“Gagging to Get out into the Real World Again”: Extant’s Maria Oshodi on theatre for the visually impaired in lockdown
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been universal, and disruption in the theatre industry is particularly rife. It’s hit some harder than others, as Maria Oshodi, Artistic Director of performing arts company Extant, knows better than anyone: her theatre company is dedicated to celebrating art made by visually impaired artists, and she knows first-hand just how difficult lockdown has been for many of them.
Not one for inaction, Extant is fighting back and putting on a night of comedy: Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say!. We sat down with Maria, to talk through the event, the company and treatment of the visually impaired in general.
For those who don’t know, what is Extant and why was it formed?
Extant is a dynamic, political space to articulate and celebrate what visual impairment brings to the performing arts. We are a company that has been going since 1997 and we create innovative touring shows, skills training for blind artists and awareness training for the rest of the theatre industry, as well as rolling out grass-roots participatory projects.
What have been your greatest achievements while working with Extant? And the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Biggest achievement: staying with Extant for over 20 years! Also creating some of the most audacious productions featuring blind artists, we’ve staged shows on the roof of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, in disused churches, on double-decker buses, as well as at a host of traditional theatre spaces up and down the land. Our biggest challenges? Doing all of the above!
In an interview with DadaFest in 2017, critically acclaimed director and disabled artists advocate Jenny Sealey said: “There is still ‘cripping up’ (as in, able-bodied artists ‘performing’ disabilities like being visually-impaired, neurally-diverse etc.) happening, which is totally galling, given there is so much and disabled talent, but people are becoming more aware of how crass this is and are thinking about casting in a different way.” Do you feel the industry is still set up against disabled people, and what can creatives do to facilitate their inclusion?
The higher profile the film or theatre or TV show it is, the worse it is for “cripping up.” There is much better awareness and greater efforts to change the game on a smaller/mid-scale level. This is especially true in theatre among creatives who are generally more politicised and have the control to do the right thing.
Diversifying casting is one thing, but thinking about audience access is another. Disability-led companies like Extant are not only creating productions featuring the best blind talent, but are working with all sorts of non-disabled touring companies to offer positive and creative solutions to making their workshops, rehearsals and productions more accessible in affordable ways. Sometimes it just takes thinking in a different way to level the playing field – we are here to lend a guiding hand!
What was the impetus behind creating Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say!? How did the conversation behind it begin?
In mid-2019, we started a monthly improvisation club for visually impaired people living in London, called No Dramas!. It runs every month and has really taken off, attracting a range of exuberant characters! We thought we would harness some of the natural comedy arising from the group and offer people an opportunity to work on their own stand-up act in a safe space. We invited visually impaired professional comedian Georgie Morell, who we have worked with on various projects in the past, to mentor the performers and offer them editing and delivery advice from her years on the comedy circuit. We also put out an open call through our networks for other “wannabe” visually impaired comedians to send in their acts or ideas for consideration. We held an invite-only launch on Zoom back in June, which went down so well. The Bloomsbury Festival producers came along and now we’re delighted to be part of their 2020 festival this autumn.
Obviously, anxiety is high for everybody right now. How do you balance the desire to share laughter and joy with how tense and difficult the world feels at the moment?
Having had six months of our meeting, making and presenting space mediated through digital means, we are gagging to get out into the real world again. Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say! is our attempt to do just that! We have had to negotiate our own anxiety and caution to build confidence in getting back out, moving around and assessing what feels right for us as individuals and as an organisation.
Obviously there are additional issues for visually impaired people during lockdown, and attempting to get out and about with all the social distancing measures in place makes it incredibly hard where things like physical guiding are concerned. All the usual support mechanisms from staff on public transport have been severely compromised, which makes getting around London even more difficult, and if our artists have additional underlying health concerns then they are naturally super cautious. We have offered performers the opportunity to present their acts over Zoom for the event if they wish – the majority have opted to perform live. For these we have offered to cover taxis to and from rehearsals and the show if they request this, or have access workers to meet them at local tube stations and use guiding straps that we have purchased for safe guiding, which reduces physical contact. As you can imagine, all of this lends itself to material for our comedians! We are proud to say we have as amazing a line-up of performers as you could wish for, hosted by our two fantastic visually impaired MCs, professional stand up Georgie Morell and newcomer, Tower Hamlets’ answer to Cilla Black, Ashrafia Choudhury!
We have put into place all the Government safety guidelines for our rehearsals and the Bloomsbury Festival have been fantastic in offering us a performance venue that’s large enough to accommodate all our performers so they can be socially distanced while there. We will be live-streaming the show from the beautiful William Goodenough College on Saturday 17th October. We intend to create a comedy club atmosphere by filling the seats with famous cardboard cut-out faces, which will also will safely separate our waiting performers. We hope our measures will relax our performers and enable them to deliver a cracking show! We just want everyone, audiences and performers alike, to have a good laugh – that’s something we all really need right now!
Tell us about Flight Path! How did it feel to create theatre under lockdown?
In Spring 2019, Extant created and toured a production called Flight Paths. The multimedia show incorporated music, projections, storytelling, surround-sound and aerial choreography, and uniquely wove audio description into the sequences. We applied to The Space for a commission to make the most of the modular nature of the production. Using its component parts, we re-told the story for an online audience, using material created as part of the original production alongside brand new animated elements.
We chose to apply to The Space to utilise their breadth of experience of digital work and to work closely with a new team to develop our work. Work was due to commence when lockdown hit in March. Luckily, apart from some adjustments such as working across Zoom rather than face-to-face, we managed to successfully achieve our goal on time and on budget. Which is all due to the quick thinking and adaptability of our team, who were smart, committed, talented and so hardworking.
The reviews for Flight Path have been outstanding – were you at all worried about how people would engage with theatre in this new format?
Thank you for that, and no. Everyone had begun to get used to digesting performance on digital platforms during the first few months of lockdown, so by the time Flight Paths launched in August, we knew audiences would be familiar with engaging in this way. We were more nervous of digital fatigue at that point, but Flight Paths has an interactive navigational element at its heart so we felt we were offering something a bit different. It enabled active participation instead of the usual “sit there and pay attention.”
Extant is supported by the Arts Council England, and must have been affected by COVID-19’s industry-shaking effect. Do you feel there has been enough support for artists during this time?
No, there’s definitely not enough support for our freelance networks. We know they are really struggling and we are trying to do as much as we can to support our network.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry – do you think its accessible enough for visually impaired artists?
For disabled freelancers in the industry, it’s even harder. Our training programme, Pathways, is supporting sixteen visually impaired emerging directors through a year of masterclasses with established theatre directors, shadowing opportunities and a chance to direct their own work in a final show-case has had to go online to survive. We are determined to see the programme through to support skills development for the next generation of visually impaired theatremakers.
What’s next for Extant? Will you move more into online spaces like with Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say! and Flight Path, or are you eager to move back towards live performances, or perhaps a mix of both?
We are interested in exploring how to manage a hybrid of both working remotely and within a live space more so that we can accommodate the different needs of our artists. As well as that, we hope to take Flight Paths outdoors next year, and have another outdoor collaboration up our sleeves connected with the 40th anniversary of a big event in Brixton! We will be moving to the new Brixton House in 2021, and are very excited about being part of this new creative hub. We’re celebrating our move with this potential new production!
Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say will be live-streamed on 17th October 2020. For further information or to book visit Extant’s website here.