How I Cope – Cara Lee
Theatre writer Cara Lee shares her journey as part of our blog series How I Cope. How I Cope is an on-going blog series where colleagues from across the sector – and at different stages of their career – share their experiences of self-care and wellbeing.
How I Cope
My name is Cara Lee, I’m a theatre writer as well as being a theatre fan and I’m Autistic – sometimes those are two things that clash. A lot.
I can of course only write from my own experience with Autism, especially as there can be such a huge spectrum, with almost everyone being affected in different ways. So what I’ve written here may not apply to everyone – it’s all a matter of perspective.
When it comes to theatre, there are certain scenes that will probably be familiar to (almost) every Autistic person. That feeling in the pit of your stomach at the idea of two unplanned, unscheduled hours. The often loud and crowded foyers, especially in larger theatres, and of course the sliding scale of reactions to changes to the environment.
Things like strobe lighting and other loud flashy effects, or even smoke effects, can trigger emotions ranging from feeling mildly uncomfortable to a full-on meltdown (I’m lucky enough that I only generally experience the former). I guess the best way to describe a sensory overload is like an invasion of the mind – the loud and/or flashy things that are triggering take over your brain and in the case of flashes can also make you feel spaced out. Smoke effects can also trigger sensory issues, as they often create the same overwhelming feeling.
As a child, even something as simple as going out to the cinema used to give me crippling anxiety due to fear of the unknown, so you can imagine what going to the theatre was like!
I loved theatre then as dearly as I do now, but it wasn’t always easy and it isn’t always easy now. As I’ve become older, I’ve also learned to deal with the whole ‘fear of the unknown’ issue and now that I understand where sensory overload comes from, that’s easier to cope with too.
Still, there are many specific examples of scenes in shows that have come out of nowhere and have rattled me and I’m sure many other Autistic people also. I think the first time I was aware of a triggering scene as an adult was the Morning of the Dragon scene in Miss Saigon, where in the most recent production a calm and quiet love song is suddenly replaced by dazzling strobe lighting and thumping drumbeats. I think I remember this one most (and as a result tend to cite it when talking about sensory overload in theatre), simply because it was the first time I was aware that what I was experiencing was sensory overload as an adult.
Honestly, the best way I’ve found of coping with this is being aware of what could potentially come up and simply looking away if things get really intense. Two recent examples I can think of where I personally had to do this were the concert scene in the Take That jukebox musical The Band and in the opening number of The Bodyguard.
But it may surprise you to know that, although being aware of what’s coming is generally the best way to deal with potentially triggering scenes, sometimes that awareness can actually make it worse. For example, in a common theatre situation where a character has a gun you know is going to go off at the end of a scene, the anxiety that builds up in anticipation of the sudden loud noise can often be worse than the noise itself.
There isn’t really an easy fix for any of this, although there are ways that things could be made easier and an increasing number of ways for people with Autism to prepare themselves for shows. For example, (although this is hardly something new) the warnings of strobe and smoke effects outside of productions can be helpful to Autistic people, as well as people with conditions like epilepsy. We can now also search for the content of shows on the Internet (thanks Wikipedia!). Following along those lines, I feel increased warnings and possibly even a full guide to any potentially triggering scenes would also make things easier as well, although it wouldn’t be the most convenient of solutions for producers and venues.
From my description, it may sound like it’s all doom and gloom for people with Autism when it comes to theatre – but there have been massive improvements, particularly with the rise of relaxed performances.
These productions of popular shows are specifically adapted to suit the needs of people with Autism and other disabilities, with increased lighting, lessened audience interaction, loud flashes and bangs taken out and allowances for involuntary noises. In recent years, productions including The Lion King, Wicked and even Frozen on Broadway have incorporated these changes in specially designed performances, opening up theatre to whole new groups of people who wouldn’t have been able to experience it otherwise.
I first heard of relaxed performances when I was in my second year of University. Our local theatre was running a relaxed performance of their pantomime and as Journalism students, they were hoping that we could come along to the show and report on it. At first, we all wondered what on earth a relaxed performance was and we all eventually came to the collective conclusion that it was probably some kind of open rehearsal.
We were, of course, wrong and when we eventually got to see the show, it was wonderful to see all of the kids in the audience having so much fun with something they probably wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise. Sitting in one of the boxes at the side of the theatre, looking down at them, I thought back to how scared and anxious I was as a child. I’m honestly so happy that now children in the situation I was in have opportunities that I never had. I can only hope that awareness and assistance grows with time, but for now things are looking up for theatre fans with sensory issues.
Cara Lee, theatre writer
How I Cope is an on-going blog series where colleagues from across the sector – and at different stages of their career – share their experiences of self-care and wellbeing.
Mental health and balancing work and life is increasingly recognised as essential to our happiness and ability to make the most of our talents. By encouraging greater awareness and exchanging tips and helpful advice, How I Cope aims to create a space for us to support each other, and the health of our sector in general.
If you are interested in contributing to the How I Cope series, please contact us. We welcome anonymous submissions, as well as named.