premise of the civilising effects of theatre persists, these days encapsulated in the idea that people who watch theatre become more empathetic and compassionate towards others. The identification of how white supremacy operates has to start somewhere, and the theatre auditorium is as good a place as any.

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The theatre is a place where, as Sedgman puts it, “conflicting moral codes collide”. It’s a place where people of all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, educations, ethical beliefs, religions, and moral impulses, sit side by side and attend to a story together. Hosting theatre clubs for the past seven years has gifted me a precious, invaluable insight into how people might experience a work of theatre differently as a result. What audiences are expected to do in common, however, is sit quietly and sit still, not cough even if we have a cold, not fidget even if our legs are cramped, and certainly not expose any difference from the body deemed “normal”, taking up excess space through weight or disability or neurodivergence. Sedgman is fantastically careful in building up a nuanced argument that respects that some experiences of for instance neurodivergence actually require this stillness and silence: to understand fully the ethical implications of theatre spectatorship, she acknowledges, there is a need to “learn how to take seriously both the alternative needs of those with disabilities and the alternative preferences of various social subjects”.

Relaxed performances offer a way of doing this learning, along with a reprieve from general restrictions, but Jess Thom continues to expose both the limited number of relaxed performances offered even by the biggest institutions funded by Arts Council England as National Portfolio Organisations, and the limitations of this individual performance offer. As Thom says in her blog post Stop Talking and Start Relaxing 2019, published in July, “I want to be able to buy tickets on impulse and be able to sit with my friends – none of these seem like unreasonable demands.” Sedgman puts it more starkly: “If only one disabled person is excluded from theatre, that is still a fundamental failure of social morality.” After all, “how can a place claim to be ‘public space’ if only certain subjectivities are afforded equitable access?” Theatre, she says, might transform “individuals” into “publics”, but: “what good is a public if not actually representative of the public?”

Like Sedgman, I’m a representative of the (near-)invisible norm: a “cisgender, neurotypical, able-bodied, middle-class white woman in a heterosexual relationship”. Ever since my love affair with theatre started in the late-1990s I’ve experienced little to no problem feeding what’s now an addiction. What I’ve noticed in the three and a half years since I first encountered Thom and her galvanising campaign for equal access to theatre – because that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk of relaxed performances – are the benefits and improvements brought even to people like me who don’t “need” them.

Mostly I’ve noticed this by going to Battersea Arts Centre with my son, who’s 10: the relaxed venue policy sees him as a person, not a problem, in a way that isn’t guaranteed elsewhere. I’ve felt able to bring him to “adult” shows – The Paper Cinema’s Macbeth, for instance, or Little Bulb’s The Future – with confidence that he won’t be criticised, and I’ve seen his fidgety little body glow with relief as he listens to the announcement telling him it’s OK to move. He knows it’s OK for him to whisper with me too, whether to ask me to explain something or share praise and admiration. I’ve enjoyed the work so much more for being able to share it with him – and I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve seen without him more too, feeling less anxious about how my body might register to those around me.

I think back to those ripples of laughter at the Almeida and the Bush, as one woman involuntarily shouted out to Whishaw and another commented on Ajayi’s bottom. I’m sure it was momentarily difficult for the actors having their concentration assaulted: but was the real problem in those instances the audience being (benignly) disruptive, or the shape and form of naturalistic theatre, a representation of humanity that demands the suppression of humanity in people watching it? Relaxed performances open the way to a truer naturalism in the theatre: the natural behaviour of human beings gathered in all their multiplicity and oddness.

At the start of the summer I discussed all this with another academic who specialises in audience research, Matthew Reason, who – in the spirit of thorough debate – suggested a potential problem of fully relaxed performances: what if they meant someone felt entitled to comment aloud, mid-performance, that a black actor shouldn’t be playing a “white” character? There’s a huge difference between such expressions of racism and the involuntary response that reveals rapt attention, and the difference is one of intolerance. Surely it’s not too much to ask that the able-bodied, neurotypical, white middle-classes who occupy the space of “normal” be tolerant of everything in an audience except intolerance.

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Uncivilisation is the title of the Dark Mountain manifesto, written in 2009 by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine as a way of thinking together about art, society and environmental catastrophe. “The myth of civilisation,” they wrote, “is built upon the stories we have constructed about our genius.” Some of those stories involve theatre-makers (hi, Shakespeare), some are staged in theatre buildings. At a time of ecological crisis, the manifesto proposed, needed change might come through artists challenging civilisation itself, by making uncivilised art which “offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves”, while affirming “the wonder of what it means to be truly human”.

Again, it might feel like a reach to argue that relaxed performances exist in direct opposition to the ways in which the civilisation project – the same civilisation project that justified the British empire – infected and changed theatre in the Victorian era. But if more institutions thought of them that way, maybe they’d show more alacrity in programming relaxed performances, and indeed in following Battersea Arts Centre’s lead to become relaxed venues themselves.

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.

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