One of the things I’ve been able to demonstrate in this blog is that having a visual impairment doesn’t prevent me from having a good time and being successful in life. It took me a while to learn and appreciate that when I was a shy youngster, but over time I learned that I can have hobbies and skills just like anyone else, and make the most of them. In fact my talents have directly led to an exciting new opportunity very recently, which I’ll get to in another post soon.
Consequently, it’s proven to be fun and rewarding to ignore convention and challenge misconceptions, by doing things that are different or unexpected. In all our minds it’s easy to assume that certain things can only occur at certain times, or in certain places, or be done by certain people, when they can actually happen anytime or anywhere, and anyone is capable of doing it.
So with that in mind – why not go to a pantomime in the spring? Why should we wait until the festive season to lose ourselves in the joy that such a production brings? Especially when there’s an exciting, interactive, inclusive new show that’s touring the UK in March, teaching children to embrace their own super powers!
Extant are the UK’s leading theatre company of visually impaired performers, and I’ve enjoyed attending a few of their events in the past, including a drama workshop in 2017, Flight Paths in 2019, and States of Mind in 2021. And last year they celebrated their 25th anniversary.
And now, for their latest production, they’ve teamed up with the wonderfully named all-year-round panto company Simply Smiley Productions, for their inspiring Super Power Panto!
The interactive and inclusive 50-minute show features characters who burst forth from a giant tactile comic book set, and take the audience on an adventure to find their superpowers. For me that description evokes memories of a children’s TV show I enjoyed called ZZZap!, which was also designed to be inclusive, and I used to read comics like The Beano and The Dandy too. So I know that this approach is going to be a lot of fun and will work really well.
The show is being performed in Wolverhampton, Hereford, Manchester, Newcastle, London & Brighton during March, with a touch tour one hour before each performance. And I’ve been very generously offered a ticket to the London show in Brixton, so thank you to Extant for that!
Maria Oshodi Interview
I was also given the valuable opportunity to pose some questions to Extant founder and Artistic Director Maria Oshodi, so I could ask her about the show and the wider topics of diversity and inclusivity.
Maria and the team have been incredibly busy preparing for the production, so I greatly appreciate the time she’s put aside to reply with such detailed and thoughtful answers. Thank you Maria!
So I hope you enjoy reading her responses, and I also hope that you’ll be able to attend and enjoy the show. Performances are already starting to sell out, so I would get your tickets quickly!
What can people expect from the production?
“Well, they can expect a fun-filled one hour of amazing storytelling, singing, dancing, very funny jokes and lots of audience interaction – all the typical type of pantomime tropes that you would expect at Christmas, but all happening in the Spring! Hooray! We have some really interesting ideas around disability – and superpowers – and what that really means; and, we have an amazing story to allow all these things to unfold.
This is all set against a brilliant, giant pop-up comic book, where the pages turn and a new location is set. Tactile parts of the set pop out and are all available to be felt in a ‘touch tour’ that will happen before the show.
We’ve also got, as part of the cast, visually impaired and sighted members who are experienced professionals, incredibly talented and larger than life characters. We will all be coming to a town near you very soon!”
How and why did you get involved with the show?
“I run Extant, and I’ve been running it for 25 years as the artistic director. Extant was in a building for a number of years at the Oval – part of the Ovalhouse Theatre. Shannon McNab, who runs Simply Smiley Productions, was in the adjoining office. She was sort of residing at the back of the office amongst lots and lots of very strange costumes, masks and props. You’d hear this little voice from the back of the office going ‘hi!’ as we walked past the door – buried in this Aladdin’s cave of all these amazing things. I said ‘What do you do?’, and she said ‘I run a children’s pantomime theatre company’. I thought, wow, this is incredible. She said, ‘What do you do?’, and I said ‘I run a blind theatre company!’.
She suggested that we should get together, and so we did about six years ago. We ran a workshop with some of their actors and ours, and found some really interesting ways of integrating audio-description into the live performance. We thought it was so good that we wanted to create a real show that we could tour – and that’s what we are doing now!”
How long have you been working in the arts? What other types of shows have you worked on?
“I’ve been working in the arts for donkey’s years, ever since the mid-80s. I’ve been running Extant for 25 years and we’ve worked on all sorts of shows, from outdoor performance at the Greenwich Observatory to double-decker buses and churches (where we’ve run large-scale art tech installations). We’ve also put on classic plays, like The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco.
We have run lots of training for visually impaired people who want to develop in the performing arts. We run a programme called ‘Pathways’ that teaches roughly 15-16 visually impaired people each year the craft of acting, directing, writing and even recently backstage roles like set design, lighting, sound and producing.”
What is your disability and how does it affect your ability to do your job? How have things been made accessible for you?
“Well, I’m blind. So, I need a lot of feedback being blind in a rehearsal room. It’s very interesting for those people who are working with me who are not visually impaired, and how they feedback information.
And also, how some of the things we were trying to put in the play (as inclusive as possible) for somebody who might be like me in the audience with very low-vision – I’m sort of the lowest common denominator so if I’m not getting what’s going on then I’m assuming nobody will (well, not nobody but it’s not going to work for everyone). We’re constantly stopping and going back and finding out ways that we can make things more accessible and clearer on stage, which are often things that people don’t think about for audiences like me, or they think maybe the audio description will deal with that.
We have access workers who work with us in the room, for me and for the two visually impaired actors in the room as well. I’m constantly saying, ‘stop right there, what’s happening, what’s going on, how do we make that clear’.
Things have been made accessible because I shout about things that aren’t working for me, and also we do employ access workers to work with us whose role it is to describe, guide and be there just as general support (in the rehearsal room and also on tour).”
What is the key message you hope that people will take away from the show?
“That blind performers can work in an inclusive way and be on par, totally, with their sighted peers. And that doesn’t mean ignoring or burying the fact that they are visually impaired, but working with that in a context that is trying to deliver a really positive message about disability.
The play itself has elements of bullying, so we are trying to show how everybody has their insecurities, but for disabled people… it’s easy to pick on disabled people and if you actually allow yourself to be who you really are, you will attain the real super power inside you, which is basically to have the confidence to be who you really are and do what you really want to do.
So I hope that message is clear and comes across, and that young people take that away as a life lesson.”
Disability & Diversity
Why is it so important for young audiences to see diversity and disability in the arts?
“We live in a world with disabled people from all walks of life, and people from all kinds of backgrounds do all kinds of things and that needs to be reflected on our stages. That’s what we’ve got in this show.”
How well do you think disability and diversity are currently represented in the arts?
“I think it’s getting better – it’s become a bit more ‘on-trend’. I mean, everyone says there is a still a long way to go. I think you get a lot of experimentation going on at a more under-resourced level in the arts, but I think when you come to the big institutions they’re less likely to take risks. They just see it all as risk, risk, risk; and they are very risk averse.
Companies like us, we can afford to do it and we do it, and other companies do as well. But these bigger institutions, they’re still like dinosaurs – I’m not quite sure what they’re waiting for really. They’ll make an attempt here or there, maybe have a very bespoke project or talk about other kinds of inclusion. But when it comes to disability, they are a bit behind the curve, so they need to wake up and sometimes that is more of a stick approach than carrot.
I’m just hoping that, really, what we do might inspire people to take a bit more risk, show it can be done and that there is something to be gained from being diverse, experimental, and taking chance.”
How can the industry encourage greater inclusion and representation of disabled people and diverse communities?
“It needs to come from some of the main funders. They are starting to bring into their conditions for funding some really meaningful parameters around the creative case and including people from all over the place.
I think we need more people from different backgrounds at the top in those decision-making roles. It’s not just about these gatekeepers sort of paying favours to us, ‘we’ll let you in now but when we’ve done that we’ll move on’.”
As a disabled person, what impact has being involved in the arts had on you?
“It’s allowed me to express my creativity and also to make comment on society – be political, but in an artistic way and non-confrontational way (different from direct campaigning). By just putting bodies on that stage that are different, and also changing the form of what you’re working with, that really has an impact.
We’ve done a lot actually in that regard, over the 25 years, to make people think. That’s been quite good for me, personally – it’s given me confidence. It’s been really great to be able to achieve ideas, which otherwise might have been latent and not really manifest.”
“What advice would you give to disabled and diverse people who want a career in the arts?“
“I’d say just do something, at whatever level, wherever you are. Practice doing that everyday: whatever that happens to be.
If you have the energy to network as much as possible, approach organisations like Extant. There are others if you are not visually impaired who might be representative of other impairment groups. They are often a really good way to start to get nurtured and be mentored – and that’s really important.
You can do a lot online now as well. That’s all opened up and become more possible for people.”
What would you say is your real life ‘super power’?
“My real-life super power is my imagination.”
What magical super power would you like to have?
“I’d like to have the super power of existing in someone’s body. What would you call that, embodied transportation? I’d like to be able to feel what it is like to be in somebody else’s body, and still know what it was like to be in mine and know the difference. You can never be in somebody else’s shoes, so I’d like to experience that.”
How can young people discover and embrace their own real life ‘super power’? What advice would you give them?
“I think pursuing what’s in their heart – that’s the only way that you find out what your superpower is. Discovering what it is that’s in your heart and pursing that.”
Many thanks again to Maria Oshodi for giving such enjoyable and insightful answers to those questions, I hope you all found them as interesting as I did. And credit also to Inko Ai Takita for the images used in this post.
So if you enjoyed reading that, do buy your tickets for the Super Power Panto as soon as you can, as it looks like it will be a great deal of fun. And good luck to everyone at Extant and Super Smiley Productions for the tour!
One thought on “AD | Extant – Super Power Panto Interview”