Stratford Festival has added relaxed performances to its repertoire this season, breaking down some of the barriers that restrict people from seeing live theatre. 

"The whole concept of relaxed is to relax the experience. To take away the stress of 'I have to be here and I have to sit still and I have to sit in the dark,' " Shelley Stevenson, the administrative director for the festival, told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

The festival experimented with the idea last year, and the pilot went so well they decided to integrate the initiative into the 2017 season.

Families come together

Marcus and Tracey Cantwell brought their whole family from Ottawa to the special production of Treasure Island on July 7. 

That's something James, 7, rarely gets to do. He is on the autism spectrum, and he and his twin sister Sophia had a pirate-themed birthday the weekend before.

"It's difficult when you have a child that has sensory issues," said his mother Tracey. "Even just going to a regular movie sometimes is too loud or is too much for him. So one of us will have to leave the theatre."

"He normally doesn't go in," piped in Sophia. 

"This was great. That we could all come together," said Tracey, through tears.

Sound modified, house lights on

The festival consulted with Autism Ontario, Community Living Stratford and L'Arche Stratford to make sure they got it right. Representatives came to see an early preview of the show and advised on what to tweak. 

"As much as anything we like to keep the show as it's presented every other day," explained Elissa Horscroft, the technical director for the Avon Theatre in Stratford. 

wheelchair seating

In addition to the Avon Festival's regular wheelchair seating, the festival took out rows of seats on either side of the aisle near the front of the stage to accommodate everyone who wanted to see the show. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

However, they do make small modifications that can make a big difference for people with sensory-processing disorders like autism.

"It's just the really significant things like gunshots, and stuff like that, that we alter."

Rifle shots, said Horscroft, were brought down by about 50 per cent.

"On our smaller pistols... actually nothing we did made them quieter," said Horscroft.  "So they were mimed being shot on stage while we actually had someone fire a starter pistol off stage, and that's how we made it quieter."

They also leave the house lights on low, instead of creating a completely dark theatre. And there's a breakout room where people can go if they find the atmosphere too intense.

Treasure Island - On The Run 2017

Jamie Mac as Allardyce pictured with Juan Chioran as Long John Silver and Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Jim Hawkins in Stratford Festival's production of Treasure Island. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival)

'We should do more of it'

This was hands down my absolute favourite show that we've done. No question.  - Jamie Mac, actor, Treasure Island

It was the perfect balance for Tom Hamza and his daughter Sophie, 9, who is non-verbal "but absorbs everything she sees."

He said it was "tremendously liberating" to not have to worry that Sophie's vocalizations might disrupt the show for others.

"Not only are we seeing our child react to the show, but we're also seeing hundreds of other children — and adults I should say — and it's incredible because a lot of times what they say and how they react is exactly what I'm thinking and reacting," said Hamza.

"It takes the show [to] an entirely different level."

The cast has hit its stride now, after more than three months on stage, so those kinds of interjections don't throw them off their game, said Jamie Mac, who plays one of Long John Silver's gang of pirates. 

"This was hands down my abosolute favourite show that we've done. No question," said Mac after the performance.

"The unbridled joy that was in that room... it just does the heart so good."

Relaxed performances are still a relatively new thing in Canada, but Mac says it's time that changed. 

"This shouldn't even be an amazing thing," said Mac. "We should do more of it."

"I think it's so important for people with special needs and caregivers and parents and just kids to come and see the amazing work we do here. "


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