Development of the Ghost: Extant turns 20

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Having just celebrated their 20th anniversary of producing innovative theatre, Extant, the UK’s leading company of visually impaired, professional theatre makers are set to further develop their programs for emerging visually impaired theatre-makers. Stephen Portlock spoke to Extant’s Artistic Director and CEO Maria Oshodi and actor-musician turned writer, Chris Campion.

Black and white photo of actors Chris Campion and Steve George jamming with Extant CEO Maria Oshodi at BIT Fest in Zagreb

Chris Campion, Steve George and Maria Oshodi jamming at BIT Fest

Extant has produced and delivered successful productions, workshops and research programs over the last two decades. In recognition of their achievements Oshodi says:

“Being part of Extant has meant experiencing lots of curve balls, testing what we are made of, keeping us on our toes, and helping us to develop resilience, flexibility, imagination, a strong belief and the right energy to keep the creativity growing that continues to put blind artists on the map.”

Extant’s remit to work with and to develop writers is key to their mission. This year the company has worked closely with Chris Campion supporting the development of his two-hander, Catching the Ghost. This then is part of a strata of work by emerging artists. These artists may not be absolute newcomers but they are seeking to develop their voice, be it in playwriting, performance and even backstage production or directing. Where writing is concerned, Extant have connected with Theatre503 in Battersea, who focus heavily on new writing development.

Extant’s project, The Write Stage, is not just for first time writers but also, for example, for novelists writing for the stage. The Write Stage offers one-to-one mentoring with dramaturgs, directors and theatre practitioners, currently working with seven writers and seven mentors. Four meetings will take place over the next four months prior to a showcase at the new Diorama centre on 12th February 2018.

Chris Campion’s Catching the Ghost played at the Bloomsbury Theatre last October, following a performance in Zagreb at the 10th International Blind in Theatre or BIT Festival, hosted by New Life (Novi Zivot). It is an intense play, recounting the mental distress caused to young Chris Campion through years of bullying by pupils and teachers alike as he struggled to come to terms with sight loss and to make peace with the ‘ghost’ – the other ‘Chris’ who did not lose his sight.

Photo of Chris Campion on stage dressed in black against a dark background, with lighting focusing on his face and the guitar he is holding

Chris Campion in rehearsal for Catching the Ghost

As powerful and inventive as the play is in both its use of visual props and of songs performed by Campion, Catching the Ghost inspired concern on the DAO Facebook page that it might be too ‘medical model’ with its focus on impairment. Maria Oshodi was keen to come to the play’s defence arguing that:

“it is important, both as individuals and as a collective, to take on a range of experiences, including those which are dark and difficult. Catching the Ghost is the reflection of the genuine struggle experienced by anyone who has acquired a state of change in their self-identity and physicality, and Chris should be congratulated for what he has achieved.”

Photo of performer Chris Campion dressed in a costume made of bright LED lights

Chris Campion in his play Catching the Ghost

The play came about initially following a commission by Guide Dogs – the UK Charity for Blind and Partially Sighted people who were interested in presenting a story about someone’s journey into blindness as part of Guide Dogs Week. An opportune message to Oshodi from Campion, who had previously worked on various Extant projects including ComBUStion led to him being commissioned. By nature a musician, this was Campion’s first foray into playwriting and until then he had not had it in mind to write a show about himself.

As well as receiving mentoring he read all that he could on the creative writing process. Campion found Stephen King’s On Writing to be “particularly encouraging – and so was William Strunk’s The Elements of Style”, whereas Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was “a good way of not getting anything done”.

Campion’s initial version performed at The Scoop in Tower Bridge on 4th October 2016 was very different from the final hour-long version of Catching the Ghost. “I see this as pretty much a wholly different play, now.” In the original a Greek Chorus took the role later occupied by the Ghost played by a single actor. Furthermore, the separation of Campion from his ghost, pivotal to the final work was almost throwaway in the original.

As the production developed so further efforts were made to incorporate the audio description into the play with Steve George (who plays the ghost) describing large square tiles placed on the ground and which played a vital part in the narrative. Amusingly, sighted viewers complained that they could not see what was on these squares. In light of the fact that sighted viewers are accustomed to ignoring audio description, Campion is considering a way of solving this problem for future performances, possibly through a backlit projection.

While no further performances of Catching the Ghost are planned, it has not been laid to rest. Campion is keen to do further playwriting and to host a night of comedy, but for now is focusing on his music, performing as Shadow Stitcher.

Last month saw Extant’s 20th anniversary party with the launch of a bursary in memory of the late Tim Gebbels, long-term collaborator with Extant and a gifted lead actor who appeared in the Company’s excellent production of The Chairs in 2016. The bursary scheme is being crowdfunded until 31 January 2018. The goal is to commemorate Gebbels and his work, but also to support future talented visually impaired artists.

In the meantime, Extant have also been piloting their Enhance initiative, which seeks to create a basic level of accessibility for visually impaired audiences for touring productions that only have a short run at a venue, for which full audio description may not be a realistic proposition. They are working with venues MAC, Birmingham and The Lowry, Manchester and a slew of mainstream companies programmed at these venues. Extant has so far received positive feedback from audiences, so the goal is to expand the scheme in 2018.

We will have to wait until 2019 for Extant’s next full production Flight Paths, in collaboration with Yellow Earth, movement director Vicki Amedume and writer Glen Neath. Between now and then, it’s worth keeping abreast of all that the company is doing in support of visually impaired artists and theatre audiences by signing up to the mailing list on the Extant homepage.

Happy Birthday, then, Extant

You can catch further information about Extant’s recent activity through their podcast.