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Interview with theatre director Maria Oshodi

16 April 2014 Charlie Kenber

We caught up with theatre director Maria Oshodi ahead of visually impaired performing arts company Extant’s new production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs…

London Calling: What made you want to revive the play?

Maria Oshodi: It was time for Extant to take on a classic text, having previously devised and written our own productions. The Chairs is a play that has fascinated me since I first read it while studying for my degree, imagining from the start how casting blind performers might refresh an interpretation of the piece.

LC: The play was written in 1952 – have you gone about updating the text or do you think it remains relevant today?

MO: We are using the 1997 Martin Crimp translation and contractually cannot alter a word. However this has not been problematic as the dialogue remains pithy and contemporary as well as hilariously absurd. There is something about the   extremely elderly characters that brings a quaint quality to flavour all of this, juxtaposing with certain factors evident in the text and which we have chosen to emphasize in our production: of apocalyptic environmental, social and physical    decay.

LC: It’s also a very stylised piece of theatre. Have you embraced this style or adapted the writing?

MO: I feel absurdism is one of the natural theatrical ‘ports of call’ for visually impaired performers. Our casting of blind actors lends itself to the absurdist’s belief that theatre is an intersection between reality and an artificial representation.  So we have embraced a true exploration of what is visible and what is not in this piece which demands the upmost physical engagement from our blind actors. This has led us to an honest forum where we can apply Extant’s years of research with visually impaired actors into more authentic performance practices on stage.

An additional idea I brought was to integrate access for visually impaired audiences as the shared aesthetic audio interior space of the two main characters, so this not only acts as an extension of the visual geography created on stage, but also supports Ionesco’s desire to make the non visible appear through language. In the same way that features of invisible characters are brought to life for everyone through Ionesco’s dialogue, so does the integrated description bring the physical performance to life for our audience who might not be able to see these aspects.

LC: Who do you think the show will appeal to?

MO: The target audience are smart, curious and imaginative people who are prepared to be provoked. They might be sighted or visually impaired, or have another experience of disability. They might be university students, college students, postgraduates or researchers who study in the area of theatre, arts, or disability; whose course covers post-war theatre or this particular text; they might be artists or designers themselves, inspired by experimental work on the margins. They might be interested in the conversations around what disability and ability mean, or in exploring innovative approaches to inclusivity.

The target audience for The Chairs are interested in new interpretations of classic revivals and challenging, disability theatre. The audience is socially aware, has a good sense of humour and is ready to throw itself into new styles of theatre informed by experimental approaches to access; the type of people who seek out the most innovative, creative performance experience in the UK.

LC: How does your process differ from a fully sighted director?

MO: For the first time I am currently working with a fantastic assistant director Julie Osman, who is feeding back to me on visual detail. I can hand-write my own notes during runs of the performance but they need to be read back to the actors by our access worker or Julie afterwards to remind me what I’ve written. Sometimes I need to get up on stage with actors to get a sense of position or gesture in order to find out exactly what they are doing and think through the process properly. I need a totally trustworthy team with clear and honest communication to feedback on set, lighting, costume etc. The team that works best with Extant and I needs to understand and embrace the need for the delineated roles within theatre to be flexible to accommodate access needs of director and cast. So for instance stage managers might need to become quite vocal in the space where they have been used to being low key in other companies.  This can make for a more committed, ensemble, collaborative process which benefits all.

LC: Can you tell us a little bit about the Touch Tours that you run?

MO: Mainstream arts still focus on a ‘bolt-on’ audio description model in order to provide a way for visually impaired people to join their audiences. Extant’s productions are initially informed by a visually impaired perspective, offering a uniquely unified audience experience as previously described with our approach to integrating it into the sound design of this production. However to support this, we will be offering a touch tour before each performance to our visually impaired audience to they can be given a description of the set, characters appearance and costume by a member of the company. This will also include an opportunity to feel aspects of the set and props in order to bring the descriptions further alive.

LC: You’ve done plenty of writing as well as directing – do you enjoy the mixture, or do you prefer one over the other?

MO: I don’t prefer one over the other, but what I do prefer is not to have to write and direct on the same project. Sometimes I have found myself in this dual role due to the experimental approach of what I want to achieve. Sometimes it has seemed easier to write it myself than search for a writer who has the empathy and experience to engage with the full concepts. The result can sometimes lead to a false economy on time and quality.

The Chairs is on at The Albany in Deptford from 29th April – 2nd May. Tickets from £5, available here.

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