I want you to close your eyes and imagine this scenario.
You have bought a ticket to attend a performance of a show that you have been excited about seeing for the last few months. You have your perfect outfit and shoes and now you are all ready to step through the doors of the theatre and enjoy yourself. Do you?
A) Put your upcoming visit to the theatre to the back of your mind and forget about it?
B) Does your mind dwell on it constantly, causing you to map out every detail before it will be satisfied?
My name is Nichole, and I am autistic. A passionate topic of mine for many years, I am writing this not only to help other autistic people but to help fellow theatre patrons, theatre staff and people in general understand autism so that everyone has enjoys their theatre experience.
Like many of the approximately 955,000 people with a disability (according to a 2009 Australian Bureau of Statistics record) who attend theatre or live concerts each year, a simple trip to the theatre for me takes a lot of organisation before stepping through the foyer doors.
Below, I have laid out my simple tips to allow audiences and the autism spectrum to get along.
BEFORE THE SHOW DAY
Going into a new environment can be a daunting experience for anyone, but when you have a condition on the autism scale it can often make participating in new activities that little more scary. For people like me who also have a secondary condition of anxiety, such an activity is often placed in the “too hard” basket, and that can lead to me missing out on valuable experiences.
The anxiety and stress can be eased by putting a plan of action into place.
The internet has made it easy to pre plan and organise yourself. When I decide I want to see a show, my first step is to find out who is selling the tickets. Most ticket websites allow you to pick a ticket from a seating plan diagram.
Things I take into mind:
- How much do I want to spend and how many tickets do I need?
- Do I want to sit in the stalls or in the dress circle?
- Will it make it easier for me if I sit at the end of the row?
- Do I want to pick my tickets up from the box office or have them sent out?
After I have selected my seats, I like to review them to make sure all the details are correct before purchasing. I then screen-cap the seating plan diagram and mark where I am sitting for easy future reference.
In addition to this I like to plan details such as:
- How will I get to the theatre? I make sure I record the details of the option I decide on, and then complete my research.
- Do I need to stay overnight? I book the hotel room or organise to stay at a friend’s house.
- Do I want to buy merchandise from the show? I often look at the merchandise available through an online source, making one less thing for me to worry about on the day.
Remember: individual theatrical venues often have endless information for your perusal on their website and are more than happy for you to contact them with questions. Theatre staff are employed to help their customers, and are often friendly enough to go to a little bit of extra trouble to make sure your day is enjoyable. For example, when I attended Grease at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne I emailed them before my scheduled performance and organised to visit the theatre outside of showtimes. The theatre staff were very accommodating and showed me around, introduced me to staff that I might see and gave me a tour of inside the theatre where I was able to find my seat for the show.
PRE SHOW (ON THE DAY)
For me, this period can often be a real challenge, especially if I am feeling stressed or anxious about the visit. I am sure to pack items in my bag that help make everything easier, and I have listed them.
- Headphones and music ( to calm myself and to use in noisy foyers)
- Tissues/ baby wipes
- Stress toy (such as a ball or chewy necklace)
- Explanation cards, to help explain to staff or fellow audience members if I need them due to an anxiety or panic attack
- Pre-written questions (either on my phone or paper), in case I can’t talk due to overload/ anxiety. Questions can be as simple as, “Can I please purchase a programme?”
- Red frogs, a favourite of mine to eat if I can feel my sugar levels dropping.
I always get to the theatre early and collect tickets and buy merchandise before the crowds build up.
One trick I use when attempting to start a conversation is always to stay with where I feel safe. Being at a theatre you can often presume that those around you also enjoy theatre, so I often start with, “do you like theatre?” or, “have you seen the show before?” Also, don’t be afraid to keep to yourself and listen to music.
I always make my way to my door around half an hour beforehand, having my ticket ready for scanning or ripping.
If you follow the rules of normal theatre etiquette, you are sure to have a good time, but here are a few extra ideas:
- Obey official theatre requests, such as switching off your phone.
- If you need to leave your seat during the show, go out as quietly as possible. if you get to the end of your row and are having any sort of difficulty, try signalling to an usher for assistance.
- Before the show starts, check for your closest exit in case you need to leave, or so that you can get to the toilets quickly at intermission.
After the show, move to the exits in an orderly fashion. If you prefer, you can wait until people have left to make it easier.
Proceed to your mode of transport and make your way home (again, it helps to have this transport worked out before you attend your performance).
An extra tip is to have a system set up with family and friends. I like to message them when I am leaving the theatre and when I am home, as it gives everyone a certain peace of mind (side note – this is also a useful tip for women who attend the theatre alone and travel home at night.)
Until the theatre industry more widely adopts relaxed performances, audiences must work together to make an enjoyable experience for all who attend live theatre. I hope this information helps you as an autistic person, or as a member of the theatre staff or audience who wants to make sure theatre is an inclusive art form.