The Lion King sets the stage with the West End’s first ever autism-friendly performance

A trip to the theatre used to be a very upper-class activity in days gone by, but now, it really is for everyone and West End theatres regularly entertain a fully-inclusive audience from all walks of life. Making available heavily discounted or free tickets for such events as Kids Week and Get Into London Theatre (GILT), have become an annual occurrence, not only affording entire families and those on the ‘working class’ end of the spectrum an opportunity to enjoy a top-quality theatrical experience, but actively encouraging it. Now the West End is taking another step in the right direction as The Lion King is set to stage the first ever open autism-friendly performance.

The stage musical was adapted from the award-winning 1994 Disney animated film and has become one of the West End’s most popular shows since it first opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1999. The emotive story of the young lion Simba and his troubled journey from princely cub to king of Pride Rock is one which is beloved around the world, so it seems the perfect choice to launch this new project. Disney Theatrics and The Ambassador Theatre Group have been closely working together with The National Autistic Society to make the event possible and the performance is set to take place on Sunday 14th April 2013.

The three organisations have made several slight autism-friendly adjustments to the show, such as reducing unsettling sounds and the audience facing strobe lighting. All involved with the performance, including front-of-house and box office staff as well as the cast, will be given training to understand the needs of its specialised audience and their accompanying family/friends, and there will also be a number of autism experts present on the night to supervise the designated quiet and activity areas that are to be set up in the foyer. These areas provide a calming environment for anyone in the audience who becomes distressed during the performance and feels the need to leave their seat; after all, a noisy, busy theatre can be unsettling experience for a person with autism. Tickets have also been discounted and the booking fee waived to make the performance as accessible as possible.

Mark Lever, Chief Executive of The National Autistic Society, said of the special performance: “Autism is a serious, lifelong disability and the challenges the condition brings can make it difficult to enjoy activities, such as trips to the theatre which many people take for granted…this will be an amazing day out for people with autism and their families.”

ATG came under fire in 2011 after a man claimed that his autistic 12 year old son was ejected from the Apollo Victoria during a performance of Wicked for making too much noisy. In response, the theatre group staged three autism-friendly performances in regional productions of Peter Pan (Churchill Theatre, Bromley), Cinderella (Grimsby Auditorium, Lincolnshire) and Aladdin (Richmond Theatre, Surrey), in the 2012/13 pilot scheme which led to this special West End performance of The Lion King.

There are examples of discrimination to be found in every aspect of modern day life, sometimes accidental and sometimes, unfortunately, intentional. Discrimination isn’t only limited to the members of our society with a condition like autism however, anyone from any walk of life can be faced with it. Too short? Too fat? The wrong colour? Wrong sex? The list is endless and no-one and nowhere is exempt. My daughter  and I have faced discrimination at the theatre ourselves, not from staff working there, but from a fellow audience member who decreed my daughter had no right to be there as she was a child and therefore, noisy, annoying and disruptive. This person knew neither me nor my daughter; if he had, then he would have known that I have taken my daughter to the theatre many times and she delights in the experience and has never once behaved in a manner that was cause disruption to anyone. Unfortunately there are too many audience members who believe certain individuals have no place in a West End theatre and feel utterly justified in this belief. What they don’t realise is that they actually have the situation completely backwards and the West End would be a much better place without the presence of them and their small-minded bigotry. Theatre is for everyone and I mean everyone, which is why I think this landmark performance of The Lion King is a fantastic venture. Disney Theatrical Productions have already trialled two of these dedicated performances of the show on Broadway to great success. The audience at the London performance in April are sure to have their eyes opened to the wonderful world of theatre and hopefully, through this, other eyes will open to the importance of including them and other discriminated parties in such activities.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

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Thursday 14th March 2013