Stage Lab 2 was designed to fall into four distinct areas of focus; from the creative composition to the working with technical and performance specialists.
This report summary describes the aims and outcomes of each area Everyone involved in the work has written an evaluation of their experience of the project, and although Maria Oshodi has written the over all report, the other participant’s feedback has also been incorporated into this document.
My aim in writing the material was to create a full-length drama exploring 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, a composite piece which continually juxtaposed particular events and experiences was intended to be drawn, which would unfold a narrative journey making a dramatic inquiry into the ‘hidden’. This was to be done by showing how historically, blind people have become shrouded in invisibility through social isolation, to the point of becoming shadowy figures of fear, pity and even ridicule, exampled by Mr. Magoo and other clownish blind caricatures. Thus remaining passively obscured behind perceptions like this, I intended the piece to reveal certain individuals who actively use this exclusion to veil for instance, political underground activity.
More essentially it was my aim to raise questions about the hidden nature of reality, by considering that if general perceived knowledge of the world is mediated primarily through a direct experience of sight and use of language, then when this primary sense is unavailable, as in the case of the blind, is our knowledge of the world compromised, or is another whole reality occupied?
I wanted to ask this central question, hoping to challenge the fixed, commonly held view of what reality is, through presenting a series of inter-penetrating stories, inhabited by three, characters that reflected different relationships with ‘not seeing’.
February – April 2002
Although the project officially commenced in February 2002, I made a start on the script back in November of 2001. This was because I had a collection of two years worth of notes from different sources, which I wanted to base the drama on.
The following areas from the previous phase of research were to be taken into account when writing the material as well:
1. Narrative. The written material attempting to reflect the fractured way in which blind people have to gather from their environments, fragments of a picture, which are pieced together by constant editing and working backwards with delayed exposition. This narrative aesthetic denotes a fluidity which has to be employed by blind people in the visual world, picking up pieces of information, letting them go, changing positions held, and existing at times often in a state of relative heightened relationship with the ‘unknown’.
2. The written material considering a set that acts in part as an interactive environment with its audience, so that the piece is not purely mediated through spectacle, but is more of a 360-degree experience.
3. Movement. The written material used as a basis to explore styles of movement, which are derived from blind peoples own natural ways of negotiating the world. So for example, incorporating large gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, focusing on particular tension states and habitual movements, and using comic-tragic clown work.
4. Sound Beam. To also consider technologies such as this, which is an invisible sonic beam that is activated by movement, and can guide the performer as well as create a purely audio presence of objects in space.
5. Live Description. To build into the dialogue of the written piece from the start, reference to action, appearance and location, so this can act as fully integrated live description for a blind audience as well as performers.
The workshop section of this project included two one-week residential workshops and a non-residential week of work in London. The three blocks involved a core group of four participants- two blind performers- Damien O’Connor and Tim gebbles-one blind writer/performer-Maria Oshodi-and one sighted facilitator-Eileen Dillon.
The aim of the first residency was to offer the opportunity for the core group of four, to meet, engage in warm up exercises, introduce and read through the script, discuss and explore it’s themes and concepts, and begin to measure certain movement styles against the material to discover where creative matches occurred.
Eileen: My aims For Week 1 were:-
- Create a trusted working environment
- Expand participants' physical practice
- Generate expressionistic movement informed by sound
- Apply arbitrary text to sequences of images linked by movement
- Improvise scenes based on the stories within Maria's script (as yet no actual text to work with)
- Overlay the text generated by our improvisations with sequences of movement
- Begin to explore Audio description of work generated
- Be open to respond to any direction that the initial work leads us
Eileen: Movement sequences were easy to generate because performers were in physical contact with each other, i.e. through taking each other's weight. It would be much more challenging for the blind performer to be in physical relationship to each other across space.
It was agreed that the improvisation that was layered by movement was much more interesting to watch than the 'naturalistic' original, despite the blind audience being unaware of what the physical movements were. Interest was generated by the quality of the voice. The movement informed the delivery of the text. Lines were unexpectedly delivered with affection, threat, submission, malice, tenderness etc.
Tim: We discovered in this time that naturalistic functional movement in character is achievable by us but requires considerably more rehearsal time as well as the awareness and commitment of the director. Probably every visually impaired performer, certainly myself included, has had the experience of a director quickly losing patience and interest when you can’t find a prop or a mark in the same time as a sighted performer. They reduce their demands and support and quickly your physicality becomes very static. A version of the scene where Jacques is interrogated by the major and a second one where the Gestapo arrests Jacques highlighted these problems. We discussed briefly the idea of designing a floor cloth covered in raised tactile but invisible marks which would allow us to orientate accurately at any point on the stage.
Maria: Adopting a naturalistic way of acting on stage is not natural for the blind performer, for it leads to a half focused performance – with some of our attention constantly adrift, wondering whether we are going to find the prop or are facing in the right direction.
Damien: The work gave me the opportunity to be really specific about what exactly I wanted. During the first week I found this difficult because I’d never defined any questions for myself such as What is it important for a describer to say? When should silence be used? How much information should a describer give about characters, their gestures, movement, and facial expressions? Etc. In the exercises where we created images and used a word or a phrase to describe them in both naturalistic and non-naturalistic scenes it became clear just how difficult the task of developing a more effective and relevant description is.
The general stated aim for the second residency was to have the core group working intensively on marrying chosen areas of creative material to practical methods like grotesque theatre, exaggerated facial expressions and large gestures, certain tension states and habitual movements, all of which enhance blind peoples own natural ways of negotiating their environment.
Also that the group would look in detail at exploring the live description within the text and experiment with how best to employ verbal reference to action, location and appearance within scenes, and how this might further under pin the themes within the piece.
Eileen: My aims For Week 2 were:-
- To apply physical theatre & 'expressionism' to Maria's pre-written text in a way that involves the actors moving across the space independently of each other.
- Block a naturalistic scene.
- Audio describe both a naturalistic and a physically expressionistic scene and compare the two in terms of audio description.
Damien: The way in which the text was introduced over the three weeks was absolutely right. From the introduction of the characters and their stories in the first week to the identification of individual scenes, the learning of lines and the experimentation in the second week to the recording of speeches and longer passages in the third was well thought out. I think the excellent quality of Maria’s writing and its relevance, Tim’s way of working as an actor and Ilene’s directorial skills made for a high quality experience. I remember the sense of freedom I felt when working on Wednesday of the second week on the scene with Jacques and his friends. We were in a free space and something magic happened. We worked all afternoon and at the end we had almost completely blocked the scene. It felt like we had something really solid, something we all felt so confident about that we could go out and show the world.
The following day, Maria and I began work on the interrogation scene. I’d completely forgotten about naturalism even though I knew well that the scene itself was written in a naturalistic style. I’d forgotten about “The set”. When Ilene started setting up Jacques bedroom. Chairs and tables were brought into the space and instantly, all the restrictions that come with working with a set came back to me. I remember thinking “Here we go, back to the real world”. I much preferred the unreal one.
Tim: All of us worked on the scene where Jacques reveals his plans for a resistance movement to two friends. Eileen’s blocking from the beginning was quite intentionally stylistic and non-naturalistic. I spent much of the rehearsal time wondering if I wasn’t fundamentally denying my physicality as a blind person and performer; I felt too inhibited on a very deep level to go for the speed of movement that was being asked for. When we ran the scene, however, I was surprised and pleased how well the whole thing seemed to work and how freely, rapidly and precisely I felt able to use the whole space.
Eileen: When objects are placed in the space all players slow down, until they are familiar with the space.
The intention to win the game speeds the players up and generated in Damien speed and agility hitherto unseen.
The players movements change when there are objects in the space. Tim for example began to lead with his side.
The technique of separating actors when interrupting each others journeys (split imaging) was extremely effective. It was theatrically interesting and overcame the difficulties that the actors had locating precise points on stage. E.g. to naturalistically trip another actor up demands precise location of foot etc. When split imaging the movement and timing must be precise but the actor does not need to locate the foot of the other. Before making this discovery Maria made several attempts to catch Damien's outstretched arm. Locating Damien was not problematic, locating his outstretched arm was.
Similarly stylized movement, e.g. a slowed down swing overcame the fears that the blind performer had about speed on stage
The timing of precise movement needs to be linked to an audio cue, e.g. movement takes place on the delivery of a line.
Maria: There was an organic feel during the week as we grew staging methods out of playing our game Vampire in different ways. For instance when we used three actors to block one monologue we found we had the start of a very exciting physicalised scene that was an example of how we could move in relation to each other and create something theatrically interesting as well. Then Eileen brought the tension held in the body during the vampire game to inform the movement of the newly sighted character in this scene.
(I found that obvious protective or detecting movement in the blind performer only really becomes apparent when you do not know where something physically is or you are trying to present blindness in a stylised way.)
Again, Vampire came in useful to base the chase action in the Jacque scene, which worked incredibly well after initial confusions over my use of the word ‘acrobatics’ in the stage directions of the scene. Adding leap-frogs within the chase added to it’s energy and it was only these that needed to be described live as we always moved on a line, thus an audience could pick up the general idea of what was happening on stage.
Clowning and the Beam
The general aim of this final non-residential workshop week in London, was to involve the core group with working for two days with a physical theatre practitioner to explore comic/tragic clown work, and to see how this could build up material developed over the last two blocks. This was to be followed by two more days working with sound beam, picking up from what was learnt during the Stage language Laboratory with this equipment, and now experimenting further to see how it could be used as an aesthetic access tool, this time with blind performers interacting with it and text. The week was to end with a final day of evaluation by the core group.
During Block 3, it had occurred to Eileen and I from what we already knew of the Clown, that it might not only reveal a new way of presenting the relationship of blindness/disability within the world, but on a more basic level, break down some of the ‘acting’ which had been observed to lurk in the workshop performance space. This can work against authentic responses sought from a more physical approach, and we thought that exposure to ‘stripping away the actor’ through the clown, might benefit the process we had started.
Sarah Brignall turned out to have specialised in Clown at Jacques Lecoq during her training, so there was no need to find a replacement for her. In our planning discussions before the workshop, we decided that Sarah would present an introduction to clowning through a series of exercises over the two days, which script would not be necessary for, as the aim was to work to reach a creative place of spontaneity.
Tim: The first two days of our final week in London consisted of a brief introduction to clown work. I didn’t enjoy this element of the project. Exercises were all too quickly abandoned at a point when I felt I’d just begun to understand them and really would have benefited from having another go. All too often I felt I was being sent into the space inadequately supported and with no clear idea of what our objectives were. Despite this, I felt that the idea behind the investigation was an enthralling one. To use our natural movement as blind performers together with clown techniques to create a piece at which an audience had licence to laugh at disabled physicality, could be very radical, brave and powerful.
Eileen: Clowns only exist in relationship to the audience and in relationship to each other, if there are two or more on stage. Clowns are constantly looking to the audience for recognition and affirmation of who they are. The blind actors responded naturally to each other because they had audio cues but the relationship to the audience was more problematic. Much of the relationship between clown and audience is based on eye contact. Sarah introduced the mechanics of turning the clowns out to the audience, which I have seen done in clowning workshops for sighted actors, but in this context the relationship was loaded with the fact that the sighted audience could see the clown but the blind clown couldn't see the audience. The exercise above that really focused on this clown – audience relationship appeared to generate a moment of authentic vulnerability in Maria, defensiveness in Tim and acceptance in Damien. It would have been interesting to see how a blind audience would have responded to the same moment of silence on stage.
Clowning by its very nature is improvised (within the boundaries of rules like the ones above). It could be used to generate devised performance but it is not a genre that lends itself to the delivery of a script. Maria felt that it is possible to use the genre for a pocket of devised work within the context of the wider performance.
Maria: I enjoyed the playful presentation of the warm up exercises, but felt very quickly challenged and scared when the task-orientated exercises came up. This was because they demanded a lot from my immediate inventive responses and I felt first all of my physical and creative limitations come up – there really wasn’t enough time in the two days to work through these, which was frustrating in some ways and a relief in others! Yet, I felt that through this working-through, it would hold the key to how the clown could work innovatively to not only present humor in an improvised section within the play, but through the use of certain clown techniques, a wider comment might be made on the relationship between blind actor and the audience – disability and society – the individual and their humanity? Lots of the workshop brought up lengthy discussions about permission and power of the blind performer, particularly with regards to being seen by, but not seeing and working off of a sighted audience. We did not have the time to even discuss the implications of the blind audiences participation within this style of performance… but for me it was a controversial area that had strong dynamic possibilities if worked out in the right way:
Sarah: Over the two days I think all the actors played and found a real freedom, which I found liberating to watch. There were some difficult moments as there always are with the clown, but they broke through the silence into laughter. The amount of enthusiasm and support they gave each other was fantastic. This was apparent not just in the physical work, where the quality and confidence of movement in the actors was excellent, and they worked well together as a team. Just as importantly, they were also a very giving audience to each other, and not only made the others laugh but also themselves As for my fears of eye contact, they managed to feel the small audience getting very clear contact and making us laugh. Sometimes the laughter was the result of situations created by their blindness, but even this allowed the audience to laugh.
The first phase of research in the Stage language Laboratory had revealed the following about working with Sound Beam:
The invisible beam of sound acted as a general guiding instrument, and could be felt along as a direction of sound. Despite it's technical irregularities it could be used to denote and navigate parameters of performance space on stage for the blind performer…. extending the bodies radius further than the field of human touch.
There was also potential to use the invisible sound beam, activated by our movement, as a specific aesthetic reference that sculpted the relationship between, perception and the presence of non-visible objects in space.
I was curious to take extracts of monologue from the scientist Calabi, a character enslaved by language, and use it to explore the above. I studied the text and found aspects that I thought would work best for this, however, mainly from a perspective of artistic interpretation, and a week prior to the workshop sent it to Guy and the others in the group. We only began to define how we might specifically work with the text and the Beam when we started the workshop itself….
Eileen: Guy was not a workshop leader but a technician who had come to show us the potential of sound beam.
Damien: It was nice to see Guy again and re-visit Sound Beam. Most of the exercises were similar to those from the previous project and there were times when I felt uninspired. This was amplified by the shift from the intensely physical work of the previous two days to a situation in which for long periods of time we found ourselves waiting around for technical issues to be dealt with. Guy is very knowledgeable about Sound Beam and his explanations were often very technical and went over my head. This meant that there was times when I began to switch off and then had to mentally drag myself back to take part in the work. A high point came on the second day when both the Clown work and Sound Beam came together and formed a link. This was the exercise during which we all were placed at a different point of the beam thus causing a sound that, for the purpose of the exercise, was our own. We competed with each other to make our own sounds the most audible. We created an improvisation using the sounds and our bodies that had it’s own story. I’m not quite sure where we go with Sound Beam, but, if we take it further I’d like to see more physical interaction and less of the technical explanations.
Tim: The last two days were spent working with Sound Beam. An ultrasonic beam projected through the performance space triggers sound from loudspeakers when it is interrupted. Different parts of the beam can trigger different samples and the beam can project at any level or angle. Others in the group found the technicalities of Sound Beam boring and delays while different configurations were set up, frustrating. These didn’t bother me so much. What I did enjoy about Sound Beam was the opportunity it afforded to play in the moment, using natural and spontaneous motivation. In one exercise, I lay on my back beneath the beam raising, in turn, a finger, a hand, an arm, my head and then legs in an attempt to activate the beam and learn where in mid air its boundaries were. On another occasion, I was required to trigger my section of the beam on a particular cue in a short performance sequence. The beam had been programmed so as each performer’s section triggered a different sound and with several gaps down its length where nothing would be audible. All of us were having problems in making the device behave consistently and on my cue, I flailed and then lurched around with increasing desperation trying to make work this curious piece of technology.
Sound Beam has potential both as a purely functional tool allowing us as visually-impaired performers to orientate on stage and as an artistic way of weaving audio into a performance although I do feel it would be better if a way could be found of making it behave rather more consistently than it did.
Eileen: With much practice and repetition we were sometimes able to achieve a dialogue between the actor and the beam. We found however, that the technology appeared at times to be inconsistent. It was not possible to guarantee precision.
An improvisation based on a journey from tension states 1-3 liberated the actors to play with the beam in the way they had done as clowns earlier in the week. The beam then, like the clowning work seemed to lend itself to improvisation rather than the delivery of script. Perhaps with more time we could have achieved greater precision.
Maria: The editorial work done on the Nicholas/Calabi comparison of old and new scientists really engaged me with the content of the text, but the many variables that the equipment offered, overwhelmed me, and even though we only used about a third of the text that I had provided, the problem didn’t seem on what we worked, but how we explored it. I saw the value on the second day of recording the live and pre-recorded interaction for documentation and the investigation of placing the beam at different heights, along with improvising with it, but I felt the squeeze of time and was anxious not to loose testing it’s precision with movement. This related to my recorded patches of half sentences, and I was keen to pursue this because it connected clearly with how a blind actor could use it to orientate in space. Eileen repeating that everything we were doing could be replicated by working with a sound technician, because it cancelled out this fundamental relationship with movement and space, irritated me. When we eventually got to working on this section, I made four very specific movements through the beam, which Eileen directed at times and it at last felt like something nearly came together on a practical and esthetic level.
Guy: Several times I felt I needed to remind the team that in sonic terms, more precisely a sound engineer triggering samples from a keyboard could achieve what they were creating. The key difference was that for blind and partially – sighted performers, beam triggers gave information about position. This combined with various rules defining limits to action could produce confident and playful movement around a space by several performers.
Maria: My idea about sound beam was turned on its head during these two days and coincidentally this occurred as a follow on from the clown work we had done two days previously. A certain amount of precise sound could be activated by movement, giving a performer an idea of positioning on stage, but the unpredictability of the beam means this can only ever be a general idea. However, this margin of error forces the performer into a place of responding genuinely with movement to the moment. Like the clown, both devices need some structure and context to frame them, and then the rest is left to the performer to improvise within this.
I had believed that the beam could be used to feel along, like an invisible pole, defining a performance space, but found from the last exercise we did that it worked more definitely if approached as a barrier of sound. I liked the idea of the beam holding pockets of sound effects of objects that got activated when a performer impacted with that part of the beam – bumping into un-seen furniture…
I thought we worked with sound beam in a much more focused way this time, discovering more about it’s creative and technological possibilities and think it can contribute to a performance as any multi media concept can, but with perhaps more functional value.
Our last evaluation took the form of a full two-hour discussion between Tim Eileen Damien and Maria, in which we fed back to each other our thoughts and feelings about the work of the final week and the project as a whole.
Eileen: It has been a privilege to work on this project. I have been impressed by the integrity of the work and the commitment of all of the participants. I wish Extant and Maria in particular every success with the continuation of this groundbreaking work.
Maria: I have been inspired by the work we have achieved together, to complete a first draft of the script, but in development, for as this project has shown, any piece of work that truly wants to integrate access for the blind performer and audience, has to b, fluid enough for an exchange during a long creative rehearsal process where Director and performers forge the access too, and the script has to be open to this process. Taking this experimental union to the point of production is the next step for Extant.
Damien: Given the work that Maria has put into both the project administration and the text, the most obvious course of action in terms of what happens next as far as I can see would be the further development and full production of Maria’s play. It’s an excellent script, well written with lots of potential for development. I hope that my own contribution and that of Ilene and Tim has given Maria much food for thought and plenty of ideas to take away. Well done and thank you everyone.