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Come on in: How panto is welcoming everyone

12:30 10 December 2014

Kevin Kennedy as Captain Hook in the 2014-15 Norwich Theatre Royal panto Peter Pan.

Kevin Kennedy as Captain Hook in the 2014-15 Norwich Theatre Royal panto Peter Pan.

Archant

For many families, a trip to the pantomime is a key part of the festive calendar. But organising a visit can become daunting if anyone in the party has additional needs. Norwich Theatre Royal’s JOHN BULTITUDE has been finding out how the venue is doing all it can to make a panto visit as inclusive as possible.

How Norwich Theatre Royal is making sure all can enjoy the show

The relaxed performance of Peter Pan at Norwich Theatre Royal is just one arm of the venue’s work to ensure performances are open to as many people as possible.

It has just appointed Matthew Piper to the new role of Access Manager with specific responsibility of ensuring the Theatre is welcoming and accessible to all. One of his first tasks will be to oversee the relaxed performance of the pantomime, but there is a lot more to the job than that. Signed performances are set to continue, including two for Peter Pan, where a signer interprets the dialogue and sound effects on stage for members of the audience who are deaf or hard of hearing and who use British Sign Language to communicate.

One of Matthew’s priorities is to ensure these signed performances continue and are targeted towards where the audience want them. He explained: “The attendance at signed performances is soaring for shows that are popular with children and families so we are trying to match this need by offering more signed performances at weekend matinees.”

Audio description, which offers a description delivered live via headsets for people who are blind or partially-sighted, is also proving popular. Anne Hornsby of Minds Eye is one of the people who provides the service at Norwich Theatre Royal and said it brings a real benefit to the audience. She explained: “People who have some sight often say they didn’t realise how much they were missing before. The most crucial problems are often patrons can’t understand what is going on in parts of the production where there is no sound. The entire theatre could be in fits of laughter and the partially sighted or blind patron won’t have a clue what is going on. Ideally, with the audio description service, the patron doesn’t have these issues.”

Matthew and colleague Caroline Williams, one of the venue’s front-of-house managers, have also qualified as audio describers so they can also prepare these special performances in-house which also helps increase the number on offer.

These audio-described performances are usually preceded by a touch tour where people can go on stage to explore the set and gain an insight into the show or production.

And the theatre is also expanding its captioned performances where screens to the side of the stage relay the words as they are spoken on stage. These all come on top of the induction loop system which is already in place for patrons with hearing issues, and the audio introductions to shows which are also available.

Matthew continued: “We already have a lot of projects going on and we want to expand that even further. We already have good relationships with bodies like Autism Anglia and the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind but we are still keen to get feedback from other groups and individuals to help us shape how we can be even more accessible.”

For many, pantomime offers the ultimate night out for all ages. With the audience interaction, music, brightly-lit sets and special effects, it promises to be wall-to-wall fun packed with happy memories.

But this combination of factors can prove difficult for individuals with autism turning that ultimate night out into an unhappy experience.

This has already been identified by a number of West End and regional theatres who have responded by organising relaxed performances for some time.

Norwich Theatre Royal decided to create something similar for their pantomime last year and started off by finding out what other theatres were offering. Working with the charity Autism Anglia, they have developed a framework for a relaxed performance of their pantomime which they hope will help everyone on stage, behind the scenes and front-of-house ensure it is as valuable and supportive an experience as possible.

Charlotte Baptie as Peter Pan in the 2014-15 Norwich Theatre Royal panto.Charlotte Baptie as Peter Pan in the 2014-15 Norwich Theatre Royal panto.

That extra help and support for patrons begins from the moment of booking. The Box Office team have been specially trained to assist those with autism and their carers through the process of booking tickets in person or by phone. The team will also offer the chance to tour the theatre by appointment ahead of a visit.

Once people arrive at the theatre for the show, they’ll be greeted by the Front-of-House staff who have been trained by the specialists at Autism Anglia to make sure everyone’s needs are met.

During the show, the lights in the auditorium remain on at a low level and people are free to enter and leave whenever they wish. There are also two chill-out rooms for anyone wanting to take a break from the auditorium for a while.

Matthew Piper, Norwich Theatre Royal’s Access Manager, whose role includes co-ordinating projects such as this, said everyone had worked very hard to prepare for the first relaxed performance at last year’s panto Cinderella. “I guess, on the evening, we were all uncertain about what would happen. Personally, I had imagined the audience might be a little detached, perhaps noisier also but that did not happen. We offered break-out rooms but only a few people used them, and there was not as much coming and going in the auditorium as I had expected.

“Any noise in the auditorium was very show-specific – the audience was following the panto story so carefully. I can remember the scene where Cinderella was sent away on an errand by the Ugly Sisters in order that she should not meet Prince Charming. The audience was so focused on what was happening and concerned to tell the Prince about Cinders that it was magical.”

Matthew said the overall atmosphere of a performance is very important. He said: “Many people don’t want to go somewhere where they fear people may tut or look askance at behaviour they consider inappropriate. For us, anything goes at a relaxed performance, so everybody is calm from the word go. As soon as families see that we are relaxed, they relax too and it gets better for everybody.

“It is also a fantastic opportunity for the families of those with autism and a wide range of disabilities to be able to all go out together and enjoy a performance in this easy-going atmosphere.”

Last year’s relaxed performance of the pantomime certainly got the thumbs-up from its audience. Everyone was invited to take part in a post-show survey with 77 per cent rating the theatre staff as excellent and 85 per cent ranking the communication from the theatre before the performance as excellent.

Kevin Womack brought his autistic daughter with the rest of his family to the show. He said: “It was so relaxed and easy to take the kids out. Having the quiet room was brilliant. It let my daughter settle down so she was happy. We thought it was well worth coming along and we would advise others to give it a try.”

Now the theatre is getting ready for the next relaxed performance of the 2014-15 pantomime Peter Pan which will be happening at 5.30pm on Wednesday January 14. Anne Ebbage, from Autism Anglia, which has been working on the project with Norwich Theatre Royal, said this kind of initiative was very important. She explained: “Parents and carers of children and adults with autism find it difficult to take them to any public place. Autism is not always understood by others. People with it find it very difficult to concentrate in a public place and may not act in a way which people feel is appropriate.

“Their behaviours are really a way for them to communicate. It is their way of saying ‘I don’t know what is going on, I don’t understand and there is too much going on for me.’ It is fantastic that the Theatre Royal have taken this on board, and consulted with us, parents and carers over many months.”

The theatre is aiming to develop relaxed performances to fit in with a growing need nationally to provide this service. Matthew explained: “Theatres want to respond to the awareness that many potential audience members feel apprehensive about attending a show. We offer relaxed performances of our pantomimes as a step into the world of theatre that many of us take for granted.

So the hard work continues and with tickets still available for this year’s relaxed performance of Peter Pan, the theatre team is hoping once again to share the magic of pantomime with everyone.

Peter Pan runs from Thursday December 18 to Sunday January 18. Tickets £5.50-£21. Discounts for Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Under-threes free. There will be signed performances on Saturday January 17 at 2.30pm and 7.30pm; audio-described performances on Sunday January 11 (1pm) and Friday January 16 (6.30pm); and the relaxed performance especially suited for those with autism on Wednesday January 14 at 5.30pm.

Box office 01603 630000. For more information or to book online, go to www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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