A leading platform for blind theatre
Maria Oshodi, of Extant theatre company, reports on its visit to the fifth international Blind in Theatre Festival, in Zagreb
The Zagreb based New Life theatre company of visually impaired actors (Novi Zivot) has held an international theatre festival every two years since 1999. Extant, Britain's only performing arts company of visually impaired professionals, has attended every one, presenting talks on our work, workshops, work in progress, full touring productions and this year our Effing and Blinding Cabaret.
The festival has always been a singular event. It allows us to platform new work, experience the work of other companies and most importantly create a unique forum for exchange between companies of visually impaired performers from different countries. With the festival attracting attendance from Spain, Finland, Italy, Poland, Belgium, the US, Slovenia, the UK and Croatia, it has always been a rich mix of experience. In the past the festival has led to Extant producing UK tours of New Life in 2002 and US artist Lynn Manning in 2005.
It does seem extraordinary that a small country such as Croatia, just 12 years out of communism, a violent struggle to re-establish its national identity, and not yet part of the EU, could commit to hosting this festival regularly, and consistently receive support from the Ministry of Culture, City of Zagreb, City Bureau for Culture, Ministry Of Family, Veterans And Intergenerational Solidarity, Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. Yet it does, and with great style and success. All companies were accommodated in the Sheraton Hotel, just 10 minutes walk from the Vidra theatre in central Zagreb, a proscenium-arch venue with a 150-seat capacity where all performances took place. Round-table discussions, workshops, and Extant's rather untraditional cabaret were held next door in the club rooms of the Croatian National Blind Society.
Extant performed the Effing and Blinding cabaret in the pitch dark on the Saturday night. Having originally created the cabaret for Dans Le Noir - a London restaurant where diners eat in absolute darkness - we were used to having the luxury of working in a site-specific environment. For our blind performers this provided a wonderfully creative element for us to play with. However, having transplanted the cabaret back in August to a more conventional theatre space at the Edinburgh Festival, we discovered, to our consternation that acquiring totally dark spaces is as difficult as making a place watertight.
Therefore we worked with the Croatian technicians for a day before our performance at BIT, to ensure the room we were to perform in was as dark as possible. Achieving this, we were then met with the slight technical problem of tripping all the electrics, just as the show was about to start. Under the convenient mask of screams from our audience, who were plunged into utter darkness and silence, we flapped around and managed to restore enough sound to present our anarchic cabaret of song and scurrilous sketches. Much to our satisfaction the language barrier, which we thought might pose difficulty among our audience, didn't prove problematic. Our offering was the only comedy/variety based show at the festival and much of the feedback from the other companies was that we had presented the most inventive and enjoyable piece this year. This is strictly arguable of course, and we felt that other notable pieces were presented, especially by the Belgian, Croatian and US companies.