A disabled-led theatre company is marking its 25th anniversary by launching a new three-year focus on addressing the lack of visually-impaired leaders in the industry.
Extant will also be working with Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) to research and evaluate the company’s contribution to breaking down barriers, and how its new focus can be applied to the rest of the performing arts world.
The work will be part of QMUL’s Performing Leadership Differently research project, which has so far focused on race and class inequality in arts leadership, and now wants to explore disability inequality.
Maria Oshodi (pictured), Extant’s founder and chief executive, has announced that she will be leaving her post in three years’ time, but before she leaves will be embarking on a PhD that will examine Extant’s back catalogue of work and its innovative and pioneering approach over the last 25 years.
She hopes her PhD will support her own development as she “transitions” out of the company, but will also leave a lasting legacy for the next generation of artistic directors in the company.
As well as a series of “boundary-pushing” national and international theatre tours, with productions such as Resistance, Flatland and The Chairs – all led by visually-impaired artists – Extant has pioneered the use of integrated creative audio description (AD) in its theatre productions.
When Oshodi launched the company in 1997, theatre audiences usually had to rely on volunteers and charity if they needed AD, but Extant led the way in incorporating live AD – delivered by the visually-impaired actors on stage – into its performances.
She told Disability News Service: “The reason I created Extant was that I felt there was very little space for visually-impaired performers and theatre-makers at the time to authentically engage with what it meant for us to work in theatre creatively, and to receive theatre as visually-impaired audiences.
“How we could make theatre that was more than us just standing around like inert bodies on stage, and only our voices being used, which is all that companies would want to attempt with visually-impaired people because they were too scared that we might fall off the stage if we moved this way or that way.”
Oshodi and Extant began to examine how to bring physical theatre to productions involving performers with visual impairment, and how they could “move in interesting ways, and ways that were authentic to us”.
She said Extant has now reached a stage where, after years of growth, it has succeeded in one of her original aims, to “create a community of creatives”, who were recognised and paid as professionals, and had their access needs recognised.
It is much more common now, she said, that disabled-led companies like Extant deliver their production’s access arrangements themselves, rather than relying on outside charities.
Now Extant is planning to address the “huge deficit of leadership in terms of visual impairment” over the next three years by training new visually-impaired artistic directors in how to manage a company, create artistic programmes, and work with a board of trustees.
It plans, says Oshodi, to “debate and interrogate appropriate models of leadership for disabled people in the sector”.
Extant Evolve will build on the success of Extant’s existing training and development programme, Pathways, which supports visually-impaired practitioners in acting, directing, writing and working backstage.
As part of Extant’s new leadership focus, it will recruit and train two “next generation” visually-impaired artistic directors, to examine leadership from a marginalised perspective, and apply those insights to shaping Extant itself.
Through the programme, the new recruits will be part of shaping Extant’s future leadership structure.
By the end of the three years, Oshodi hopes Extant will have a new model for how the company should be led and structured for the next 25 years.
She said: “It’s an opportunity to see how the industry is not working for disabled people and how it could be working better.”
She said their research had already shown there was anecdotal evidence of the barriers facing disabled leaders within the performing arts.
Another higher education partner of Extant, Middlesex University, where Oshodi will be doing her PhD, will be creating a new MA in innovation in organisational development, and tracking Extant Evolve closely as part of this new course.
Although Oshodi will be “taking a step back” over the next three years to concentrate on her PhD, she will remain as chief executive until 2025, when she plans to step down and develop her freelance career as a writer and working on other theatre projects.
On Friday, Extant celebrated its anniversary by showcasing five-minute pieces by 16 Pathways writers – each directed by a visually-impaired director.
This was followed by a party for the writers and 50-strong support team of directors and actors, who were joined by more supporters of Extant at Brixton House Theatre, next door to the company’s new headquarters in the newly-refurbished Carlton Mansions building.
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