Relaxed Performances: Across the Pond

Marjorie is an east asian woman with long black hair that comes below her shoulders. in the photo she is wearing a toned-down red lipstick and a white dress with black patterns

Marjorie Chan is the Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto since 2019, where she places access, community, innovation and collaboration at the forefront of the company’s approach. Born in Tkaronto (Toronto) to Hong Kong immigrants, she works variously as writer, director and dramaturge in opera and theatre as well as in the intersection of these forms and roles.

Her work has been seen and performed in the United States, Scotland, Hong Kong, Russia and across Canada. Marjorie has been nominated for nine Dora Awards and is the recipient of four. She has also received the K.M. Hunter Artist’s Award in Theatre, the Entertainment World Award (Best New Work), a Harold Award, the Bra D’Or Award, as well as the George Luscombe Award for Mentorship. Upcoming works: The Year of the Cello, co-created with Njo Kong Kie and the operatic adaptation of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing with composer Tim Brady.

My first exposure to Relaxed Performance as a concept was 8 years ago. 

I was struck by the simplicity of the idea and I was able to implement it for the first time as a director for Cahoots theatre & Theatre Passe Muraille’s co-production for ULTRASOUND by Adam Pottle.

TPM was also beginning it’s Relaxed Performance journey in 2016 with ELLE adapted by Severn Thompson from Douglas Glover’s novel. It is believed to be the first in Canada to offer such performances that were not for young audiences.

Relaxed Performances are designed to welcome audience members and their families who could benefit from a more relaxed environment, including Autistic and neurodivergent patrons. The set-up can include: a pre-show introduction to the actors/characters, less intense sound and lighting effects, a very low level house light in the audience, the ability for anyone to come and go from the space, and a calm space outside the theatre. 

Fast forward to 2022 spring: I was invited to the Festival of Live Art (FLAM9) and the Caravan Assembly to see new work in Amsterdam and the UK. This was my first time since the beginning of the pandemic to do any international traveling, but I was even able to squeeze in trips to London and Bristol!

A lilac purple graphic with two TPM branded red lines on each side as photos overlap on top of one another. Marjorie taking a selfie with Kelsie in front of Battersea on a windy day, and a postcard that has a drawing of a cat

Here’s me, taking a photo with Kelsey Action who is the Inclusive Practice Manager at the BATTERSEA Art Centre!

As the Artistic Director of TPM, one of my goals was to touch base and see how our colleagues in the UK were doing in regards to accessibility in theatre. 

One of the interesting projects I encountered was in Bristol at Mayfest, a biennial festival, where I had the pleasure to experience the work: A Crash Course in Cloudspotting by lead artist Raquel Meseguer Zafe. Based on her lived experience Zafe collected over 250 stories of people living with invisible disabilities/chronic illnesses and their attempts at resting in public spaces.

The audience was invited to remove our shoes, don layers and lie down, or otherwise get comfortable in a cocoon-like structure to experience the installation.  Clearly, I was craving rest, as perhaps I did nod off for a moment as the lights and voices washed over me. Nevertheless, those stories resonated deeply with me. Our society and its culture and infrastructure are quite hostile towards public rest; and yet many people require or would benefit from it.

(If you want to experience the audio yourself, an interactive archive of the stories lives on the project website)

In addition to the restful environment created for the installation, the Bristol Old Vic had set up relaxed spaces in their lobbies. I believe their intention was to keep the relaxed nook next to their studio as a legacy and learning resulting from the installation. 

A classic theatre space with red seats, red curtains, and ornaments on the walls

Here’s a photo of  Bristol Old Vic!

Kelsie smiles in front of Battersea which is a heritage building with a sign that sticks out a bit comically, that reads BATTERSEA Arts Centre. Kelsey wears glasses and smiles in a blue dress.

Kelsie at the Battersea Arts Centre

My primary reason to visit the bustling city of London was to go to the Battersea Arts Centre. I met with Kelsie Action (Inclusive Practice Manager) to learn about Relaxed Venue protocols, as this arts centre made the extraordinary move to become a completely relaxed venue. You can read more about the journey on their website.  

It was very inspiring to visit a space where the values of relaxed performances are embedded throughout its organization in order to overall be a more welcoming environment. There are so many established traditions around attending a live performance that are actually incredibly restrictive. Creating a more informal environment embraces the live nature of theatre and benefits everyone on and off the stage. They have even set up a private, permanent chill space at the theatre, that includes a comfortable floor suitable for resting as well as various blankets and chairs. It is used by the community for various purposes, with the one goal to be a place of quiet, and rest from a busy world. 

One articulation that I appreciated was “To reduce fuss”.

Many access conversations are met with resistance from audiences and artists as there is a lot of ‘What ifs?’. By aiming to ‘reduce fuss’ – a commitment is made to make it easier for someone to access a space, performance or organization.

How can it be simpler? How can it be more seamless? 

Another takeaway was the movement towards separating relaxed performances and sensory-sensitive performances. When relaxed performances were being developed in the UK, the intention was to create a more welcoming environment to support audiences who may be neurodivergent or autistic. 

The practice continues to evolve.

For example, earlier on, there was an attempt to include babes-in-arms at relaxed performances, but they discovered there to be competing access needs between the two groups. So, performances for small children became a separate initiative. By asking “Who are these relaxed environments for?” Battersea was able to create a Relaxed Venue with a more holistic approach while still acknowledging the community’s need for performances that are sensory sensitive.

As I leave our friends in the UK to continue pondering their topic, I also bring a question back home. 

What does this mean for Theatre Passe Muraille?
Marjorie sits in a designated relaxed space which was set up during the BeyondTO festival. There was a monitor that projected Scored in Silence, and a vibrotactile pillow that you can hold onto.

If you came and visited TPM during our Beyond TO festival, you may have experienced our own relaxed space that we set up in the Backspace!

Back in 2019, I took personal training as an Access Activator with Tangled Art + Disability, and the British Council. Since then TPM took our learnings into our digital offerings this past 2 years of the pandemic. Our digital offerings are often viewed at-home, which of course is inherently more relaxed.

As the pandemic shook up our global theatre industry, we saw a rise of digital offerings — and the digital format also created a disruption to the traditional method of theatre viewing. We embraced that people continued to enjoy theatre even if they were: 

  • Experiencing it asynchronously
  • Choosing not to sit still for the duration for it
  • Choosing not to sit in a chair or sit at all 
  • Revealing moments that could be triggering, and instead, giving consent to it

To me this means more people enjoyed our digital work, who couldn’t have otherwise. To that end, why wouldn’t we continue to explore and push forward with relaxed protocols?

Our community member Mala sits in front of the computer and experiences May I Take Your Arm? while engaging with the textile book

May I Take Your Arm? in our 20.21 season offered an at-home digital experience in the format of “follow your own joiurney”.

Inspired by the Battersea Arts Centre, Theatre Passe Muraille aims to become a relaxed venue by the 23.24 season, implementing more relaxed protocols across all offerings at our theatre.

As we head in this direction, our 22.23 season will offer added relaxed measures, as we trial initiatives in order to find the right fit for our company. So, in our upcoming productions you may notice.

  • Combined visual story / show programs
  • Ability to leave and return during a performance when necessary
  • Separate relaxed space
  • Seating that has access to standing space should you prefer
  • Embedded relaxed introductions in show openings
  • Increased content warnings in pre-show introductions so that there is consent for the any possible triggering elements
  • Ability to leave medical devices and phones on vibrate if necessary
  • Alternative style seating that offers more comfort
  • Low light over the audience throughout the performance to allow for easier and safer movement

We’re looking forward to continuing this journey of access and towards becoming a relaxed venue. Throughout the year, we will welcome your feedback as we take this journey together. We are always interested in what you as our audience and artists think, so please connect with us if you have thoughts or questions! 

I am always reachable at

Check out our upcoming show

A relaxed run, October 15 — 29, 2022

“The Cello, relentless, eternal, infinite in its beauty. I want to drown in its sound”

The Year of the Cello by Marjorie Chan and Njo Kong Kie | A Theatre Passe Muraille and Music Picnic Co-Production

Wen and her friend Li-An are forever changed by their encounter with the Cellist, whose music unlocks all that was left unspoken. Co-created by Marjorie Chan and Njo Kong Kie, The Year of the Cello is told poetically, alongside live cello music culminating in a lament for loves lost, and a Hong Kong that once was.

The Year of the Cello by Marjorie Chan and Njo Kong Kie. Marjorie is sitting and smiling in her turquoise dress and black pattern and Kong Kie is standing behind her with a white sweater and red glasses on a black & white old image showing the view of a big mountain and some buildings and houses below, like that of old hong kong.