My Relaxed Performance experience

Reporter: Rachel Jessop, first published Thu 24 Nov 2016 11:34

Sandra Butcher took her son, who has Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, to Mamma Mia!'s Relaxed Performance on 16 November. Here, she shares her story of the experience. 

We were delighted to win tickets to attend the relaxed performance of Mamma Mia at the Novello Theatre. Our 12-year old son had the full lyrics to this musical memorized by the time he was six. He has re-enacted nearly every scene of the movie repeatedly during home performances, watched the movie a hundred times, and even saw it one time on stage previously, about 4 years ago. But that visit stretched nearly every nerve in his body. He likes to move when he hears music. He was confused by people sitting still and just watching.

Our son has a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) – brain injury caused by exposure to alcohol when in his birth mother’s womb. It is a condition as common as autism but far little understood.  He speaks fairly well and you cannot obviously see his disability, so quite often his behaviours are considered ‘naughty’, especially when in a place with as many unwritten rules as a theatre.  

We had a rough time getting to the Novello. Changing schedule is hard for our son and a trip to London is enough excitement to throw him off, particularly on a school day when he already spent a great deal of energy trying to stay focused in classes during the morning.  On the ride to the train station we heard the signs of our son becoming dysregulated – the discouraged “I don’t want to go. It’s going to be too loud. I won’t watch it. I will sit outside. It’s going to be boring.”  The string of expletives that sometimes signal that the fight/flight parts of the brain are starting to take over, signs of a potential meltdown.  Mamma Mia, I thought, here we go again... As a fast train whizzed by on the platform and he nearly jumped out of his skin, I wondered for the umpteenth time that day if we were doing the right thing.

But he didn’t have a meltdown. We had printed out some of the Mousetrap Theatre Projects resources for attending families, and he and his young friend who joined us started to talk about some of what they might see.  We were able to distract him with sausage rolls, jelly beans, whatever it took to get us through the underground sensory assault and to the will call booth. He let out a shout of excitement when he saw a theatre marquee, only to discover it wasn’t the right theatre and he would have to walk on in the drizzle. We nearly lost it at this point as well. Getting to the theatre is just as much of an experience for kids with special needs as the actual performance. Fear and excitement battle it out. Insecurities kick in. 

For a kid who normally uses the same fork and spoon for every meal, just trying and smelling different foods from different places is an act of courage, let alone walking into a professionally designed den of lights and sounds designed to overwhelm and transport an audience.  When he has been to the theatre previously, he also had added pressures to conform to the etiquette. He couldn’t understand what we were describing as a 'relaxed' performance and why this night would be different.  

Mamma Mia relaxed performance - usher high five

Usher high five!

From the moment we finally had tickets in hand he was bracing himself, readying himself for the experience.  The Novello Theatre is wonderfully intricate, a magnificent old building – our son was instantly on full sensory intake, looking at every aspect of his surroundings – and especially the big blue Mamma Mia beach ball in the shop that my husband and I instantly knew was going to be An Issue later.  

This was no ordinary visit to the theatre. After we won the tickets, we had explained to the organisers that our son has a special passion (some would say obsession – kids with FASD can have autistic-type traits, and for our son, this is one of his) for stage lighting and for microphones and sound equipment.  He has a series of lights in our home that he sets up for his performances. As soon as he could talk, he shared excitement over street lights. When he watches concerts, he talks about the lighting.  

Imagine his pure delight at being invited by Gareth, the sound technician, to sit at the console, while he explained to him how the sound system works, to see up close the microphones – especially the sparkly one that nearly made his eyes pop out of his head! He got to push the button for Sophie’s microphone. Earlier, when we had first found our seats, our son was asking where the band would sit, so it was pure wonderment when he was being led down to the orchestra pit where one of the performers waved up at him. No, this was no ordinary visit to the theatre for our son.  He gave Gareth a huge hug and then took the hand of Warren, the lighting technician, who was now going to show him the lighting box. He practically skipped his way there, no longer noticing the crush of hundreds of others who were entering the theatre.

Mamma Mia relaxed performance - sparkly microphone

The sparkly microphone!

In the lighting booth, he was shown all the controls, learned how the curtains work (if they go up and down or open side-to-side, and who does it) and how cues are sent between different people with different jobs. He learned how computers help the technicians, who pre-program the lighting sequences. He learned how they make stars (or in this case blurry spots) appear on the stage, he asked what the limitations are of the equipment. 

Our guy has recently started at a new special needs school that has a focus on the performing arts. At this school, the older kids will be taught how to operate the sound and lights on their state-of-the-art stage. For our son, we believe experiences like this are seeds of a future shot at some sort of semi-independent life for him.  Kids with FASD typically struggle with executive function and abstract thinking, but they often excel in areas related to music and arts. This visit to the theatre was about more than singing along to familiar songs.  This is part of building him a bridge to a possible future, step by step.  He is talented.  He won his old secondary school’s talent show as an incoming Year 7 student, but he couldn’t access the vibrant theatre program there because they couldn’t support him in the ways he needs to be supported.  So this new school, we hope, with its understanding of kids with learning disabilities and its involvement in the national Arts Awards scheme, will hopefully make possible his further involvement in theatre and the arts. Access is about more than seeing one production, pivotal though that can be. It has to permeate education on many levels if the goal is true inclusion. It can be life-changing as so many kids like our son learn best in a multi-sensory environment.

Mamma Mia relaxed performance - sound desk

After his visits to the sound and lighting booths, he turned to me, eyes alive, his whole body glowing, and said in a voice filled with deep contentment, “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”  If anyone is unconvinced whether these sorts of opportunities matter, I wish they could have seen the pure awe he radiated.  This is a child who sees himself in the theatre. This is a child who was having a transformative evening thanks to the kindness of Gareth, Warren, and every usher and Mousetrap who made this already wonderful evening magical.  And the show had not yet started!

The theatre filled up. We were back in our seats, waiting.  He was becoming distressed that the voice over the loudspeaker kept asking people to take their seats. They said the show would start in 2 minutes, but it took longer than that. Our guy is literal, this was upsetting to him, but he got over it. He could see some of the kids needed extra time to get out of wheelchairs and into their seats. He was on a learning curve in many ways this evening.  

When the cast came on stage for a pre-show greeting and a quick sing-along for the chorus of Mamma Mia, I found my eyes welling up with tears. It was a great idea, but I thought this might confuse him, as it was out of sequence. Yet there he was standing up, waving at the actors, in his element and relaxed. Ah, it hit me. Yes, that was the point. (This was my first “relaxed” show too, you know.)

Immediately transported, our son did not miss a thing.  Not one lighting change, not one scene change, not one beat of one song. For him, this is a full-body experience.  He rocks to music (it is his calming method). Music takes over his tired and overwhelmed senses. He becomes the music. When the show started, he was in his element from the very first note. His eyes nearly popped out of his head when the stage filled with the bright glare of Super Trouper spotlights, when the boys did backflips during Voulez Vous.  Song after song, he was engaged and transported. A sweet young girl in front of us kept looking back at him. She knew every word too. Throughout the evening the talent, energy and enthusiasm of the cast shone through and transported these kids to a sunny Greek island.

There was a young man a few rows behind us who became very animated during SOS, and our guy kept turning around to try to understand what the sounds meant.  We helped him to see just how much the other boy was enjoying the show, that he was dancing in his way in his wheelchair.  We pointed out how wonderful it was to see his joy, reminded our son that maybe the other boy had never been to a theatre before.  There was another young man directly behind us who was drumming along to Does Your Mother Know with perfect rhythm.  When I met his mum’s eyes, I nearly teared up again.  This was wonderful.

No one around us was telling our kids to be quiet, to sit still. They were for once allowed to enjoy the performance each in their own way.  

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Somewhere after the intermission, our son noticed a loose tooth. He is not one for ambiguity, so once a tooth starts to wiggle, it therefore obviously must come out. Immediately. So during the grand finale he was alternately dancing, screaming with abandon, and stopping dead in his tracks to wiggle the tooth more (it finally succumbed on the train back to our town). When the arch of special lights came down on stage during the last scene, his evening was complete. Rapture. Until, there it was…the confetti canon, the pinnacle of stage props in his eyes. This was the stuff of legends.

Our son’s words for the evening?  “Amazing!”  “Epic!”  We would have to agree.

Mamma Mia relaxed performance - having fun

Dad (Martin Butcher) having fun watching our son enjoy himself

It’s a hard world for our kids with special needs. But once in a while an experience lights them up and rocks their world and gives us all the boost we need to encourage them to give something one more try.  

This morning, the day after, he was re-living the experience, humming all the tunes, looking over his huge Mamma Mia! picture booklet and 10th Anniversary CD (but NOT the blue beach ball which yes, was an issue we diverted with the CD purchase). He let out a deep perhaps-too-sleepy-for-school sigh: “Did you see the confetti cannon?  I LOVE confetti!”  

We trundled off to school. He was armed and ready for show and tell. Walking a little bit taller.  

Mamma Mia relaxed performance - holding programme


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We owe a special thanks to the Society Of London Theatre organisers, to Mousetrap Theatre Projects, and to the Novello Theatre staff, every one of whom greeted our son with warmth and understanding.  And a huge thanks to the cast and crew of Mamma Mia, whose performance was flawless despite the decidedly animated and enthusiastic response they received from this unique audience, each one of whom likely had a similarly empowering experience as did our son.  
For those who might like to know more about FASD, please contact the National Organisation for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome at http://www.nofas-uk.org.

Thank you to Sandra for sharing her story with us!

More about

Mamma Mia!

Novello Theatre