Unseen: co-creation and the devolution of creative power to a community of VI artists

A group of eight people of varying ethnicities and genders are rehearsing and smiling together. They are dressed colourfully and casually in a brightly lit white and green room.

Unseen Rehearsals at Theatre Deli, November 2024

In November 2022, Maria Oshodi and I found ourselves representing Extant at a glitzy soiree at the House of Lords, hosted by the Vision Foundation in honour of the release of the Unseen Report. We were moved to hear the eloquent testimony of visually impaired survivors of domestic abuse, and when the Vision Foundation announced a new fund aimed at raising awareness around the impact of domestic abuse on the visually impaired (VI) community, we immediately felt that this would be an important project for us to pursue, continuing the company’s track record of dramatizing fact-based reports.

We weighed up how best to proceed with the project, considering options such as a writer-led approach or playback theatre, before settling on a co-created devising process. ‘Co-creation’ is one of those impressive-sounding buzzwords that’s thrown around a lot in the arts, but not always understood. A report by Heart of Glass and Battersea Arts Centre in 2021 identifies common elements or characteristics that may be found in the process of co-creation: collaboration, a shift of agency and power, equality between ‘artists’ and ‘participants’, and focus on social change. The report stresses the need for transparency, respect, trust, care, and sufficient resources, including time, in order to produce truly co-created work rather than something that is purely tokenistic. We felt this kind of process would provide the best platform for a wide range of VI creatives and survivors to feed into and shape the work, so that it would be community-led, represent a broad range of stories, and create an intersectional portrait of how domestic violence affects VI people.

We partnered with SafeLives to provide creative writing workshops to VI survivors, providing a safe, supported environment in which survivors could learn tools for therapeutic writing. The VI workshop facilitator was then part of the creative team and shared anonymised themes from survivors to feed into the devising process, enriching the final work. One participant shared their experience of the workshops with us: “It was a beautiful space where we were able to learn from each other and realise the strength we already have within us, from which we can share to benefit others.”

Throughout the project we balanced between facilitating the inclusion of multiple voices and skillsets, with the need to drive forward towards a high-quality completed artistic work within a restricted timeframe. Extant’s first Trainee Artistic Director (TAD), Ben Wilson, took the reins as Creative Lead to help guide the process, and was conscientious in making sure all voices were listened to and heard, while being empowered to make decisions when needed. The team he led included 21 blind & VI team members across the devising team, workshop facilitators, script editing, sound design, research, voice actors and Assistant Producer, supported by 6 sighted team members: myself as Creative Producer, a sound technician and 4 access workers. One team member noted the rarity and positive experience of working in a majority-VI team: ‘One of the highlights was working with a group of blind and partially sighted writers as this is not an experience I’ve had before.’ It was truly a community-driven process.

Unseen premiered online in March 2024 and at a live event at Camden People’s Theatre, and is a gripping 45-minute audio drama that examines the subtle and insidious effect of domestic abuse on the blind and visually impaired community through the stories of two visually impaired protagonists. Both stories are fictional, but heavily informed by testimony from VI survivors. The response from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive, with one listener calling it, probably one of the most important and relevant pieces Extant has created, a real insight into a world hidden from most.’ In the wake of the live event, several VI survivors came forward with testimony about their own experience, often demonstrating the intersectionality of abuse across disability, race and gender.

Looking to the future, we will tour the Unseen live event in October 2024, featuring extracts of the audio drama, live scene readings from the cast, and a Q&A with an expert panel made up of the Unseen creative team, domestic abuse charities and other VI support services. The drama will also be broadcast on Bloomsbury Radio in October. These upcoming events will provide an opportunity to bring the show to new audiences in venues across England, and reach a wider audience, to bring awareness of this important topic to more people.

We are also considering ways to build on the learning from this project to support future work. There is a hope that this project will act as a blueprint for future ensemble-led productions that can devolve even more creative power to our community of VI artists. It was galvanising to facilitate a creative space where VI artists were in the majority and able to shape the process around their creative interests.

Louisa Sanfey, Creative Producer for Unseen and Artist Development Manager, Extant, May 2024

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