A Report Summary on the Presentation Of Research into Staging for Blind Performers and Live Access For Visually Impaired Audiences.
AIMS OF THE NEXT STAGE
To work towards the completion of a first draft of a new drama by a blind writer, Maria Oshodi, working title 'The Apprehension Equation'. This explores concepts of the dynamic relationship between the blind sight distinction and its affect on perception and site. Taking stories and themes from the lives of certain real life and fictional blind figures, the story explores three characters who inhabit contrasting plots that reflect different relationships with 'not seeing', so unfolding the main question/theme of the piece.
To develop liberating physical performance styles for and by blind performers, i.e. performers who do not use any degree of sight as a primary way to negotiate space. For example, using styles of movement, which are derived from blind peoples, own natural ways of negotiating the world like tension states in Physical theatre, clown, and non-naturalistic methods that enable ease of movement across space.
To Access this to a visually impaired audience through live methods, such as molding the written material through production so it holds clues for a blind audience about action on stage. This is a cultural esthetic we aim to develop in access terms, which reflects the fractured way in which blind people have to naturally gather from their environments, fragments of a picture, piecing it together by constant editing and working backwards with delayed exposition. This is so the work will not be dependent on technical intervention to provide the access for the blind audience, as is usually the case with the conventional and expensive use of audio description in theatres.
To also attempt to make the work theatrically interesting for a sighted audience.
To realise the above in a half hour/45 minute work in progress performance, and present this to an invited blind and sighted audience with performing arts backgrounds. The specific purpose of this is to receive feedback on their experience of our work in terms of content, theatricality and accessibility, and analyse their response in regard to future production development.
The Next Stage ran from the start of February to the end of May 2003, with the aims of the project being realised through the following objectives:
An initial two-week script development period, where Extracts from Maria Oshodi's new play were selected by Maria and the director Eileen Dillon, and used as a base for experimentation with a group of blind performers, Damien O'Connor, John Wilson-Goddard, and Maria Oshodi. This group worked together for five weeks from mid February 2003, in workshop rehearsals, being joined by Mike Taylor in the third week as a trainee performer.
The success of this project was to be measured by gaining a good representation of visually impaired and sighted arts professionals as our invited audience at our show-case performance, and structuring the presentation of this in such a way that it optimised on enabling them to feed back to us what they were experiencing. We aimed to achieve this through establishing discussion sessions for them and the creative team within the presentation, and also offering them another way to respond, through evaluation forms that could be completed and returned to us a few days after the event. We hoped to gain a clear assessment from this as to what aspects of what we had produced were successful or not.
MARIA OSHODI – Project Manager/Writer/Performer.
A month before the project started I worked throughout January 2003 on re-writing a script, which I have been developing for over a year in association with this research and development work into accessible theatre for blind performers and audiences. I hoped by adapting and weaving together the stories of three historic blind figures, that the content of the piece would reflect a deeper relevance to what we were technically trying to achieve on stage. I also wanted to write about three very different characters, so I could explore various styles of writing. The aim of this was to stimulate different approaches to performance and staging, which hopefully would assist our technical endeavours.
During the first week we worked on introducing some basic movement work and philosophy of clowning to John, as it was his first time working with the company. Eileen and I were hoping to take lessons learnt from a clowning workshop held for Extant last year and build a scene from these based on a description of an historical event by one of the characters in the script. It seemed that clowning offered great potential as an arena to convey a picture of the social position of blind people, but practically, as a blind performer, trying to interact on stage in silence with my fellow actors was challenging and sometimes dis-empowering. When Mike joined us in our third week, we tested the scene out on him and he found it accessible and funny. He had not however realised from our performance that the clowns were blind, so we knew we had to mention this in our introduction to the scene. We felt we had found a method of live description that enhanced and did not detract from the presentation of this scene.
In this first week we also began work on the maths scene, a section of text, which uses a mathematical pattern to example a philosophical point. Eileen asked us to invent walks to a piece of music. She then took the most common ones and tried to have us walk them in a square shape in time to the music. Without a floor or wall guide we all persistently walked in unpredictable diagonals.
In our second week we came back to working on this scene and Eileen tried to use getting us to place our feet at right angles so we might launch ourselves in the right direction on each turn of the square. At first this seemed to be working, but as the sequence repeated we began veering off our designated squares, nearly colliding. We thought the only thing that might do the trick was using strips of carpet as a floor guide, and obtained in our third week some make shift pieces which we secured to the floor and used for the rest of our rehearsal. This prop proved to be an invaluable tool for us as blind performers, enabling us to quickly establish a sense of direction on stage for all the scenes, but especially for the Maths scene, where we were able to immediately move all at once in patterned precise relationship to each other without encoring injury. Trying to find ways of making everything accessible was better if we knew about it in advance, like corresponding the complete cut of lights within the maths scene to the simultaneous cut of the music.
Resurrecting previously rehearsed scenes like Jack's Monologue and resistance, not only posed the problem of introducing new actors who brought different energies which changed the scene, but also challenged us with the task of describing work which had been created with the blind performers freedom or quality of movement as its central focus. It was intriguing to observe that in order to describe the split images we used so the blind performer could infer action across distance rather than having to do it by contact, we had to create an alternative version of Jack's monologue, where the supporting actors stood still to deliver their live described line.
the Resistance scene involved constant movement and dialogue between all its actors, and this did not seem like a problem until we realised that there was no spare performer in the scene to describe it.
We had to include John at the last minute as an external describer. We solved another access issue by doubling him up as drummer for a heart beat rhythm that started as soon as the lights switched to red in the scene.
We rehearsed Mark point A, which was essentially a dance piece, over laid with a pre-recorded music and voice over sound track. We thought this would be very difficult to live describe, but oddly it turned out to provide us with an interesting forum for exploring writing poetic live description which would be delivered externally by the actor who's voice was pre-recorded, and we felt this fitted with the style of the piece.
Another unexpected problem that arose was in the physical version of the Arrest scene. We found it hard to decide whether to use the word 'gun' or 'bed' in our live description to our blind audience. We were using the body as physical representations of these objects and felt if we used these words, they could infer we were using the real objects, yet to describe how we were actually depicting them would draw out the description too much. We opted to use the literal word and to test this on our audience at the presentation.
The day of rehearsal in Ladbrook Grove brought this home; with the cluttered hall full of office furniture that we were offered to work in, However we made good use of our time, meeting our stage manager, organising costumes and rehearsing our entrances, exits and introductions for the scenes. The next three days were spent rehearsing in the Jackson's Lane space, where we were made to feel very welcome by the staff. It was a real relief to finally get into the performance space, lay our real carpet, and walk the final dimensions, after working with approximations at Hawkwood. It was unfortunate that I had gone to a lot of work collating all the text of the script, live description and introductions, for the signer, which she studiously signed on the night, but none of our deaf invitees turned up. However, we had a good audience at the presentation itself, and I was pleased that so many visually impaired people participated in the event.
The audience levels of enthusiastic engagement in the feedback sessions between each scene, and intelligent, perceptive constructive criticism of what we presented to them, meant they really claimed the space to comment on issues of access that were important to them. This meant we could observe their range of opinions, but had little time to come back with questions of our own. However, this structure seemed to inspire quite a few people in the audience. This project offered me an opportunity to perform again, which made me take on another level of engagement with this research and development that theorising about or writing for cannot access. I could perceive my own limitations in this skill and also the limitations of all other company members. However, I had to remind myself that we were all trainees in this field, as it incorporated so many uncharted areas, and that we could not hope to all be immediate experts.
EILEEN DILLON – Director/Workshop facilitator.
My understanding of the aims of The Next Stage shifted during the two weeks that I spent with Maria prior to rehearsal. Initially I approached the project as a director intending to direct an edited version of a new play. When I was presented with a collage of text taken from different sources, I struggled to find theatrical cohesion. During the two weeks we reiterated the original aims of the project, the exploration of different performance styles and practices for the blind actor, techniques to make our work accessible to visually impaired audience members, and the application of this work to Maria's script.
Many of the exercises we used were continued from our 'Stage Lab 2' work e.g. predator/prey games, sequenced balances and counter balances, the layering of sound and text over sequenced movement, tension states and clown routines. We added contact improvisation and status exercises. My choice of exercises was very much dictated by the text. For example the language of 'Mark Point A & B' is very poetic. It describes a journey towards consciousness and the acquisition of language. I immediately saw this as a movement piece. It is my experience that when you find the right starting point or form, other details and insights fall into place. In our first improvisation of 'Mark Point A&B', it became clear that this journey should be layered with the tension states that we had already worked with. Similarly contact improvisation became integral to the interpretation of this text, denoting communication and the acquisition of language.
Finding the right starting point and then having other details and insights fall into place during rehearsal was also the case with the math's scene. Again the writing was abstract and about the expression of ideas. Again I saw movement, the language of lines and geometry physicalised on stage. The rehearsal of this, like the content of the text, was mathematical. Actors cutting across each other, intersecting boxes was mathematically calculated and timed to a beat. The most powerful moment in the performance (for me) was discovered in rehearsal. We could turn the lights out on the line' -when most of the matter in the universe is invisible (we turned the lights out here) and we only see that freak element that transmits light, there must be other ways of learning about the world than looking at it. In turning the lights out at this point, we drew attention to the most important sentence in the character's argument and personal journey. In this one moment, the theatricality, the text and the intention of the scene met. (The audience found this moment powerful but pointed out that we should have left a moment of silence after the lights went out before the actor continued.
I was very pleased with the performance and felt that after a very ropey dress rehearsal that the actors did very well.
The intention of the evening was clear and the structure of scenes followed by immediate comment enabled the audience to be specific in their feedback. Their comments were clear, precise and very constructive. With hindsight, as discussed in our own evaluation, it would have been good, after hearing their comments to ask them questions. There were a few occasions during their comments when I really wanted to question an audience member further but our structure only allowed for this at the end of the evening when the moment had already passed.
Much of the feedback did not surprise me, however, there was one insight that I hadn't considered and one observation that concerned me.
The first, I hadn't really considered the impact of lighting on a visually impaired audience. (Quite an oversight!) My use of bold colours and shapes were targeted at the sighted audience. I realised during the feedback sessions that I had spent most of the time considering either 'blind' audience members (or those with as limited sight as the actors) or sighted audience members.
I was delighted that audio cues linked to lighting changes succeeded in creating the desired mood change for most of the audience. This is a device not touched on in our previous work.
On the whole it was clear from the night and the subsequent evaluation forms that you really can't please everyone all of the time. Where some audience members wanted more description others wanted less. The feedback that was most consistent was about the quality of the math's scene. This leads me to believe that if the theatricality, whatever the style, the text and the intention of the scene meet equally, are balanced and support each other, sighted and visually impaired audience members will experience the scene's integrity and dramatic tension.
Extant mustn't underestimate its role in performance research. It is the only organisation that I am aware of that is building up a body of specialised research into physical performance styles for visually impaired performers and techniques to make live performance accessible to visually impaired audiences.
Damien O'Connor – Performer.
It became clear that live description could not be treated in the same way as traditional audio description, with it's established conventions that act as a sort of blanket. No matter what the style of a scene is. The live description for each scene had to reflect each scene's performance style. Some scenes proved easier than others, namely, the recruitment and Mark Point A.
Building live description into other scenes proved to be more difficult. The resistance scene was highly physical, fast moving and a lot of information as to where characters were in relation to each other was conveyed through the delivery of lines whilst travelling. When it came to incorporating description, there was hardly any space for description as to what was happening. John (The describer) could not move around the stage in any physical relationship to the characters, as this would have meant re-blocking the whole scene. We agonised for a long time over this and ended up having John in front and at one corner of the stage and giving him single words and short phrases to describe movement, tableau, images and gestures. I learned that it was possible to incorporate live description without having another person on stage specifically for that purpose. The Physical Arrest scene and Touching With My Eyes bore this out. We found that characters that were not speaking could give spoken information to the audience without detracting or interfering in the development of the scene.
No props were used in the Physical Arrest scene gestures and body positions were used to convey certain objects. We also discussed whether or not describing small silent movements in this scene could take away from the overall building up of tension. We went with the description and one audience member did comment that there was too much description.
Touching With My Eyes was re-blocked for the described version and as well as using words to describe what was happening to the main character, we developed a vocal sound to depict a door. I thought that what we had done was simple and clear but, when we tested it out on mike, he didn't pick up on what we'd set up. We stuck with what we'd done and a member of the audience did comment that the vocal sound with the physical movement of myself and Maria creating a door growing bigger as the main character got closer to it worked very well for her. There was general agreement among the audience that the use of repeated dialogue in the Maths scene worked well in terms of giving information as to where myself, Maria and Mike were on the stage. Like mark Point a, the clown scene worked well for some and not for others, even though there was very little live description involved.
Unlike the other projects, this time, we were working towards a performance. The rehearsals for each scene were more detailed. More emphasis was placed on showing clearly our character's intensions as well as movement dialogue and description than was the case last year. It therefore felt like we were adding another level of work in order to give clarity to the audience.
In terms of my own performance/creative development, I was reminded just how difficult acting can be. Having the theory is one thing doing it, and knowing that what you are portraying has to come across clearly to the audience, particularly as a significant portion of the audience would be visually impaired. I also learned that simply understanding the character's emotional journey doesn't mean that I can automatically deliver it in the way that either writer, director or an audience expect first time, and how difficult it is to keep a sense of spontaneity and freshness in performance.
The project served as a reminder that I could, given the right support structures perform to a reasonable standard. As we worked with a number of different performance styles, it enabled me to identify what theatrical style works for me and what does not. I feel the presentation worked well for the audience. At no time were there any long silences between scenes and audience members had clear contributions to make. One pleasant surprise from the evaluations was the comment from one audience member the evening was -the best thing that had happened in disability arts in the last decade. Although we were all very tired,
working with other blind performers has enabled me to feel freer and push my own boundaries a lot further then I would if I was working with sighted or other disabled performers. Once those access barriers that I constantly encounter in workshops or other performance situations are dealt with, I'm able to give more in terms of my own creative expression. The more performance work I can do with other blind performers, the better.
JOHN WILSON GODDARD – Performer.
I'd like to start by saying how much the residency at Hawkwood College in Stroud helped me concentrate on the work in hand by eliminating any problems of daily travel and provisioning, which can weigh particularly heavily on visually-impaired performing artists. Also, I found it of great value to be given most of my script in hard-copy Braille.
Before The Next Stage I had no experience and little more knowledge of physical theatre of any style or purpose. The physicality of any of my own characterizations was, I always maintained, the last aspect (hopefully) to evolve – and, then, only by luck, not judgment. What I thought I knew, however, was that Maria Oshodi and others were interested in practical research into and development of a style of theatrical performance that would be broadly analogous for blind and partially sighted practitioners and audience members alike (particularly those with very little or no sight) Beyond that, I had very little idea what this might mean, and was not drawn by the little I knew. Here and now, I can't recall just when I associated the above in my mind with the idea of Physical Theatre, but I also believed that Physical Theatre was not for me.
At the start of rehearsals I wasn't quite well; which, along with being markedly the oldest member of the company and not up to my usual level of fitness of recent years, led to my being exhausted at the end of the first week. By then, though, I'd also realised that what was being sought was not a single style of performance, but an approach which could elicit style upon style according to what the intention driving a specific sequence might be. The starting point was quite obviously liberation for the visually-impaired performers from the shackles of naturalistic representation which can so inhibit blind and partially-sighted people's expressive potential; in direct relationship, to their degree of sight.
The warm-ups which began most rehearsal sessions provided the necessary relaxation, concentration and exertion, as well as taking into account requirements and potentialities of each individual, to approach the selected scenes from the first draft of Maria's play in whatsoever manner might appear worth trying. This most often began with games or exercises bringing together the requirements of each scene with our own physicalities, spatial awareness, and mobility skills.
One game which was valuable in terms of spatial awareness and concentration, and which was played in slightly different versions throughout the rehearsal period was vampire. Mostly, I found this element of the work enjoyable as well as useful. But I remained a little self-conscious even about my physical abilities at this level. Another game, Grandmother's Footsteps proved necessary at one point to engender in me a real physicality of alert, fearful confusion, which I was finding difficult to transmit from my intellectual and psychological understanding of my role, firstly to my own body, and thence to an audience. At another point a line of rehearsal hopefully leading towards another scene's performance had to be abandoned because two of us with very different physicalities, and who were not in physical contact with each other, were unaware at a practical level of the repercussions of this difference in performance and, by not being able to see what the other was doing, unable to modify what we were doing to fit in with each other. In final performance, however, that same scene retained the essential element of abstraction that had been at the core of the earlier rehearsal.
This method of rehearsing was, by turns, both exciting and frustrating; frustrating when nothing would seem to cross over from the games and exercises into an actual scene to move it towards completion.
A “complete” performance that worked for the actors, however, was only in two cases (scenes 5 and 6) a final performance; for making each scene accessible to blind and partially-sighted members of an audience by means of Live Description from the stage generally required further development of the performance. “Live describing” Scene 7 was one of those “blockages. As a newcomer to Extant's work, I tended to feel a little lost and marginalized, as well as sharing in the common frustration.
There was also a similar blockage in live describing part 2 of Scene 4, where the initial object of describing from within, as happened in part 1 of the scene, had to be abandoned, bringing me in to describe from the periphery.
The audience surprised me by the range of their responses. What meant nothing to one excited another. This connected in my mind with our own rehearsals, when scenes were rehearsed to a state at which those of us working on a particular scene felt it was ready to be “shown” to the remaining member of the company to put the special, communicative techniques assayed in it to the test. I wouldn't like to attempt even an interim conclusion from that right now. I simply know that blind and partially sighted people are no more a homogeneous group in terms of expectations, interests, and acuities than any other theatre audience!
I'd feared that some visually impaired people and-or “disability theatre” practitioners might come with ready-minted antagonisms. Not so. The performance was courteously, intelligently, and attentively received. From the disparate responses to the variety of work presented, however, I'm still much less sure of the value at a practical level to blind and partially-sighted audience members than I am about the value of the work to performers, both for presentation as it stands to -open” audiences, and for how performers with so little or no sight might develop or acquire such a breadth and range of theatrical physicality to command a broader acceptance within the acting profession as a whole.
I'd certainly like to do more. I believe I could “learn” much. But what was clear to me from the visually-impaired audience members at Jackson's Lane, is that, to them, the work was important because it was taking them seriously as blind people.
MIKE TAYLOR – Trainee Performer.
In some ways I felt that some of the methods used in this project were similar to those that I have been introduced to during my degree. As a result of this I felt comfortable working in this way, and I felt that there was a clear path that we took to get to the final presentation.
With reference to my personal development through out the project I feel that I have gained a huge amount of experience. This included taking part in highly physical scenes were I was required to move quickly in the space being aware of the other performers, and objects that may be incorporated in to the scene.
This also included voice projection, and in some cases describing what I am doing, or what some one else is doing during a particular section of the presentation. From a creative development point of view I am even more aware of how a blind performer can over come the difficulties of moving around in a highly intense physical scene, or in this case how to find out exactly were I was in the space in relation to a particular performer, or object.
The general aims of the project had a positive effect in the sense of moving around the space, and the physicality of some scenes I also feel that the task of trying to live describe what was happening while thinking about all the other aspects of a presentation was achieved even though some times the live description was particularly difficult in relation to what could be described in theory, but in practice needed more consideration.
When considering how accessible the presentation was to the audience I find it difficult to give a straight answer, because in terms of live describing every one will have their own preference about what is, or isn't enough. I do feel however that despite the wide variation of comments given during the evening all was done that could be done given the amount of time that we were working with.
I felt that the structure of the presentation and the actual performing as well as the discussions went well and were well received. Some members of the audience seemed shocked at some points of the presentation because of the physicality, and how we moved around the space, being aware of each other and any objects that were incorporated in to a particular scene. I felt that this was a good thing as it shows that as blind performers nothing is impossible. The layout of the carpet and the tape definitely helped and that despite some problems earlier in the week, we were all able to move around confidently on the evening of the presentation.
I have gained some experience in voice projection, although this was difficult at first, I feel that I can benefit from these aspects of the project in the future. In terms of accessibility for visually impaired spectators, this is the first project that I have been involved with that tries to consider all of the aspects associated with the visually impaired audience. In particular making the information about movement, and where people are in the space more accessible. I also feel that the presentation was received well and subsequently the debates that this may bring up as it became apparent on the night.
When thinking about how things could be developed I feel that one thing that could be discussed is the scenes when the actors also play the part of objects. I am not sure if this would make things better, or more difficult to do when thinking about the description of the set before a scene is shown.
In taking part in the project I feel that I have gained a lot of experience not just from a physical point of view, but also in structuring. As a trainee performer I feel that I have gained a lot from the structures of the rehearsals and I can reflect on the planning and presentation and clearly sea a path of how we got from one to the next.
Biographies of the creative team appear at the end of this summary.
AIMS OF PRESENTED SCENES AND AUDIENCE RESPONSE
1. Jack's Monologue
This was a monologue taken from the story of Jack, loosely based on the first half of the life of John Metcalf, an 18th century English road builder. The actor delivering the monologue was physically manipulated by two other actors across space without contact with him and this scene was shown in two ways, without description of this action and then with it, to discover if the VI audience could tell from the live description modifications what was happening physically on stage.
The following are the overall marks given by respondents to each scene's theatricality, accessibility and whether or not the access features interfered with their appreciation of each scene, including highlighted relevant comments selected from individual evaluation forms. Marks were calculated using the following scale:
1-5, 1 being excellent, 2 – good, 3- fair, 4-poor, 5-bad.
Interference yes = 8, no = 6, no indication = 7.
(B=Blind PS=Partially Sighted S=Sighted.)
Jim Lewis – B. -If not for the described second version, the physical simplicity of the scene would have been lost on me. I found the use of objects to explore visual impairment and visual relationships with inanimate objects and the wider world interesting, and it was definitely thought provoking.
June Breverton -B. -I preferred this better the first time around.
The description interrupted the intensity of the scene and broke up the otherwise excellent portrayal. As a totally blind person, I was able to empathise with the main character and did not need to necessarily know everything that was happening. I could draw my own conclusions – even if wrong, the general development of the scene was understood.
2 Starting the resistance.
The play also dramatised the true account of Jacques lusseyran, a blind teenage leader of a resistance cell in occupied Paris at the start of the 1940's. The intention here was to enable the blind performers to move at speed across the stage in spatial relationship to each other, and we wanted to test whether the VI audience got a sense of this through just the dialogue, plus whether general quick live descriptions like 'Marksman' gave them an idea of the sudden still images that the actors jumped into.
Interference yes, = 8, no = 9, no indication = 4.
Lila Hamilton – PS. -As his mental struggle became more intense, the other actors tussled physically with him and at one point the lighting changed suddenly to red. This effect was discussed later and most found it heightened tension, especially when Eileen explained there was a sound cue to alert blind audience members to the change. But to me, the red light meant the actors disappeared completely (especially MO's red shirt), an effect which may have been more startling than the performers intended, although it did enhance the internalised struggle.
Jim Lewis – B. -I thought the use of physical movement to express tension and a growing panic was excellent. The drum roll also heightened tension and a sense of foreboding. This and the use of loud physical movement helped to make this scene accessible. I didn't feel that I wanted to have the costumes described in a straightforward audio described way, as this would have detracted from the tension of the piece and brought in an inside voice which would almost certainly have jarred with the tension of the actors.
Tim Gebbles – B.
-Yes, access did interfere. The trouble here was that single words of live description like 'marksman' etc didn't really add much to my understanding and they distracted from the mood of the scene. There's a lot of movement and noise from other characters on stage and this alone could be exploited. At the top of the scene we can hear that Jack is mobbed by his friends; that's all I need to know. Exactly what they do to him – the physical minutia doesn't really matter to me.
Again, taken from the Jacques lusseyran story, this scene is from a little further on in the play, when Jacques has become responsible for vetting new young recruits into the group. we wanted to discover from this whether descriptive information within the text could offer an idea of what the staging was to our VI audience. Also, to test if lighting effects could be made accessible through simple, non-intrusive description.
Interference yes = 6, no = 8 no indication = 7.
Liz Porter – PS. -For partially sighted people. The staging was great, the 2 actors placed in strong spots really worked and it was totally appropriate for the front person (the recruitee) to be placed moving without any description i.e. conveyed the experience of the blind interviewer. Really liked the way the lighting was used here and how the lighting began to merge as they were together.
Tim Gebbles – B. -No, I did not feel that access interfered. This was a strongly written scene, which spoke clearly and personally to me as a blind audience member. Like others in the audience, I wasn't clear that there really was another character on stage till near the end of the scene but this really didn't matter; indeed it can be these little mysteries provoking a detective element in watching a play that can be interesting as a blind person as long as they are resolved in the end.
Again from Jacques lusseyran's story, this scene comes at a point where the Gestapo suddenly arrest him. Written in a naturalistic way, we wanted to perform it in this style, and then in a highly physicalised interpretation to test, which was better for a blind performer. Both versions used the actors delivering live description to explain the visual action and we wanted to know from the audience which style they preferred.
Interference yes = 10, no = 5, no indication = 6.
Lila Hamilton – PS. -The first version was “realistic”, in which chairs were lined up to represent a bed and there was some play with a packet of cigarettes. The second version was “physical” and this was where the evening took off for me. The props were discarded and the actors plunged acrobatically across the stage (“forward roll” and “backward roll” said a describer from the side but I was delighted by what I could see). The shock and upheaval were conveyed so graphically that I was dismayed when the describer interjected that one of the intruders had a gun – a point not mentioned in the first version. It had never occurred to me that the Gestapo would have turned up unarmed and I found the information intrusive (others made the same point later).
Maria said after the two versions had been shown that the actors knew which one they preferred but asked for comment. I was amazed when those who spoke chose the first as I had found the second so much more exciting and involving (but then, I could see something of it). Maria didn't say until the discussion at the end of the evening that the actors preferred the second version too as it freed them from the need to cope with props and made it possible for them to move unrestricted. For me, it was the sheer joy of their unfettered movements which not only thrilled me but also conveyed so well the bewildering and frightening situation the leader found himself in.
Terry Robinson – B. -I think this was the one you did twice, with different physical presentations. I think the former one stood up best, being more in line with what one would expect. Perhaps I need to get used to the more physical approach.
Richard Majewski– B. -the descriptions became part of the dialogue and if anything added to the experience almost taking on the roll of a chorus in Greek tragedy.
Colin Hambrook – S. -Possibly need to go between the naturalistic and expressionistic modes. I enjoyed the latter more – especially Damien's movement with rest of the cast – but after the audience response, wondered if it lost some of the brevity of the content.
Indira Sengupta – PS. -This scene with its two versions raised the question about which is more important – The needs of the audience or the needs of the theatrical piece.
5. Mark point a.
Turning to the third character in the play, who was inspired by the blind physicist Kent Cullurs. The story is of Calabi, a theoretical physicist, who has been brought into work on a research project that is investigating the possibility of communicating with life forms that have evolved alternative senses to ours. We wanted to find out whether more poetic use of description could compliment the movement and make it accessible to a blind audience.
Interference yes = 6, no = 11, no indication = 4.
Tim Gebbles – B. -I thought this was a rather beautiful and intriguing scene. I think incidental music can be an excellent auditory creator of mood for a visually impaired audience akin to lighting for sighted people. The reference to the lighting state illuminating the two figures on stage was interesting and example of descriptions of lighting adding something. I could have done with a bit more live description about what the two figures were doing on stage.
Sunethra Goonewardene – B. -I felt rather lost at the start but began to understand something owing to the description. The narrator was great.
Jim Lewis – B. -This was the one scene in the play I had a lot of problems with. I didn't feel any involvement in it and felt that you had to have a background in physical theatre to really appreciate what was going on. I had real problems with this scene from beginning pretty much to end. I felt lost within the first five seconds, and couldn't understand where the piece was supposed to be headed.
Rachel Vaughan – s. -I thought the movement/dance in this scene was beautiful – very compelling. It was very visual and I'm not sure how I would have felt if I couldn't have seen it?
Wendy Harpe – S. -Too close to some of the worst of modern dance – That is more important to the performers than to the audience. Too long. –
Jess Higgs – S. -From a sighted viewpoint I thought this was very beautiful and moving. I'm not certain, for me, that the live description always connected sharply enough.
Lila Hamilton – PS. -This started with Maria and one of the blue/green men lying on the stage in pools of light. I found the light so strong at the beginning that I couldn't look at the two figures and had to wait for them to get up and start moving before the glare was sufficiently broken for me to bear looking. Eileen explained that they decided to delay the literal description until the movements had speeded up to the point where the words could fit them exactly. For me, able to make out only moving blobs, synchronising words and movement was a luxury beyond my comprehension and I should have preferred to have the exact description at the beginning of the sequence
Also taken from Calabi's story, again this is part of the characters reflection on their scientific work that has exposed the conflict between experimental and theoretical physics. Attempting to stage some abstract text, we used this to find a way for performers to move with precision and confidence on stage. Using mantras while moving, we wanted to know what shape our blind audience thought the performers were making, and whether the use and cutting of sound had the same affect on them as lighting effects might have on the sighted audience.
Interference yes = 7, no = 11, no indication = 3.
Indira Sengupta – PS. -Blew me away! Juxtaposing of sighted and non sighted very powerful!
June Bretherton – B. -At this showing, I felt there was an emphasise on 'aren't we clever to get these people moving around' – I'm not sure where I felt this from – which is a shame, because we know it is possible to do this. This is one of the areas where I hope sighted audiences would not dwell on this aspect, rather than the depth of the piece's meaning. –
Lila Hamilton – PS. -This may well have been the high point of the evening as it was simply and beautifully constructed and introduced a deft touch of humour. The performers (I wasn't sure how many) strode about the stage in geometric patterns, chanting simple mathematical tables in time with the thud of their feet and the beat of a drum. I think everyone was chuckling by the time the lights went out and the stationary performers spoke a conundrum about the reality of existence. The comments afterwards suggested that others had found this the most perfect and successful of the evening and I was especially pleased to have noticed the aural clue (the drumming stopped) to the switching off of the lights. –
Taken again from Calabi's ruminations, this time it is an historical event that is dwelt on by the character. A true account of a group of blind beggars in the French village of St Ovid in 1771. The town's magistrate had found them, and brought them into the village square. Wanting to find a way to enact this description within the script, we chose clowning techniques to test if this style, traditionally very visual, could work for blind performers, and then how to make this accessible through careful description that would not dampen the vital spontaneity needed within the scene.
Interference yes = 7, no = 7, no indication = 7.
Gerard McDermott – PS. -This raised questions about laughing at or laughing with? Encouraging to see blind actors not taking themselves too seriously. –
Colin Hambrook – S. -I'm afraid this was my least favourite piece. A brave attempt but it won't work without a lot of training in clowning. It was simply lacking in any humour.
Owen Smith – S. -me as sighted, really liked Clown. To me it made a (political) statement about visual impairment, power relationships and the nature of spectacle in an historical context, which to me is very interesting. important (the historical and the political). I thought it interesting that this was the only scene we as audience didn't applaud and that people mentioned it caused discomfort – which is not to be avoided.
Jim Lewis -B. -I didn't se what was supposed to be funny about this piece.
As I said last night I really couldn't understand why the clowns couldn't communicate with each other. overall I felt that the piece was a bit bizarre and lacking in meaning. I thought that at the end when the narrator said that the people of the village became bored with the clowns and they returned to their begging, the placing down of the instruments was quite symbolic in terms of them giving up their creativity and returning to a predetermined social role. However, the use of sound between the characters was very unclear. and I felt that the use of words like snatch and grab didn't really explain things properly because you were uncertain who was supposed to be grabbing instruments from who.
Tim Gebbles – B. -This scene definitely required the setting up it did have from Eileen at the beginning. Without that it would have been utterly meaningless. As it was, I found it engaging and I laughed spontaneously more than once which is very unusual for me. From a naturalistic point of view this scene made no sense at all but the random vocalisations and musical noises plus the movement gave it an absurdist coherence. I think it was an excellent stab at devising a method of clowning available to blind audiences.
(PHOTOGRAPH – See Cover Page.)
-Very very exciting piece of work. I think the idea of creatively incorporating description in a prosaic way within the writing is a real innovation. I loved the breadth of staging and theatrical languages. The idea of taking 3 little known historical figures and putting their story into one whole like this is very inspiring – Can't wait for the end piece. Colin Hambrook
-Really useful feedback sessions. The wide ranging comments/feelings about how things worked or did not for the audience showed what a complicated business it is trying to please all of the people all of the time. Indira Sengupta
-It is very exciting to know that we people with a visual impairment are being thought of in the world of the arts. look forward to your future productions and Good Luck! for all your future endeavours, the next and the next and the next …. stage! Sunethra Goonewardene
-A stimulating night. I felt like a witness to some brilliant experiments in theatre. Rachel Vaughan
-This was one of the most exciting and revelatory evenings I have ever spent in a theatre. It was wonderful to see blind performers moving and communicating so confidently and the knowledge that it was all their own work gave a liberating strength to everything they did. I've always said the trouble with audio description is that it's done by sighted people as I find it hugely frustrating to have a sighted voice battering me with information I don't want to know – and then telling me what I do want to know at the wrong time. And so I was delighted to discover that minimal description freed my imagination and proved to be entirely sufficient – I even thought some of it superfluous. And, above all, it wasn't being forced on me from outside. Lila Hamilton.
-Most enjoyable, creative, thought provoking evening. Thanks. Excellent to know the views of so many blind and partially sighted participants. Jessica Higgs.
-Thanks for a brilliantly creative evening. Kate Portal
-Fantastic writing – wonderful exploration of style – unexpected in its freshness. Charlotte Cunningham.
-The evening was excellent and, it was a good idea but, while it was great to include everyone in what was essentially a focus group you will rightly do what you feel is artistically right. In short, if necessary go on upsetting people and, in this PC “dumbing down” culture, make the buggers work! Richard Majewski
-This was such an exciting evening. The only performances I had seen by blind people before have been one disastrous evening at the -Venturers and the production of Zeros and Nils at Sadler's Wells. Neither of these experiences prepared me for what I saw here. This is a very talented group of people, serious actors with considerable talent. All too often I have attended work that is heralded as -experimental and found immature and inexperienced young people indulging in work that is more indulgent than experimental. Not here. I think that this event presented the most exciting experience in disability arts for well over a decade. Ian Jentle.
-I really enjoyed Thursday's presentation at Jackson's Lane. I found it both entertaining and inspiring and thought the structure of the evening was a great model for evaluation. Have you been documenting the process of action research you're undertaking? As a piece of theatre research this is very exciting. Talking of which, the whole evening emphasised the movement of shifting aesthetics that we were attempting to discuss/highlight at our conference. It's very exciting. Owen Smith
-I did feel that this was a genuinely interesting attempt to merge physical theatre with in built audio description, dialogue and the use of sound and space. I much preferred the first section on Nazis and the French resistance to the other two, because I felt that for a mainstream audience it offered the best way Into issues surrounding visual impairment and to understanding the role of AD and sound in theatre. I think that you need to think about who the
target audience of this work is going to be. My impression last night was that the vast majority of people present were theatre professionals steeped in theatre techniques, and this enabled them to understand a lot of what was going on. There were various points at which I felt somewhat lost by the use of physical theatre, and I do feel that as a regular theatre goer I might be more typical of the average play watcher who doesn't actually know a lot about theatrical techniques. I'd suggest you hold another road testing session with regular theatre goers who don't work in theatre and don't know that much about theatrical techniques, as this might give a better idea of the commercial possibilities of the work and whether it can hold the attention of an average audience for any length of time. I thought that as a way of exploring issues around AD and physical theatre last night was fantastic. I did genuinely enjoy it. James Lewis.
1. Blind actors, as well as needing longer rehearsal time for physical based performance, need more time in the actual performance space than their sighted counterparts. This is particularly the case if the space is not the same size as the rehearsal space.
2. The carpet, which functioned brilliantly as a guide, needs to be a little wider. It was possible for performers to step right over it when they were running, which left them completely disorientated.
3. Always use theatrical gaffe tape when sticking carpet to a dance floor.
4. Live description cannot be treated in the same way as traditional audio description, with it's established conventions that act as a sort of blanket. No matter what the style of a scene is. The live description for each scene has to reflect each scene's performance style.
5. If the theatricality, whatever the style, the text and the intention of the scene meet equally, are balanced and support each other, sighted and visually impaired audience members will experience the scene's integrity and dramatic tension. The question then is how much of the detail needs describing and this as illustrated by the feedback forms is highly contentious.
6. For blind audiences detail of scene has to be introduced without description overload that can break up dramatic flow of a scene. Desiring that some things be left to the imagination and deciding what these exactly are when it is different for each individual, needs focused external input to achieve a common denominator.
7. More careful thinking around access for partially sighted audience, above the use of primary, contrasting colours, there is also the need to consider the effect of lighting. Consequently when working with people with very limited sight within the company, the need for external partially sighted consultation is imperative.
8. It is not sufficient to place the responsibility of achieving performance access and audience access in this work, purely within the confines of the company. This work needs to now contain a bias towards developing audience access, by developing more effective input from visually impaired people. In future an objective focus group of broad ranging blind and partially sighted people needs to be factored into the creative process, and questioned specifically about potential access, so their on-going consultation can affect the eventual decisions on access within a production.
9. Partially sighted and fully sighted audiences prefer more physical interpretations on stage, which correspond with the preferences of blind actors. However, blind audiences generally desire a more text based naturalistic style; adequate time is essential for future work to achieve the best balance possible between artistic intention, freedom in performance and audience access.
10. Project management needs to be more externally focused and not entirely the responsibility of a member of the creative team.
11. The role of access worker and stage manager should not be merged in order to save on costs. Access for disabled performers is a serious and essential provision, which requires the full attention of a dedicated individual.
12. Travel and documentation costs for this project were very under estimated. Travel increases arose because of the change of project participants based in other regions who were not calculated within the original budget. Also, editing and copying of the documentation video was not taken into account at the outset, but as the project progressed, this aspect was felt to be a crucial element to include. It was necessary therefore to negotiate reductions in some areas of the budget to cover the increase in others, which was successfully achieved without encoring a deficit.
Though the task of exploring and finding successful ways of integrating live accessible features by blind actors into their performance for a visually impaired audience is extremely challenging, it is one that Extant or any others inspired to explore this field should not give up on. During this first step into audience consultation, It was never expressed that traditional audio description, with it's use of a sighted describer in the lighting box, feeding information to blind audience members through headphones, was a preference to what we were attempting as an alternative. Though views were wide ranging on the outcomes and degree of success of what we presented, the over riding feeling was that this area of development was extremely important to its audience, that it was essential that the theatrical dialogue had begun, and that more exchange of communication between audience and artists was needed to further evolve and establish this work.
For Extant, The Next Stage has acted, In relation to our other projects, as the bridge that has taken us from working on incubated research, to a public witnessing and engagement with this research. Putting our work and ideas on the line in this way has provided us with huge amounts of information that we could not have gathered if we had remained working as we were. In exchange, we have offered, through our integrity, creativity and dedication, inspiration to the neglected visually impaired community. This is in the form of representative performers from this community, producing challenging and intelligent, high quality artistic content and performance, which has been a relevant and empowering, experience for this community.
Extant aims In the short term, with the help of the British Council, to take the show-case presentation of scenes that were created for The Next Stage project, to the 3rd International Blind in Theatre Festival to be held in Zagreb Croatia in October 2003. We intend to gather feedback on our work, from international blind audiences at the Festival, who are also theatre practitioners. We will measure how this compares with the responses we gained from our London audience at Jackson's Lane in March 2003.
In the long term, this project has exposed how we have an ability to train performers in this field and the emphasis that we should bring to this area in future, to broaden the scope of ability among newly emerging visually impaired performers. It has also enabled us to develop a potential structure for a future production. Both of these aspects will sustain our work with visually impaired performing artists and audiences locally and regionally. We aim to produce a whole theatre piece now which will include developing a style of live description access, that leaves room for the narrative and dramatic power to deliver its meaning, but that also includes integrate live access features when necessary. The next stage has taught us that visually impaired audiences are critical to this planning and will be central to all our future projects.
THE CREATIVE TEAM.
Maria Oshodi's first play, The S Bend, was produced as part of the royal Court Theatre's young Writers Festival in 1984. She went on to write four more plays that were produced, published and toured nationally, including Blood, Sweat and Fears, From Choices to Chocolate, and Here Comes a Candle.
While studying for her degree, she wrote the screenplay Mug, which was produced as a short for Channel 4 in 1990, and Hound which was Produced by Graeae Theatre company and later published in 2002 in their anthology of plays, 'Graeae Plays 1'.
In 1992 she graduated from Middlesex University with a 1st BA honors in Drama and English. Since then she has worked in arts development, acted, and founded the arts organisation Extant. She worked from 2000-2002 for BBC Drama production as a diversity project co-coordinator.
Between 1990/93 he trained in Drama/Theatre Arts at Goldsmiths College, London and Trinity College, Dublin.
Since then, he has worked as a workshop leader, delivering drama workshops to a wide variety of groups, in terms of age and levels of experience.
He has also worked as a compare and performed in a story telling festival, London 1996. During this year he also delivered a drama workshop at the Second International Festival of Therapy and Theatre, Lodz, Poland. It was here, that he saw for the first time, groups of visually impaired performers from a number of European countries, presenting their work.
During the past two years, he has directed two full length and two one-act plays with an amateur drama group.
He was the Producer for New Breed Theatre Company in Manchester from 1997-2002, and is the co-Director of Extant.
Since graduating from Exeter University Drama Dept. in 1992, Eileen has written, devised, and/or directed schools', community and professional performance.
Recent projects have included: Directing Absent Water, a site-specific movement based performance, Wrights & Sites, adapting research material into performance for a schools tour, Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, Directing living history re-enactments, The National Trust, Co-directing Illyria, a new play by Bryony Lavery, Devon Youth Theatre, Directing 3 Dartmoor community performances, The Wren Trust. She has also toured Sing Softly after 6pm, A one woman show directed by Dorinda Hulton.
John Wilson Goddard.
John worked as an English teacher and a Braille proof-reader before becoming a professional actor in 1986. In 1983 he obtained a qualification in Speech and Drama, and around that time concentrated on gaining acting experience with various amateur groups. His “big break” came with the Graeae Theatre Company's national tour of Noel Greig's Working Hearts. Other companies he's worked with include Snap People's Theatre Company, Mockbeggar Theatre Company, No Kidding, and PATH Productions; as well as appearing in a Dorling Kindersley video, itv's The Bill, Anthony Sher's play, Changing Step (bbc1(, and a BT commercial. Under the banner of his own company, Vital Experience, in 1996 John produced and acted in Jonathon Neale's specially commissioned play, Oedipus Needs Help, in Brighton and London. He's also served as Chairman and Vice-Chairman of his local Equity branch. John thinks he may have the largest collection of plays in Braille in the country!
From 1998 he studied at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford on the BTEC National Diploma in Music Technology, and also studied 2 Dance Modules from the Performing Arts course. After leaving College he enrolled on the BA Hons Performance Studies course at the University College Northampton.
Over the past few years he has attended workshops in London and Nottingham with Frank Bock, and Simon Vinchenci. Mike is currently on a gap year from his course, however after he has graduated he is interested in making his own work in modern contemporary Dance and incorporating this with music and sound engineering work. He is also interested in media, and is also interested in presenting, or sound engineering for radio.
A video of the showcase presented at Jackson's Lane, London on 27 March 2003 has been produced to accompany this report.
EXTANT, May 2003.