Auckland high school pioneers autism-friendly theatre

People on the autism spectrum often have a hard time going to the theatre, but an Auckland high school is determined to make the performing arts more accessible.

Takapuna Grammar's run of Little Women: The Musical will include one very special matinée - a 'relaxed performance' specifically designed with autistic audience members in mind.

While there have been a few at the professional level, it's the first time a New Zealand school will hold a relaxed performance.

The school's Performing Arts department worked with Arts Access Aotearoa and Autism NZ to produce a theatre experience with a few significant changes to their regular shows.

Instead of typical theatre seats, the auditorium will be filled with beanbags with a few spaced-out seats in the back. This is intended to ease the anxiety of having to sit close to other people for an extended period of time.

The curtains will remain open, allowing natural light to flood the performance space. Audience members are welcome to leave the performance at any time, and there will be colouring books in the foyer to help them relax until they're ready to return.

A specialised programme contains pictures of the actors, descriptions of the characters they play and even some plot spoilers, all to cut down on the amount of mental processing the audience has to do once the show begins.

One of the pages from the programme designed for the relaxed performance.
One of the pages from the programme designed for the relaxed performance. Photo credit: Takapuna Grammar School

Performing arts teacher Robert Dil was inspired to stage a relaxed performance after working with New York's Theatre Development Fund (TDF), who developed the first autism-friendly Broadway shows.

He believes any show can be adapted to cater to an autistic audience, after seeing successful relaxed performances of musicals such as The Lion King and Wicked.

"They've been adapting shows like Come From Away which is quite an adult, sophisticated show. I'd only really thought about it for young people on the autism spectrum, but they're actually adapting shows for everyone on the autism spectrum which I think is great."

He says TDF is also considering adapting School of Rock, known for its loud music and strobe lighting, into a relaxed performance.

"They said that was one of their hardest shows, but it's do-able."

Since learning more about the autism spectrum, Mr Dil has become "passionate" about opening up the performing arts to more people.

"[Little Women] is kind of another step in that direction."

All songs and music in the show will be performed at about 75 percent of their regular volume, as loud noises can be upsetting for those with autism.

"We're trying to keep it on the softer side, but it will still have just as much drama and passion as any other performance," Mr Dil says.

Seventeen-year-old Franke Ramdhanie, who plays Jo, has been in love with musical theatre since she discovered it last year.

"Theatre is so important to me and it's such a special part of my life, and it sucks that some people can't have it be a part of their life because they can't deal with their surroundings in a normal show," she says.

"I'd hate to think that there's people who don't get to experience it - I think it's really unfair. It's awesome that we have this opportunity to make it accessible for everyone."

Ben Sawyer, who plays Laurie, would like to see people with autism get more involved with performing in future productions.

"It would be pretty awesome acting along with them."

The 15-year-old has friends in his drama class who are on the spectrum, and has had a lot of experience with the community since he was in primary school.

"It's very different but it's so much fun because they enjoy it so much," he says of performing with autistic people.

"They've got the coolest ideas to put out onto the table and they can help you so much."

Relaxed performances aren't just suitable for those on the autism spectrum. People with a range of sensory and communication disorders may find them a more enjoyable way to watch a show, as well as those who have learning difficulties.

Families with young children are also welcome to attend the matinée, as there will be no pressure to be quiet or stay seated during the show.

Takapuna Grammar's relaxed performance of Little Women: The Musical is at 2pm on Sunday May 27. Contact for tickets.