For some audiences, the traditional rules of attending a performance can prevent them from enjoying themselves, or, worse, create an unpredictable and confusing experience. Relaxed Performances are part of a movement that began in England about six years ago to create events designed with accommodations for people—including those with autism, sensory or communication disorders, or behavioral challenges—who would benefit from a more relaxed environment.

I recently spoke with Leif Ellington, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Manager, Subscriptions and Ticketing, J.J. El-Far, Arts Officer of the British Council, Alison Mahoney, Programming Assistant, Lincoln Center Education, and Miranda Appelbaum, Assistant Director of Accessibility at Lincoln Center, to identify ten basic facts about Relaxed Performances.


1. It started in the U.K., and it is flourishing. The British Council has had much success with relaxed performances and, since October 2015, has been leading training sessions to help members of other prominent performing arts organizations become familiar with this way of facilitating.

2. Audience members are encouraged to enjoy the performance as they need to. During relaxed performances, audience members can get up and move around, leave the theater and come back, and share their joy without worrying about being too loud. Audiences are invited to be themselves and act as naturally as possible. After all, performing arts are all about expressing yourself. "Families should know that they can put their minds at ease when attending a relaxed performance," says Leif Ellington.

3. It's not just for kids. According to J.J. El-Far, "Designating certain programs as relaxed signals that this is a special occasion to invite family members or friends who may not be comfortable in a traditional theater setting. It is great for children, nursing mothers, older folks who like to talk or have trouble understanding, or just people who enjoy a more forgiving attitude toward noise and movement."

4. Preparation makes all the difference. Many relaxed performances have visual schedules, social narratives, and video links to view ahead of time. These resources often provide an overview of the show and allow people to learn more about the artists and performers in advance. This is especially helpful if someone is seeing a performance or attending a specific venue for the first time. "Families attending a relaxed performance should make use of any pre-visit materials offered," notes Alison Mahoney. "These materials help audiences prepare for a trip to the theater, as well as ease any anxiety that comes with a change in routine. It is helpful to review these materials multiple times, starting a few weeks before the show."

5. The right seats are about more than the best view. Seating charts for most venues are available online, as they are for Lincoln Center. It can be helpful to view these in advance, particularly if you know you will want to leave the theater easily or if you want to sit somewhere where it won't be too loud. "For every show regardless of whether it's relaxed or not, we always hold seats along the aisles, along the exit doors, and many of our box seats," notes Leif Ellington. "Some audience members make these requests to make exiting the theater as easy as possible, so we always hold a large number of seats for these special requests. We also hold some seats near the stage. They go quickly, but we always hold some for last-minute requests."

6. There's a difference between relaxed performances and autism friendly/sensory performances. While the accommodations and adjustments may be the same, the audiences may not be. Both types of performances may include changes in lighting and sound, have more staff on hand to assist, and have a quiet space to chill out in. Autism-Friendly/Sensory-Friendly performances anticipate an audience primarily or completely comprised of people with autism or sensory-sensitivities, while Relaxed Performances are designed for an inclusive audience of neuro-typical people and those with disabilities.

7. A quiet area is a great place to take a break during the performance. Many relaxed performances take place at venues that provide quiet areas, with other relaxing activities—like coloring—in case a break from the performance is needed. Additionally, some areas may provide HD screens so that those who choose to utilize the quiet area won't miss any of the show!

8. Staff are ready to lend a hand, and a fidget. Front of house staff are trained and available to answer questions, provide information, and make sure that the audience member's experience is enjoyable. They can also provide accommodations, such as headphones or fidgets, for when it gets too loud or someone needs to re-focus their attention.

9. Lincoln Center now offers relaxed performances. No matter your background, Lincoln Center is always thinking of new ways to include everyone in the experience. In December, Jazz at Lincoln Center presented its first relaxed performance,  Big Band Holidays, in which Wynton Marsalis, famed trumpeter and managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, led his orchestra in classic holiday tunes. This May, Lincoln Center Education, in conjunction with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is presenting relaxed performances of In a Pickle, a theatrical experience for young people. Also, Lincoln Center Moments, designed specifically for individuals with dementia and their caregivers, takes the Relaxed Performance approach in this season’s spring series.

10. The arts are for everyone. "We want our audiences to reflect the diversity of our city," shares Miranda Appelbaum. "Relaxed Performances are just one way that we ensure our audiences are inclusive and that our performances are dynamic, engaging, and fun for all visitors."


Allison Baldwin is the Accessibility Partnerships & Programming Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.