In this month’s blog, Hannah Simpson (University of Oxford) discusses the difficulties the convention of the ‘quiet audience’ causes for neurodiverse spectators, and what can be done to make the theatre a more truly accessible space.
Tics in the Theatre: The ‘Quiet Audience’ and the Neurodiverse Spectator
It’s not unusual to hear people complaining about theatre audience etiquette. Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines in 2015 when he asked that fans refrain from filming him in Hamlet at the Barbican Centre; “nothing”, he said, was “less supportive”. The Guardian’s own Oliver Burkeman penned an entire editorial on the horrors of fellow spectators disturbing his viewing, remembering with pleasure how his companion once complained to an usher “who lectured the noisemakers so forcibly and successfully (and even fetched a more senior usher, to do so again!)” that the very memory can still, he confesses, “thrill” him.
If the light of a phone, the rustle of sweet papers or whispered comments so disturb the dedicated actor or pious spectator, then what of the still more pronounced noises and movements of the neurodiverse spectator? If a camera phone light is “blindingly obvious”, as Cumberbatch described it, then what of the verbal tic or motor convulsion of the individual with Tourette’s syndrome, the repetitive tapping of the person with OCD, the self-comforting rocking of the child with autism, or the rushed exit of the individual in the grip of a PTSD flashback? In short, how does our contemporary focus on audience etiquette preclude neurodiverse individuals from accessing an otherwise physically accessible theatre space?
The phenomenon of the ‘quiet audience’ is a comparatively modern one. Only since the mid-twentieth century has the policing of audience noise become commonplace. The earliest theatre forms were ritual-based, not merely tolerating but demanding audience participation. Classical Greek theatre saw stones and food thrown at the stage by disapproving spectators, and Roman successors hissed and booed at will. Japanese noh drama allowed spectators to enter and exit at their own leisure during its day- and week-long showings, and even stop a poor performance to demand another. The groundlings in the pit of Shakespeare’s Globe were a famously rowdy group, verbalizing their pleasure and complaints loudly, and engaging in repartee with the actors. Restoration theatre allowed wealthier patrons to pay a higher price to sit upon the stage itself, fully lit, visible and audible to all. In the nineteenth century, star actors were accustomed to waiting after their entrance onstage for excited applause and whispers in the auditorium to fade before beginning, and returning for a ‘curtain call’ in the middle of an act after playing an particularly impressive scene, following which spectators might even come forward to the edge of the stage and articulate their delight directly to the actors.
“How does our contemporary focus on audience etiquette preclude neurodiverse individuals from accessing an otherwise physically accessible theatre space?”
The shift to the expectation of a ‘quiet’ or ‘invisible audience’ in England was predominantly – and deliberately – effected following World War II. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, theatregoing remained a profoundly social – and noisy – activity in England. Wartime food restrictions and curfews during and following both World Wars restricted the other social events on offer, and theatregoing became one of the primary social activities available, with spectators freely eating and drinking in their seats, reading newspapers, and seeking out friends seated elsewhere in the auditorium. However, the class make-up of the average audience changed drastically during and following World War II. Dan Rebellato records the wartime changes:
Bringing the curtain time forward from 8.30 to 6.00 [to allow for the Blitz curfew] meant that people could go directly from work and use public transport to get home afterwards. The requirements of rationing mean[t] that the exclusive convention of wearing evening dress fell into disuse. And, as the war squeezed people’s earnings, theatres lowered their prices.
Consequently, London theatre began to see a younger and more broadly working-class audience than they had in previous decades. This audience’s rowdier reception of the performances – although the historical norm – awakened class and generational anxieties in veteran theatre-goers. Audience etiquette began to be policed, by way of instruction from the British Drama League lectures and surveillance inside the theatre by newly appointed ushers.
Today, the regulating of audience behaviour has become primarily a self-policing. Burkeman self-deprecatingly recalls “casting a Meaningful Glance in the wrongdoer’s direction” before his companion spoke up, and theatre blogger Tim Read argues that audience members “shouldn’t behave inconsiderately, but if no-one challenges them, are they ever going to stop?” The grass-roots public movement Theatre Charter recommends that audience members police offending individuals themselves. (Only once and very much in passing does the Theatre Charter acknowledge that anyone other than the fully able-bodied may be in an audience, when they warn, “never leave mid-performance unless for medical or emergency reasons”.) The modern theatre audience have become Michel Foucault’s docile bodies, regulated under their own surveillance. Well might Burkeman worry that his “feeling exhilarated while watching authoritarian ushers enforce the law may be how totalitarian regimes get off the ground.”
These complaints and audience policing frequently invoke the discourse of respectful appreciation that we already observed in Cumberbatch’s plea for “supportive” spectator behaviour. Burkeman justifies himself by mimicking Cumberbatch’s discourse of respectful support for the actors and other spectators: “What’s really irritating” about spectator noise, he says, “is the implicit refusal to participate in the collaborative undertaking, based on mutual respect, of maintaining a smooth-running society.” In 1953, as part of the determined institutional movement to educate a ‘quiet audience’, Richard Burton explained benevolently to an audience of London school-children at a British Drama League lecture, “I love to eat chocolates when I’m in the audience. But I take it as a favour if the audience doesn’t when I’m on stage.” Lily Middleton, pleading for silent audiences, opines that theatre etiquette “is an expectation of behaviour that respects the comfort and happiness of others.” (Middleton shows no awareness of any irony in her demand for respect for others’ comfort and happiness. The universal identity implicitly, here and so often elsewhere, encompasses only the able-bodied.) “Supportive”, “collaborative”, “mutual respect”, “a favour”: the arguments for a ‘quiet audience’ rest on the terminology of reverence and deference. If we continue to think of audience silence as a mark of respectful support, then we will continue to erect an obstacle between neurodiverse individuals and live performance.
Of course, many would argue that what they and others are objecting to are wilful, unnecessary audience noises, such as talking, eating, bored fidgeting, etc. Maddy Costa disagrees, observing that “for an art form so dedicated to thinking about human behaviour and interaction, theatre is remarkably bad at allowing its audiences to be human beings once they take their seats.” She continues, “if you’ve had the bad luck to catch a cold” and dare to come into the theatre “with a cough, then you can expect to be pretty much despised. And disability is much more stigmatised.”
Susan Elkin bears out Costa’s lament. “Theatre is for everyone. No one should ever be excluded. It’s a universal medium,” she begins one column in The Stage. Almost immediately, however, she backtracks. “But it isn’t as simple as that, is it?” She goes on to complain about a group of schoolchildren with unspecified “learning difficulties” whose “rustling, banging and oral noise” disrupted a performance she attended at the Polka Theatre. That the Polka Theatre specialises in creating inclusive environments for children with access issues seems not to deter Elkin from her diatribe: “If their enjoyment cancel out someone else’s then surely it’s a problem?” she demands. Elkin’s “someone else” here replicates Middleton’s assumed able-bodied universal being, and she acknowledges this explicitly, asking, “how we can safeguard everyone’s rights to inclusive theatre, bearing in mind that ‘everyone’ includes people who don’t have special needs [sic].” She suggests taking individuals with these “special needs [sic]” to performances where “audience noise matters less”, such as the pantomime, again seemingly oblivious to the fact that the high-sensory stimuli of the typical pantomime would prove catastrophically distressing to most children with autism, for whom the Polka Theatre specifically caters.
“The phenomenon of the ‘quiet audience’ is a comparatively modern one. Only since the mid-twentieth century has the policing of audience noise become commonplace.”
Even if we assume – and it is a dangerous assumption to make – that Elkin’s idea that her own enjoyment of a performance outweighs all else, we must acknowledge that it can be difficult to distinguish between a willed and an unwilled noise. This is particularly the case given the broad range of unpredictable responses that may characterise the Tourette’s tic or the symptomology of PTSD. Can many theatre spectators really tell the difference between voluntary and involuntary noises and movements? Zealous policing of audience noise, out of respect for actors and fellow patrons, too easily slips into self-righteous discrimination. Kelvin Moon Loh, acting in a revival production of The King and I at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 2015, took to Facebook to express his distress after audience members began shouting chastisements at a young spectator with autism who “yelped” during the performance, forcing his mother to remove the child from the theatre. “I ask you,” Loh lamented, “when did we as theatre people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?”
Jess Thom, co-founder of the English theatre group TourettesHero, shares Loh’s frustration. Thom, who has Tourette’s syndrome characterised by verbal tics, says she began performing because being onstage offered her “the one seat in the house I knew I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” She recalls attempting to see Mark Thomas’s Extreme Rambling at the Tricycle Theatre in London in 2011. Having struggled in the past with attending the theatre, “partly because of particular rules about public space and partly because of people’s reactions to my tics”, she contacted both Thomas and the box office before she arrived, and the theatre’s staff announced to the audience at the beginning of the show that Thom was in the audience. Thom’s most common verbal tic is not the (rare) coprolalia characterised by expletives, but the innocuous word “biscuit”. Moreover, the show was not a child-centred performance, but Thomas’s recount of the Israeli security wall encircling the West Bank. Nevertheless, at intermission the front-of-house manager asked Thom to move to the sound booth for the second half of the performance following complaints about her behaviour. “I found that a deeply humiliating and upsetting experience, and I cried in that booth a lot,” Thom remembers. “What hurt the most was that other people’s right to be uninterrupted at the show had trumped my right to access the show, even though we had paid the same price for our tickets.”
Thom says that she initially swore never to attend the theatre again. Instead, she became an advocate for more inclusive performance spaces. Her own widely touring show, Backstage in Biscuit Land, places her experience of Tourette’s syndrome front and centre(stage). She also champions “relaxed performances”, which, as she describes them “take a relaxed approach to noise or movement from the audience, offer a warm welcome to people who find it hard to follow the conventions of traditional theatre etiquette, and that encourage everyone to respond without inhibition.” The point, she says, is that “making theatre more inclusive makes it better – for disabled people and non-disabled people.”
“Relaxed performances” are a relatively modern concept, initially born out of “sensory-friendly” film screenings for autistic audiences in the 1990s, and introduced to British theatre via a pilot program in 2012 which included the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Fundamentally, relaxed performance opens doors to audiences who otherwise feel like they’re not welcome because of traditional theatre etiquette,” says Salette Gressett, Arts Manager for the British Council. “It’s the hushed reverence, that you must be quiet, you must be still. ‘Relaxed performance’ means that people who might find it difficult to adhere to those codes of behavior are welcome to that show — whether that’s due to learning difficulty, or a sensory or communication disorder, or Tourette’s syndrome, or perhaps somebody who has to pop up to go the bathroom a couple times an hour.” Gardiner Comfort, an actor with Tourette’s syndrome, agrees: “The idea is that the audience members who are usually shunned for their disruptions are invited to watch the performance however they need to, making whatever physical or vocal outburst they need to, without worrying that they’re bothering anyone. It’s a cool idea because not only is it kind to these audience members, it creates a whole new experience for everyone, the outbursts potentially heightening the theatre experience in a good way.”
Many London theatres now advertise occasional relaxed performances. Finding such a performance, however, can be more difficult than it might initially appear. I contacted more than forty major central London theatres which emphasised their commitment to accessibility on the websites; typical claims included variously “dedicated to assisting patrons with all needs”, “cater[ing] for every audience member’s needs and to be accessible to all” and “one of the world’s most innovative and accessible opera companies.” Virtually none could offer me a relaxed performance of an adult play. The only upcoming relaxed performances in indoor theatre available to book at the time of writing were one-off performances of:
- The Lion King (sold out) at the Lyceum theatre 
- Aladdin the Musical at the Prince Edward theatre
- Tiddler and Other Terrific Tales at Leicester Square
- The Who’s Tommy: The Rock Musical at the Theatre Royal
Moreover, relaxed performances that were available were invariably single performances of shows in a long run, routinely scheduled as a weekday matinee. Polka Theatre was the only indoor London theatre that scheduled more regular relaxed performances every couple of months, but offer specifically on children’s theatre. Including outdoor theatre increased relaxed performance options, since Shakespeare’s Globe offered by far the most regular schedule of relaxed performances, at a rate of approximately one every two months. One relaxed performance was offered for each of their upcoming shows Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing. Intriguingly, relaxed performances of these latter plays would of course be far closer, historically, to the conditions of their original productions.
Looking back, there were fifteen relaxed performances offered in Greater London in the Winter (January-April) 2017 season, according to the Official London Theatre’s Access London Theatre accessibility guide. All of these were one-off performances of longer-running shows. Six were aimed at children or teenagers. Of the adult options, two – The Albatross 3rd and Main and Finders Keepers at Park Theatre – were weekday matinee performances. Again, only Shakespeare’s Globe offered evening or weekend relaxed performances of adult shows: All the Angels, The White Devil and Othello.
“Fundamentally, relaxed performance opens doors to audiences who otherwise feel like they’re not welcome because of traditional theatre etiquette.”
The predominant availability of children’s shows and musicals demonstrates the severely limited availability – and, indeed, perception – of relaxed performances in England. Given that almost one in five people in the UK cite some form of disability, and the wild success of Jess Thom’s own adult-targeted Adventures in Biscuit Land, it seems that the scope for future productions is great. And indeed, more relaxed performances would also allow our current mainstream audience to experience more plays in a new – and yet, paradoxically, more ‘traditional’ – manner. Include Arts, a company which trains theatre staff to create relaxed performances, stresses that their approach aims to serve both the spectator and the performance, and so can easily be extended to more play genres. “We try not to make too many changes to the show,” says their director Kirsty Hoyle. “I believe these performances should be as close as possible to what the director intended but we will adapt the moments which might cause more anxiety than joy: a strobe light, very loud sounds, or up-close audience interaction.” The early pilot trials of relaxed performances in Britain, which included Romeo and Juliet, and the Globe’s own continued commitment to relaxed performances of their own standard repertoire, demonstrate that the medium can work equally well for ‘straight’ theatre as for children’s or musical dramas.
Academics have long recognised the class and generational anxieties that contributed to the deliberate and artificial creation of the ‘quiet audience’; we might now add the engrained ableism in English society that perpetuates the trend. Questioning the reign of the ‘quiet audience’ opens up the theatre to a wider audience, and can potentially enrich the experience for new and for veteran theatregoers, and particularly those who feel unwelcome in the ‘quiet audience’. Consequently, Jess Thom hopes that relaxed performance availability will not only eventually encompass a wider range of plays, but will also become part of the norm rather than an exception – an offering to all, and not only the self-identified neurodiverse: “In my experience, relaxed performances work best when they are regular performances that embrace certain key principles. Why define or limit who will benefit from these or require people to declare their needs? If the invitation is open there are many people who might not feel able to access theatre who would benefit: people with babies, those with dementia, neurological conditions, learning difficulties, loud laughs!” Dan Rebellato, 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama, London: Routledge, 1999, 105.  The Lyceum added that they aim to schedule one relaxed performance per year.  It should be noted here that the Barbican, and specifically their Access Officer Rebecca Oliver, stood out by not only informing me of later shows that were going to go on sale with relaxed performances later in the year, but also offered to potentially designate one performance of a currently running show as relaxed if there was something I was particularly keen to book.
Hannah Simpson is a PhD student in English Literature at St. Cross College, University of Oxford. Her dissertation explores the presentation of physical pain and disability in post-WWII theatre and choreography, focusing on the work of Samuel Beckett and Tatsumi Hijikata. She has articles published in Comparative Drama and Warwick Exchanges, and forthcoming in Études Irlandaises and the Journal of Modern Literature.
About the Editor
Lloyd Houston is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford where he holds the Hertford College – Faculty of English DPhil Scholarship in Irish Literature in English. His thesis explores the political and aesthetic roles venereal disease and discourses of sexual health played in the emergence of Irish modernism. His work has appeared in the Review of English Studies, The Library, and the Bodleian Library Record. Lloyd edits the AMH Blog and convenes the University of Oxford Graduate Literature Work in Progress Seminar.
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