Extant’s production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs is the first time the company has taken on a classic text, having previously devised and written its own productions. It is a play that fascinated Artistic Director Maria Oshodi when she first read it while studying for her degree, imagining from the start how casting blind performers might refresh an interpretation of the piece. Maria writes:
“The play is a tragic farce, where an old couple of 94 and 95 have lived for years in isolation in their home surrounded by miles of water. Repetitious enactments of aspects of their past are interrupted by the need now to welcome an ever-growing crowd of invisible visitors. The old man and old woman accumulate many chairs for the invisible guests who wait for the arrival of an orator to deliver the old man’s world changing speech, but to what effect…?
Having cast blind actors in the two main roles, Extant has shifted focus on the interpretation of this classic text, describing a unique relationship between unseeing actors interacting with what is visible and what is not. If the audience understand that the old man and woman are blind, are they to believe that the old man and woman really relate to these characters as unseen? Or is it the audience themselves who are in fact somehow lacking an ability - to see these other people?
The play’s highly dynamic dialogue and energised physical performance reveals interrogations of authenticity within performance. Paradoxically, it has taken working on this classic play to finally find a true forum where we can engage Extant’s years of research with visually impaired actors into more authentic performance practices on stage. Absurdism is the natural theatrical port of call for visual impairment. Our casting of blind actors lends itself to the absurdist’s belief that theatre is an intersection between reality and an artificial representation.
The physical performances – doors opening and closing, row after row of empty chairs constantly being rearranged – are choreographed to allow the actors to create a live soundscape evoking their movements. In addition, the sound design 'landscape' adds ambient music, sound effects and the voices of the actors themselves, intimately describing their actions at certain moments. In this way, access for visually impaired audiences is integrated as the inner monologue of the two characters – creating an audible, interior imaginary space that is an extension of the visual geography being created on stage. The accessible soundscape (designed by blind sound designer Peter Bosher) is experienced by all audience members as a vital and organic creative element of the production.
Mainstream arts still focus on a ‘bolt-on’ audio description model in order to provide a way for visually impaired people to join their audiences. Extant’s productions are informed by a visually impaired perspective from the start, offering a uniquely unified audience experience.
The production is supported by Andrea Carr’s superbly imagined set that has accessible features for the cast, while visually enhancing the productions themes of ‘system’s failure’. The entropy of decay is present internally in the body and memory of the characters as well as reflected externally by Ionesco, both socially and environmentally. Systems overload and breakdown occur on every level, until nothing remains, ‘nothing’ being Ionesco’s ultimate message in this play."