Taking on the Challenge of ‘presenceing’
Years ago, when I informed my writing agent that I was going to take a break from writing and enrol for a degree in drama, she asked in a puzzled tone, “Why?”.
What she meant was why would anyone at that precise point interrupt a healthy blossoming career as a playwright, and seemingly take a step backwards? I couldn’t quite answer her apart from mumbling something about burn out, having lost my way, feeling I had nothing much else to say… What I really meant was that I wanted time to reflect, re-calibrate and immerse myself within an environment where I could do this, while learning something more about the field I had so audaciously entered aged 19, with my first script, produced by The Royal Court’s Young Writers Festival.
Several successful plays on, and after I trained with my first guide dog, I then switched paths and went to study English with Drama at Middlesex University (MDX) as an under grad. I kept some professional writing going on the side (She Plays for Channel 4 and Hound for Graeae). Although I eventually did achieve a 1st class BA Honours in Drama with English, the experience of studying through my degree years with no access in place (I was firmly told at my degree interview at the start that I would have to ‘go it alone on this front’, the result of which was having to cajole fellow students to read my books on tape so I could access some publications to reference throughout in my essay writing) made me determined never to go back into education again.
Through the proceeding years, I honed some skills working for Shape London, and at BBC Drama, then I formed the idea of Extant, and miraculously managed to keep it going year upon year (genuinely at the start I thought it was a project that might last six months tops). 25 years on, I am now in a phased exit as Artistic Director/CEO, and part of this plan involves ironically a return back to Middlesex University.
It’s all because of Extant Evolve, a radical 3 year succession planning programme that we have developed that aims to examine new leadership models and innovations in organisational development including:
- A root and branch company review
- Training of the next generation of visually impaired Artistic Directors
- Researching and establishing an academic archival legacy of the company’s work to date.
So, in the Autumn of 2023, with promises of access provision for disabled students having gone through a bit of an EDI revolution at the University since I was last there, I’m returning to MDX, enrolled this time as a researcher. I have chosen Middlesex to return to, not only because I am an undergraduate alumnus of its department of Performing Arts, but also because of MDX support of artists to return to research study in the form of PhD by public works. This form of PhD gives me the chance to focus on what I’ve built over the last few decades through Extant, and draw together a retrospective critical evaluation of the key drivers, questions, discoveries, applications, and evaluative outcomes that have underpinned producing interactive performance from a blind aesthetic within the work of the company.
My lead supervisor is Josephine Machon (Associate Professor in Contemporary Performance). We have become familiar with each other’s work through our involvement with Punchdrunk and other previous immersive, interactive fields of performance outputs such as Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre (Alston and Welton 2017).
My PhD research aims to critically interrogate the political, thematic, and aesthetic interplay involved in blind theatre practice through Extant’s four main creative public productions between 2012 and 2020, and evaluate how to archive these immersive works in new accessible ways as well as defining their conceptual themes. One of these themes will be of ‘invisibility’.
And…I didn’t factor that my research into ‘invisibility’ would be triggered immediately on my first day back, at my induction day on the MDX campus. Just in case I was under the impression that any output of Extant’s over the last 25 years on redressing representation and inclusion made my research proposition outmoded or irrelevant in any way, some experiences that I had on the day put paid to that. The amount of default interaction that took place with my access worker rather than me, during proceedings was very apparent, including from fellow PhD co-researchers I was introduced to. Also, during a faculty session, there was no use of self-description during the group introductions, in spite of there being a very obvious visually impaired person present. When I introduced self-description within my own introduction, it then shifted the culture in the room to include along with names, field of research, and pronouns, everyone’s self-descriptions, which suddenly made the people around me become visually alive (I will return to more on this below). The blind academic David Bolt refers to this in his book The Metanarrative of Blindness as ‘The person who breaks this ocular- normative convention’ and ‘rejects the privileging of visible identity in favour of a new social convention that is not, in these circumstances at least, disabling.’
If not all modes of visually impaired access have fully evolved within the University culture since the dark ages of my undergraduate days, I, however, do have higher expectations in other settings where disability is more visible, there is supposedly more awareness of disability, and disability is even augmenting the environment. Yet, even in ‘these’ spaces, in 2023, recent encounters of mine have described visual impairment as invisible, further emphasising the necessity for pursuing one of the themes of my research. Two examples of this erasure of VI access in public presentations have taken place both at a London disability festival, and at a conference held by the countries flagship theatre venue. At both events I attended, the disabled artists at one, and presenters at the other ignored the brief to self-describe. After I put in a complaint at the break, some of the artists in the second half of the festival event made a joke out of describing themselves, or added in visual gags that were not described at all. As is explored in the journal PUPPETS, JESTERS, benevolence PORN: The Spectacle of Access.
“The reduction of signed language interpreters to entertainment material, even on serious occasions such as public health emergency broadcasts, signifies the value placed upon accessibility” …” And “reinforces notions of signed language as lesser than spoken languages”.
In this instance the ‘lessening’ was around visual impairment, and the perpetrators being disabled artists, added insult to injury.
Switching to the conference then, the presenters in the second half, similarly, after they were reminded during the break, this time displayed gender differences in delivering self-description. While the female presenting people gave straight forward concise descriptions of their physical appearance, for which I shouted out a loud and clear ‘Thank you’ from the audience; the male presenting people mostly shrouded their descriptions in jokes and chose to focus on their clothes, ashamedly leaving out their physical appearance.
The reason why I’ve highlighted these recent experiences, is because one of our first research tasks is to engage in self-reflection. So, as well as tracking the journey that initially led me to MDX, and many years on, what brings me back there again, I felt it important to take the temperature of what I am experiencing around me right now, and use this to ignite the way into my research journey.
Extant was created out of a response to ‘No presence’ of visually impaired performers galvanised on their own collective terms. It forged a space where we uncovered the first roots of how we could interpret the authentic way in which we negotiated our environments theatrically regarding form and content. Emanating from this it also afforded us agency to initiate inclusive description into performance. As a result, we have slowly evolved the cultural landscape, where our sensory impairment has become more manifest, and whereby inclusive design for visually impaired people in performance, scripts, staging, and sound is more commonplace. However, in other ways, our needs are still absent or invisible in the ‘room’, as exampled here, by being ignored, forgotten, joked about, or only partially delivered on. Thankfully complaints have become much more public these days, rather than us just taking it, and going away grumbling, as was the case of the disempowered visually impaired of old. As with my yelling out of ‘thank you’ our voice can also be heard celebrating it loudly when it’s got right. This public acknowledgement means that I visibilise myself in a sighted dominated audience, identifying precisely who is benefitting from the inclusion of this cultural change. The externalising of access also affords others agency to engage in an active visibilising of themselves, literally participating in bringing the room further into visual being, through drawing a visual impression of themselves for someone like me. This exchange of ‘presenceing’ the room by creating their visual impression, along with the visually impaired responding, platforms our access in a way it was previously hidden, through traditional audio description, delivered by professional describers somewhere off stage, which contributed to our invisibility. In this live public form, it becomes equitable with other visible access provision such as BSL, acting as a statement that visually impaired people are present.
My PhD research takes this concept of ‘presenceing’ of visually impaired people further, by extending what this has meant over the last 25 years in forging a more appropriate space for ourselves in creating theatre. I am excited at the prospect of being at a university that values what the work of artist can contribute towards their research, and also the different means of eclectic learning, critiquing, and presenting which is encouraged. Not only am I intrigued as to what this will mean for myself as a practitioner, but also for Extant through the archiving of its historic work. As well as this, the participating in an exchange of knowledge with MDX regarding the current debate around innovations in organisational development, exploring succession transitioning, and pathways of different models for disabled leadership in the future.
There is a lot to do, fit in, focus on, examine, and produce in only two years, but I’m rolling up my sleeves and diving in to begin reading, thinking, listening, discussing, writing, creating, building and re-building…It’s not that dissimilar to mounting another production, well certainly at this early stage… Already it’s been exciting to have the following opportunities to present associated ideas at:
Do As You’re Told?
On 12-14 November at the University of Greenwich, Zu-UK will be hosting Do As You’re Told? – A Festival of research into audio-led & instruction-based performance practice in public and non-public spaces at the University of Greenwich – a 3-day programme of free talks, workshops and performances on instruction-based performance practice and human touch and sound as main mediums of participation.
Performance Research Forum presents Maria Oshodi and Holly Thomas | Goldsmiths, University of London
November 28 2023