Trainee Artistic Director R&D Project on Toxic Masculinity

Ben Wilson, a white man, with short blonde hair and a beard. He wears a floral shirt and is talking mid-sentence.

Ben Wilson, Unseen Live Event, February 2024, Photo Credit: Jamie Dennis, Primo Digital Video Productions.

During my time as Trainee Artistic Director (TAD) at Extant there has always been a pot of money for me to develop an artistic project of my own. This was one of the most attractive elements of the original job advertisement when I applied, so I’ve been bursting at the seams to get started on this. Since day one, I’ve been considering multiple options and exploring what this project could be and how best to spend the money. 

Towards the end of 2023 I settled on developing a new version of the play Identical Twins by Caryl Churchill. It’s a two hander that was originally written as a radio play in 1968 and was performed – on stage – at the Royal Court about 20 years ago. It is a play about two awful and toxic men behaving in awful and toxic ways.  

However, I think it’s interesting and important as their behaviour and vile views on the world are both very 1960s and somehow very now. As twins their constant comparisons to each other and their inability to escape the shadow of the other feels very social media, very Instagram. But also, their fragile male egos informing every decision they make feels very Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson. So, it will be interesting to explore what a version of this play looks like in 2024. 

And putting it in the hands of blind actors is particularly interesting. One of the groups of people they say disgusting and offensive things about are blind people and I think this would create a clear distinction that the production is not on the side of these two characters but examining and representing their very real behaviour. One of the reasons I was drawn to it is both, regular collaborator and friend of Extant, Sam Brewer and I have talked for a while about finding a vehicle to play a pair of blind brothers. So, when I found Identical Twins, it felt perfect, a chance for two blind actors to really show off their skills in two juicy roles. As it was originally written as a radio play, it essentially has integrated audio description in it already. It also has huge potential for doing interesting things with sound design and creating a fascinating sonic world. I’ve had loads of thoughts on this and cannot wait to find the right sound designer to collaborate with and explore what is possible. 

For those that were paying attention, you’ll have noted that I mentioned that I will be an actor during this process. This is not necessarily usual for an Artistic Director. I’ve debated for a while whether to explore this project as an actor or should I have explored a different idea with me as a director. Despite thoroughly enjoying my work as a director (and never wanting to give up that part of my work), I see myself artistically as an actor first and foremost and it has often frustrated me that artistic leadership positions tend to be modelled towards directors rather than actors or writers or producers, designers and so on. With this project, I really want to explore how it works to be an Artistic Director, lead artist and actor collaborating with a director. Is that possible? I don’t know.  

There are examples out there in the industry of actor Artistic Directors / actor Managers of theatres. Would this model work for a company the size of Extant? The answer might be no, but I want to give it a try. 

One potential problem with me being an Artistic Director creating an opportunity for me as an actor is that there may be criticism that I’m taking an opportunity away from another VI actor who I should be creating opportunities for, and I think this is a legitimate criticism. But I am trying to counter this by ensuring there are amazing opportunities on this project for other visually impaired people in other roles in the cast, creative team and beyond. When creating a project for Extant the priority must be creating as many exciting opportunities as possible for VI artists to show off their skills.  

We will be doing a thorough R&D process and sharing of Identical Twins later in the summer with our friends at the NT Studio and another regional theatre partner and I could not be more buzzing with excitement.  

I think this play is a wild one and when I first read it, I was horrified and wanted to throw it out the window, but also couldn’t stop reading it. What a great place to be starting a creative process from. 

Ben Wilson, Trainee Artistic Director, June 2024 

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