Background

Extant explores creative processes and theatrical experiences from a non-sighted starting point, and integrates access into the creative direction of our work.

In 2007, Extant carried out six days of Arts Council funded research and development with four visually impaired female performers, exploring Burlesque movement, comedy styles and visual impairment. The investigation considered themes of sexuality, the body and visual exposure from a female perspective. We also included experimental forms of access for a blind and partially sighted audience, delivered by the female performers, avoiding the use of traditional technical audio description which is usually facilitated from an external source and away from the performance.

One member of the invited audience to the presentation of this research said:

“What struck me very much was that your piece was very collective, it was very much about the experience of blind women and their take on sex and sexuality and actually to that end it felt very much like a strong piece of disability arts.  It was totally unapologetic and in fact wantonly embraced ‘the blind experience’ and I loved it for that. We really need to have work like this on more main theatre stages!”


Our aim was to realize what we learnt about integrating live access with this performance style and theme and build it into a full production.

Simultaneously in 2007, Extant began to develop a cabaret in the dark which we originated at the famous Dans Le Noir restaurant in Farringdon, London.

The restaurant, where diners eat in total darkness and are served by blind waiters, is part of an international network of highly successful similar establishments in Paris, Köln, Berlin, Switzerland, and Moscow and soon to be opened in New York. Extant presented four shows in the dark called The Effing and Blinding Cabaret at Dans Le Noir London, and over the next two years further adapted these comedy and song reviews in the dark, touring them throughout the UK and internationally to Zagreb, Berlin and Helsinki.

“It is exciting to experience work made and managed by visually impaired professionals”

Total theatre

Our research into burlesque and experience of scratch performances of cabaret in the dark led us to think of the possibility of these two styles combining to create an exciting, potent and challenging form for a new production, that would explore the darker and lighter sides of visual impairment and sexuality.

The Making of Sheer…
 

When embarking on creating this show we knew we wanted to combine the elements of:

  • Burlesque and the grotesque
  • Comedy and cabaret
  • Magic and Horror
  • The Dark to evoke fear, suspense and tension
  • And the light to evoke  exposure and trickery

Our basic idea was to set up an immersive environment in the dark, into which we would then guide and seat the audience before the show started. Our four blind performers would move in, around and above the audience, creating scenes that would oscillate between a cabaret, fantasy and naturalistic settings.

Infra-red image of audience members being led to seating in the dark

Atmosphere would be evoked by using live sound effects, and by using a rich pre-recorded spatialised sound design that would surround the audience. Also tactile special effects would be used in the dark to stimulate a palpable sense of place and narrative, designed to be experienced by the audience as a type of intermittent collectively ‘felt’ set.  When the show moved into the light at strategic moments, the set would take on a more traditional visual representation.

Finally we wanted to incorporate a relationship between the audience and actors through improvised call and response moments. It was the intention to harness this relationship and involve the sighted audience in description of the visual elements when they occurred in the show for the blind and partially sighted audience.

Developing a show like this couldn’t rely entirely on just scripting but needed performance exploration. We used an opportunity to present a showcase at BIT (Blind in Theatre) Festival which was held in Zagreb, Croatia, in October 2011. This gave us the time to work with the cast of four visually impaired actors who we had selected for Sheer: Sarah Caltieri, Amelia Cavallo, Tim Gebbles and Heather Gilmore.  For the festival we worked on devising a 30 minute piece based on fairy tales with a dark twist around disability and sexuality, and though this idea was abandoned on our return, it gave the company an opportunity to bond, explore the themes and styles together, and play with the form of dark and light and audience description of visual material at the festival.

Amelia talking about the Festival performance together with Tim and Maria

View a video of Amelia discussing the Festival piece (external link).

 

However, the main thing that was missing from the mix was the reason why a show would go from dark to light.  Maria, who was by now  engaged as writer as well as director, went away to think up a completely new scenario  which would  crack this, as well as incorporating all the above themes and styles, together with considering the balance of the cast and their individual qualities.

The idea of the light beam invention that illuminates people’s sexual  fantasies, came from a chance demonstration that Maria came across at the time, of  infra-red material  which, though could not be seen by the human eye, could be viewed through the camera of a mobile phone. This triggered the idea of the Sheer ray and a corrupt scientist figure that lures blind victims in front of an audience of disguised fellow scientist colleagues, to witness the workings of his new invention.

An outline of this spoof, horror, burlesque story was presented to the cast, designers, crew and consultants in early December 2011, which was about the same time we found out we had the green light on our funding application for the project. However, due to funding criteria, we had to complete the tour of the show by the beginning of April 2012, so this only gave us an extremely short period of time to write the script, design the show, rehearse, market and tour it. To produce a highly experimental new piece of theatre in this time meant the pressure rocketed up for everyone involved.

The production’s designers for sound, costume and set had to begin their work at this point, before a first draft had been written. It was necessary for the design team to have specifics, but this was difficult when ideas were still being developed in the writing. However, detailed discussions, for instance, with the costume designer at this point, helped to nail down the different dimensions of the characters  for the writing process as well as contribute to the  flavour of each burlesque routine. Nevertheless, a strong idea of the structure for the set, the form of the  tactile affects, concept for lighting, style of music, sound effects and way the sound was to spatially work in the  production, were generally driven by the writer in this early point in the process, and the designers worked on how to best realise these ideas in the very short lead up to rehearsals, and even throughout the rehearsal period itself.

Going into rehearsals then, with such an experimental piece, based on a new script, that was attempting to combine dialogue scenes, cabaret, burlesque routines, aerial work and also integrate surround sound and special lighting and tactile effects, meant that we had to prepare the cast for the nature of what we were doing, and that it would warrant flexibility and the need for ongoing changes to be made to the script during rehearsals. Alex, the dramaturge, was in regular attendance at least once or twice a week and offered numerous helpful suggestions for edits to the script while the actors were being directed by Maria. Though we celebrated the unique nature of this situation, it being the first time a blind writer/director, dramaturge and cast had professionally worked together in such a way, we also acknowledged the stress involved with scripts not being practically accessible between us for pondering over or making immediate script changes.

Cast rehearsing arial work

By the end of the second week of rehearsals, Maria had blocked the whole play with the actors, and had them using both the stage and auditorium space as their performance area, knowing that working in the dark favoured this type of format.

Week three was then devoted to the creation and writing of the monologues for the burlesque fantasy routines. These particular pieces of dialogue were to be designed as access for visually impaired audiences, and include description of action and appearance of character. Jo King, our burlesque consultant, joined us for three days during this rehearsal week and polished the ideas for the four routines outlined in the script, and then we collectively worked on constructing the descriptive dialogue which would be delivered by each actor on their own actions and how they looked while performing their routines. Invariably these descriptions continued to be honed well after week three of rehearsals, but it was during this period that we combined aerial work on a silk and live description delivered by the performer. Maria drew on Amelia Cavallo’s existing circus skills and asked her to incorporate these with aspects of a routine that we had developed in Extant’s burlesque R&D phase. Then while Amelia performed  her aerial work,  Maria asked her to also deliver  the poetic  descriptive monologue  which included her actions etc, so  the voice could be located  exactly where the performer’s body was, rather than having a remote source delivering the description away from the action. This was the first time anything like this had been done with aerial work.

A woman is suspended off the ground on a silk rope. She is almost ‘sitting’ in mid-air with her leg wrapped around the rope. She wears a nude bodysuit and a white pointed bra. She is also wearing an embellished necklace and a half-face mask. She is holding a cane in her hands and moves it back and forth so it blurs.   Beneath her appears a glittering object.

Our three consultants on the development of Sheer were Paul Leacy for magic, Jo King for burlesque and Petra Massy for comedy.  We felt we needed support and advice in these three areas to enhance the quality of these elements, the ideas of which were present from the early stages of development. Paul, who ran a magic workshop for Extant in the summer of 2011, came back for half a day to discuss converting tricks to use in the dark which proved useful in our development of this aspect of the show.

Jo King of the London Burlesque Academy flew over from Spain to spend three days in rehearsals, working intensively with the four actors to develop short routines based on the script. These in different ways depicted visual impairment and sexuality which either had a comedic or dance style. Petra from Spymonkey worked with us for a day during our November development week, running physical exercises and creating comedic storytelling and sound scapes with the cast.   This technique was referred to later in the writing of a   particularly complex scene in the script combining all the characters potted histories. This, plus Maria’s direction of constantly moving the actors around in the dark, made it a particularly memorable scene.

Petra also returned for a day during rehearsals to help with the actor’s   delivery of their cabaret scenes which was a great energiser in the process.  She also contributed to the burlesque comedy routines developed by Jo.

In the time we had, Extant achieved the best artistic execution that we could of a new innovative production that aimed to solder so many performance styles embedded in a new form. We had such limited time for script development and had to commit to the best draft that we could create by the start of rehearsals, where we then had to test form against the writing.   Having a compromised rehearsal space due to not being able to rehearse in the dark, or have the set available, or most of the props  or costumes (as they were still being made) or the lighting or the surround sound effect system, all   meant that the intended show remained an imagined approximation in our minds, and stayed this way until the tech days just before we opened.  It was only when all the pieces of this large jigsaw were put together at the first venue, did we all start to get a real feel for what the show was. Then when the audience were added to the mix, who played a character in themselves, the testing of what and what didn’t work in the production could really be known. 

Head and shoulders of a woman in a burlesque costume – including a mask and latex medical gloves. She is wearing bandages and red lipstick and holding her arms out, fingers splayed.

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Generally the immersive form excited our audiences, with the interface between narrative and the tactile being a successful development. The sound design was excellent and visuals were rich and unexpected. The physicality of the show both in the dark and light with the aerial work were dynamic.   However the piece overall did not completely knit together due to an over stretching of the plot to fit all the devices and styles in. The length and exposition within the script and the ratio of written to improvised elements also felt imbalanced, with the end needing a more climatic tactile finale.

An external evaluation carried out on the production showed:
The emotions and reactions created were varied, and discussed as a positive or enhancing part of the experience.  Common words used by the audience to describe their experiences were: Excited, disoriented, confused, scared, claustrophobic

Phenomenons experienced were:

  • the need to trust unknown factors
  • losing normal inhibitions
  • having a collective audience experience (being aware of emotions and reaction around them)

Audience comments included:

“Brilliant production which appealed to all my senses. I also felt I learnt something about being visually impaired.”

“Never felt anything like it before! Would definitely see/experience another show.”

“Excellent tactile effects. Good combination of comedy/burlesque, but [not] that much horror.”

Other logistical issues were that touring such a show as Sheer calls for a much longer get-in time than we had, and that is usually given to more traditional shows. To achieve total blackout in an ordinary venue in itself is extremely time consuming and to get it right takes levels of fine tuning as more and more light leaks are inevitably discovered. It was an achievement in itself to get venues to agree to allow a total blackout in the first place and this was down to the negotiation skills of our Producer and Production Manager. 

Although our set designer had hoped to up-size the set and capacity for the larger venues that we toured to, in the end we decided to transfer the size that fitted the smallest venue throughout, in order to retain familiarity for the actors and stage managers (who also had to work in the dark). Invariably, there were many differences that each venue posed, affecting crew and cast in different ways, but the experience offered invaluable lessons in how to produce and tour an experimental piece of disability theatre.

The key component to emerge associated with Sheer was trust. Firstly the writer and dramaturge had to trust that they had enough skill to combine the different styles to create something unique and innovative. The venues had to trust Extant as there was no basis of a script to book the show. Extant had to trust that the funding would come through in spite of already starting the show’s development. The cast had to trust that a workable script would be delivered in time. The stage management and crew operating the show had to trust in something other than their eyes in not being able to see the stage.  Finally the venues front of house put their trust in Extant to replace their usual audience management procedures with alternative ones for guiding people into the dark. 

The external evaluation carried out on Sheer shows that the production sold out in London and appealed to a widely diverse audience.

“I found it impressive, moving and disturbing - I am not visually impaired but got a feel of how it must be.”

 

“Left with a jumble of insights/questions.”

 

“Issues of how sighted people approach visually impaired people and vocabulary they use very well and funnily described.”

 

“Great show - could be edited to be 10% shorter. Lovely images. Sometimes music and voice needed better balancing. Great show - do a big tour!!”


We feel that with some essential improvements made both technically and within the content of the piece, and even regarding setting some access in place for deaf audiences, this production should be toured again so it can reach a much wider audience who can experience its sheer novel theatrical value.