An interview between Director of Extant, Maria Oshodi, and a member of the Youth Theatre. Insight Issue 27, May/June 2010

Moving performances: inspiring a love of physical theatre

Extant is Britain's leading professional performing arts company of visually impaired people. With funding from the Arts Council, Extant tours around the country and delivers workshops with young blind and partially sighted people through its Youth Theatre programme. Insight spoke to Director, Maria Oshodi, about youth theatre and teaching stagecraft techniques to young people with sight loss.

What drives Extant's Youth Theatre programme?

My main interest in our Youth Theatre work is in identifying talent and encouraging new blood into the dramatic arts. I want young people with sight problems not only to be able to enjoy drama and acting on stage, but to actually aspire to working in this industry and not just in any token fashion. Visually impaired actors are often quite under-used physically. There is perhaps a reluctance to let blind or partially sighted actors move and have a strong physical presence on stage. I'm very interested in this connection or disparity between physical theatre and disability. With visually impaired actors the voice is traditionally an area of focus; I'm keen to explore how important the body is, alongside the voice, and to draw on both aspects with the young people we work with.

So how do your workshops explore this “physicality”?

Well, before we begin thinking about a specific performance we'll do lots of warm up exercises and games moving the body and developing spatial awareness – we might play ball games for example using an imaginary ball. We'll perhaps spend an hour doing games like this before then moving on to discuss what we all think drama is. Together we'll explore some of the essential elements of what constitutes drama and the fact that you need certain elements like “situation”, “character”, and “conflict”. And then we'll set up exercises around these.

So with “character” we'll get the young people to walk around the room in neutral, that is, just in their natural walk. We'll then get them to imagine there is a piece of string coming out of their foreheads and that it is being pulled forward. We'll ask them to consider what would happen to their body and then move around the room with the forehead leading the walk. We'll think about how this makes us feel and what kind of character might walk like this. We'll then go back to neutral again and attach imaginary string to the knees and set off again. So we learn that character is rooted in the body and that by changing posture we can become different characters.

We might explore “conflict” in a very energised way in groups. One group on one side of the room will clap a rhythm and another group opposite will clap a different rhythm and then the groups will slowly move towards each other. This immediately puts into their minds this idea of being in opposition and creates a sense of drama.

Our approach is, as you can tell, quite different perhaps from what young people may be doing in drama lessons at school which can be very text focused, reading through play scripts or re-enacting specific scenes. Of course it depends on how long our drama sessions last and over how many weeks, but our aim is to get young people thinking more deeply about drama itself. From this point on we then spend time coming up with our own improvisations, and experimenting together. Later we begin collaboratively pinning down ideas for a show, which we'll perform.

And is this approach effective in inspiring young people to work in the industry?

Well, we have certainly found that many youngsters really enjoy the sessions, which is a good start. They tell us they feel quite liberated by the freedom to move away from a text and come up with their own ideas. Some do certainly seem to come out of their shells and everyone seems to enjoy the sense of “owning” the performance. Importantly, our recent Youth Theatre workshops have also been led by visually impaired professional actors so that our young participants have great role models to work with and can be inspired by jobbing actors firsthand. Those who are at first a little dubious about the approach can surprise themselves by really getting into it in the end. And we've even had one young man from our Sutton workshops who has ended up going to Sicily to shoot a short film.

Who attends the Youth Theatre sessions?

In the past we've run workshops for youngsters aged 11-16 in the South East (although we are very happy to move further afield). It's not always been easy to locate young people to take part as they are often spread out in mainstream settings, so we've worked closely with SENCOs and with schools that have visual impairment units. We've also encountered difficulties with transport issues in that many young people have struggled to get to sessions. Surprisingly this was also a problem when we tried a session with an older age group of 16-25 year olds. These are the main reasons why we've decided to try a different approach to our workshops from now on.

Summer School

This year we are going to focus on a Summer School project taking place in August in London over 2 or 3 weeks. We are planning to fundraise to help with the transport problem and we think we'll focus more on young people in the 16+ age range who often seem to drop off the radar after school. Hopefully we'll be able to team up in some way with a London based drama school and offer not just stagecraft and drama techniques, as in our regular workshops, but also tackle issues such as better audition techniques which will help those who wish to pursue acting or theatre training. And while we've learnt that our jobbing actor role-models are a vital component of our approach, we also plan to bring in additional youth theatre experts to help run our sessions – professionals who are more used to working with young people in a directorial sense and getting out of them an energised and physical performance.

I think Extant's youth projects work on many levels. Fundamentally our sessions are fun and build confidence. But they also enable young people to begin to understand that making theatre is not just about getting up and mimicking Eastenders, but is about creating interesting theatrical devices through the body and the voice. And at the top level our aim is to ignite an interest in theatre and inspire young people to pursue acting or theatre training.

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