Here at Small City, Big Personality we love a positive news story. It's not that we are under any illusions that the world is a perfect, fluffy place where nothing bad ever happens, it's just we would rather light a candle than curse the darkness. Last week we saw a Facebook post about a mother who was trying to give her Marvel loving son, who has autism, the perfect birthday. When we heard how Perth Playhouse responded to her request to put on a relaxed screening of 'Avengers Endgame' we knew we had to do a story on it.
You might be wondering what a relaxed screening is and how it differs from a regular cinema screening. We spoke to Cathy from Perth Playhouse to find out.
'A relaxed screening basically is a showing where the lights are on low and the sound is lowered. No seats are assigned so if someone has trouble sitting still and wants to change seats they are welcome too. It aims to be the most stress-free cinema environment we can offer customers. Everyone present is aware someone may get excited and chat a bit during the film but there is no stigma or judgement attached. Everyone there is just wanting to enjoy the For children and adults on the autism spectrum being plunged into semi-darkness and immersed in loud noise and music can turn a pleasurable experience into an ordeal.film.'
For children and adults on the autism spectrum being plunged into semi-darkness and immersed in loud noise and music can turn a pleasurable experience into an ordeal. Autistic people also often find it a struggle to sit still for the running time of your average blockbuster and like to make some noise and move around a bit to let off steam. This particular problem is compounded somewhat by the fact that the big summer tentpole movies only seem to be getting longer and longer. The movies of my childhood like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'Back to the Future' and 'The Goonies' were all well under the two-hour mark but these days even flicks aimed at kids are often over 2 and half hours long. All of these factors mean that for many autistic people relaxed screenings are the only viable option.
There is, however, often a problem with the scheduling of these relaxed screenings meaning that the very people they were intended for find it difficult to attend. I caught up with Josh's mother Atia ahead of his birthday to get her take on this problem.
'The issue is one of frequency. Each big chain cinema typically only does one screening of one film on one day of each month. This means that while neurotypical (individuals who do not have a diagnosis of autism or any other intellectual or developmental difference) cinema-goers can have a choice of films on a choice of dates but if you need an autism-friendly screening, that one screening a month is your lot. If you can't make that date or don't want to watch that film then tough. Granted, you could go to the autism-friendly screening in another cinema, but Sometimes we find that almost all the cinemas do the same film for their autism-friendly screenings that month, reducing our cinema options. They rarely do the biggest films, the ones that the kids most want to see.'
Atia says the way these bigger chains have approached relaxed screenings has always felt like a bit of a box-ticking exercise offering screenings at off-peak times when they would have had few customers anyway. She feels that with Perth Playhouse it is a totally different story. 'With Perth Playhouse the will was always there and they worked with us to find an answer. They genuinely care about making cinema accessible to as many people as possible.' Perth Playhouse also offers regular subtitled screenings, watch with baby sessions, weekly films for over 60's and a monthly dementia friendly screening. Another big plus in Atia's books is that they list their special screenings two screenings in advance, 'if you have kids or are dealing with special needs, chances are you might need to plan in advance. And you can actually speak to someone on the phone if you can't find your answer on the website.'
Even knowing that Perth Playhouse are committed to catering to all cinema-goers, Atia was still blown away by their response when she asked if for one week they could move their relaxed screening to a Sunday so that Josh could see the new Avengers film on his birthday. 'I thought I'd ask the Perth Playhouse Cinema for a favour and I figured that the worst thing that could happen would be that they would say no.' So Atia rang the manager and asked if they'd be willing to change one of their quieter screenings not during school hours into a relaxed screening so that she could surprise him with cinema tickets for his birthday. She added that the current time slot for relaxed screening on Thursday mornings was no use for school-age children. In reply, Atia received an email response that brought her to tears.
'They didn't just grant me the request for a relaxed screening of Endgame for Josh. They have changed their relaxed screening time to EVERY Sunday evening at 6 pm. Starting with his birthday this Sunday. And starting with Avengers Endgame especially for his birthday.
I'm used to fighting the world around my kids so that they can enjoy the things their peers enjoy and experience things like school and activities with minimum distress. And when I say I'm used to fighting, I really do mean it feels like a fight. I'm not used to things changing for the better. And I'm not used to such amazing gestures. But now we, a family of film-lovers, can take Josh to the cinema every week if we want to, knowing he'll enjoy it.'
I asked Cathy from the Playhouse why they were able to be so flexible and responsive to their customers where big chains, for the most part, remain unapproachable and slow to take action.
'We try to be more receptive to customers comments than the bigger chains. We are able to listen and make changes to suit the majority of our customers as we are only one site whereas bigger chains have to go with what fits in with every single cinema they own. We have a good relationship with our customers and take all comments they say on board. Of course, we can't Josh wrote in his journal that he had had 'the best birthday ever'. change everything but we try really hard to make every customer happy.'
To say that Perth Playhouse made Josh and Atia happy is perhaps the understatement of the year. I caught up with Atia the day after Josh's birthday and it was a roaring success. The Harry Potter cake that Atia had been stressing over the last time I spoke to her had turned out great and at school, Josh wrote in his journal that he had had 'the best birthday ever'. Josh and his sister rocked up at the Playhouse in their Captain America and Captain Marvel outfits and Josh says that the screening of 'Avengers Endgame' was the best part of his day.
Information on Perth Playhouse's specialist screenings can be found here.
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