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Why are we doing it?


For several years Extant’s research has involved working with visually impaired actors in physical theatre, a form of body based theatrical interpretation usually denied to visually impaired performers.  We have also aimed to make stage areas and visuals on stage for blind audiences more accessible.

This research was consolidated in our first production, called Resistance, which toured extensively nationally and internationally in 2005.  Though many of our aims were met in the producing of Resistance,  such as creating  sound equivalents to the visuals on stage, It gradually became clear that the traditional theatre spaces we were using might not fully serve the purpose of our exploration in this area.  The one thing that all the 25 different theatres that we toured to had in common, from small church halls to large 600 seat proscenium arch spaces, was that   they were all set up in the same physical way, in that the stage was in front of or surrounded by a bank of seats.  This meant that the drama had to be mediated to the audience via a relationship of the spectacle, which is primarily a relationship of the sighted. It was evident that through following this convention we would not fully achieve our search for theatrical styles more appropriate for visually impaired people.  Therefore, in the next stage of our development Extant explored drama through an immersive or surround space, which is more reflective of a visually impaired person’s connection with the world.

Though there have been other theatrical experiences created based on dark environments, sensory spaces and promenade performances, there has not yet been created a non-visual set, for  blind and sighted audiences to explore virtually and actually in the dark, as they journey through a  narrative dealing with themes of the ‘hidden’.  So, The Question focuses on the experience of the audience.  In particular, we want to:

  • Create an immersive theatrical environment
  • Locate dramatic action within the audience’s physical experience
  • Develop novel sensory substitution technology for navigation (the ‘haptic device’)
  • Research the ways that our haptic device can integrate with audio, narrative and tactile art forms.

You can view the team here.

The Haptic Device

Lotus haptic devices in a row

Adam Spiers gives an overview of his haptic navigation research

The sense of touch is often taken for granted and overlooked by technology developers and designers. Touch holds less information than visual stimulus or sound but when used correctly it can create an information channel that is subtle, personal, intuitive and inclusive. This project has provided the scope for the design and implementation of a unique device and environment centred around creating a dramatic experience independent of sight. This concept, in which sighted and visually impaired people have equal navigational ability, is something I have found fascinating during the preparation of this project and has hopefully been achieved with the Haptic Lotus.

Circuit boards

In terms of research value this project tells us not just whether the device is useful for navigation but also how people deal with having their normal senses augmented with something new. This needn’t be a question just for scientists and philosophers as ‘The Question’s’ experience should give audience members plenty of food for later reflection. If knowledge is experience and experience is based on observation then what happens when your observations occur through an unfamiliar or different medium? That is my question.

Read more about Haptic Technology here.

The Haptic Lotus technology was developed by robotic specialists Adam Spiers, Paul O’Dowd and David McGoran.

Research by Extant

Extant has a long history of research into the creative space of visual impairment.  Here is a selection of our cutting edge projects:

Obscurity (June & September 2009)

Extant’s first piece of outdoor performance, commissioned by Greenwich and Docklands International Festival.  Obscurity is an interdisciplinary, interactive performance in which musicians, artists, actors and audience move together through a dramatic soundscape.  Obscurity re-tells the traditional story of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’, in a modern context.

Burlesque (2007 – ongoing)

In 2007 Extant carried out a piece of research and development into burlesque, comedy and visual impairment.  We worked with burlesque artist Genevieve Chang and Director Alex Bulmer to create ‘Show Girl’, which was presented to an invited audience at the Cochrane Theatre, London.  Since then, we have developed the piece for the 30th anniversary of The Outsiders (a vibrant social and peer support network of disabled people) and the Blind in Theatre (BIT) Festival (an international collaboration of blind arts practitioners).  Extant’s research into burlesque explores the politics of being seen from the point of view of visually impaired people, and we are developing this work into a full length show.

The Cast Party (August 2006)

A pilot, site-specific experimental event, supported by Artsadmin, Orange and The Great Eastern Hotel.  The Cast Party was the first-ever attempt to research how a social environment could be made accessible to visually impaired people.  Visually impaired participants were guided through a social environment by personal describers, who watched the scene from above and gave directions through ear pieces.  The Cast Party won the 29th Annual Arts and Business Diversity Award.

Resistance (2004 – 2005)

Funded by the Arts Council and in collaboration with Turtle Key Arts, Resistance was Extant’s first national and international touring production.  It was also the first time in Britain that a cast of professional visually impaired actors toured. Resistance was a tense and exciting narrative based around the extraordinary true story of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind, teenage leader within the French resistance movement of occupied Paris during WWII.  It used physical theatre, experimental dance and live audio description incorporated within the script. This project was unique and evolved new methods of blind stage-craft, improving the creative access for visually impaired performers and audiences within theatre.

Audience Evaluation

One of the primary goals of the Open University is to explore and develop novel ways of learning, and to make these methods accessible to everyone. In the last 15 years the university has raised its research profile, particularly by investigating how new technologies can be used to  support creativity in the arts and sciences. The Haptic Theatre project is about exploring the experience of sensory substitution. By using novel haptic devices, the project creates a new, embodied way of learning about this experience, through philosophical and artistic dimensions. Given the fact that sighted and blind audience members will be starting from the same point, in the darkness, using the same haptic navigation device, the project opens up new comparative possibilities for the accessibility of emerging ubiquitous technologies.
An important part of this project will be to evaluate the experience of members of the audience, by exploring the reactions of blind and sighted audience members, as they navigate through the darkness. This evaluation will be used to inform the design of a new generation of  ”user experience” devices that transcends the notion of disabilities and abilities.

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