Podcast transcript – Extant’s Maria Oshodi

March 30, 2021

Is accessibility something you do because you have to? Or is it possible to use our disabilities to contribute during the creative process?

This time, Disability Arts Consultant and Artistic Director Maria Oshodi offers a different perspective on accessibility. From touring stage show to interactive multimedia website. In this episode, we look at creativity within the visually impaired world. Take a trip to Japan, and a history lesson like you’ve never heard before.

Maria Oshodi, Extant

Below follows a transcript of the podcast.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  00:41

Hello, I’m Claire Freeman an associate at The Space. Later I’ll be joined by our Chief Executive Fiona Morris. And this is a series where we look under the piano lids, inside the notepads and behind the stage doors of arts and cultural organisations already making waves in the ever expanding digital world.

The Space is an agency which supports those working in the art sector. And you included if you’re interested. So do pop over to the website, thespace.org to find out about those latest commissioning rounds, and a tonne of resources that we refer to during this podcast.

Today we look at accessibility but beyond the typical subtitles in captioning, Maria Oshodi runs Extant the UK’s leading performing arts company supporting visually impaired artists and theatre practitioners. Their project Flight Paths is something that’s been slowly evolving over many years. It tells the story of the Japanese Goze travelers -visually impaired female performers. Using a combination of aerial dance, beautiful music and weaving these personal stories about migration throughout. What was initially a stage performance has now become an interactive multimedia project navigated through a series of short films.

The audio description is really playful and fun. There’s beautiful animation. And there’s binaural  360 sound techniques to help the visually impaired listener better locate and place the performers on stage in their mind. Extant was supported in this work by The Space. And in this conversation with myself and Fiona, Maria explains how. First, we’re going to hear a clip from Flight Paths.

Clip from Digital Flight Paths 02:42

Thank you for coming.

My name is Taki, I am here to be your guide along whichever direction you desire. When the Home Office lost my papers, they tried to blame it on me. But they didn’t have a leg to stand on. I had copies of everything I said, this is exactly what I said.

Maria Oshodi, Extant  03:07

We were interested in initially in just creating something that interested us as theatre practitioners always looking for something exploratory and adventurous and a way to sort of push the envelope around access, around circus, around storytelling. And as the project moved on, we knew that we wanted it to work for both a sighted and visually impaired audience. That’s always the ethos of Extant anyway.

And the one of the things that we really wanted to make accessible was some of the aerial work that we were creating in the in the live show. And we wanted that to be not only accessible through the access that was built in and how we audio described it, and the audio description coming from the performers themselves. So the performers up the silks, you know, as they’re in the middle of doing all of these amazing, for me, you know, being a kind of director sits on their backside most of the time, you know, kind of like acrobatic feats in the air on a piece of rope.

But also that you’ve got a sense of where the performance voices were coming from in space. Often when audio description is translated and amplified, it comes out of a speaker. And if you can’t see the stage very well or at all, like I can’t, I will just naturally look at the speaker and think that’s where the performance is. And I really wanted to do something to work with some, you know some technology and see if we could get the voices of the performers coming from where their bodies were physically in space. So that a visually impaired audience would be able to connect with that location as much as anybody who could see where those performers were.

So that was a big element of what we did. And that’s why we brought in the binaural and the binaural stuff – that was actually a very last minute thing we bought. We kind of paid very much mate’s rate fees for that for that Newman head that we have from The National and plonked in the audience so we could get a recording. Because I think  before The Space commission, we always felt that somehow that the piece could translate into some form of film. And I wanted to preserve the notion of these coordinates in space where the performers were, and I thought of binaural recording would be the best way to do that. So that’s a long answer to your question.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  05:37

It’s fascinating. I mean, I’m also very intrigued with audio description, what is essentially quite a functional thing. How much artistic license do you get to play with audio description?

Maria Oshodi, Extant  05:53

Well, in our company, we take all the license in the world, you know, because it’s always been an ethos of the company to not give back control or power away to, you know, sighted interpreters of the work. We’ve always wanted to hold on to that as blind performers, a blind director. So it’s a key integral aesthetic, you know, element of what we’re creating. So we do that for all our projects. And with this, the big challenge was how to integrate the description of the aerial movement by the aerialists while they were moving.

Maria Oshodi, Extant  06:33

And in a way that was within sync with their movement. So you can have long audio description in the world. It’s really long the movements over then it’s not really keeping in time with what the aerialists are doing. So that was really a fascinating and intricate, unfolding – working out each movement, how to describe each movement, then, working with our technologist who we pre-recorded the artists wearing these headphones whilst they were doing the movement….. Because one of the things we also wanted to convey was the effort involved in working on aerial silk. You see it sometimes and it just seems like whiz bang, very flashy. But actually, some of that internal dialogue that the aerialists go through we included that with the description as well. I just remember thinking now back to that first rehearsal it is really something working it out. But yeah,

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  07:41

But you see if you’ve been working on this idea, this kind of exploration really for seven years, what is it that you were able to get as an artist yourself by going down the multimedia project route that perhaps you weren’t able to do when it was a touring performance on stage?

Maria Oshodi, Extant  08:04

Well, two things. One was the reason why we included projections in the touring show was because we’d worked for five years on developing this show with three main artists who were telling their stories, their stories of being blind. A blind Nigerian soprano, a blind Japanese viola player, a blind aerialist from the USA. When we got to the point where we were actually able to tour the performance, they they didn’t want to tour.

Maria Oshodi, Extant  08:38

So we then thought how on earth do we continue to tell their stories without them in the show? So that’s when we thought about filming them, and including them in this kind of, quite an unusual way. And so that was what we were able to bring in to the commission that we got from The Space, which was absolutely brilliant. It kind of gave a brilliant way for us to create a narrator and a guide and an audio describer in the form of the Goze character – the Goze were the female, visually impaired musicians and storytellers.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  09:13

I mean, it’s really quite beautiful animation as well. And you know, the music is so powerful. We heard, you know, a little taster of that in the clip earlier. What were the challenges for this? Because this is a really bold, ambitious project, isn’t it? And it’s really interesting that you say, it wasn’t something that you just did over a few months, actually, this was something that organically grew to this kind of multimedia experience. But what were the hurdles that you faced and how did you overcome them?

Maria Oshodi, Extant  09:50

Well, I suppose the biggest hurdle is that timing wise, we planned to start the project in March of 2020. But in actual fact it was fine because we, we were able to meet remotely with the whole team. And it was very lucky for us really, that we had this project at that point, because, you know, we had something very substantial to work on. And it kind of got us through, I think, in a lot of ways in those early months of lockdown.

Maria Oshodi, Extant  10:28

But the biggest challenge at that point, though, was recording the voice of the Goze animated character. So that was the biggest challenge. Everything else went really smoothly, we were a fantastic team. We had blind consultants, testing out the navigation to make sure that it all worked on the access level, all the different instructions and things. We worked on a visual level, but also with speech software that blind people use on their computers and on their phones. You know, compared with putting the live show together, this was just like a walk in the park.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  11:04

Wow, think a lot of people will be very relieved to hear that.

Maria Oshodi, Extant  11:12

I think it is all about getting the right team together seriously. I mean, we hadn’t worked with Dave Packer, who was the animator, we hadn’t worked with Ai either, who was the illustrator [Inko Ai Takita], and she was somebody who came through Eye of the Performer. But we really wanted to work with a Southeast Asian illustrator, we’re gonna say we just had a brilliant team.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  11:39

You see a lot of theatre companies or you know, guys who are putting together things like a video podcast, you know, I worked on a project through The Space with Dante or Die theatre company that did a video podcast, which took a touring performance that was done in pop up cafes, to become a podcast that you watch called ‘User Not Found’. And they really wanted to make sure that they were reaching an accessible audience and captioning, subtitles. This is something that I think a lot of arts and culture organisations want to make sure that they are thinking about. They’re factoring in their planning. What advice would you have for arts and culture organisations who want to factor that into an idea that they’re working up right now?

Maria Oshodi, Extant  12:29

Time and resources really in terms of money, really just to not underestimate the amount of time that it takes, and also, the additional funding support that you might need for it. For instance, with this, we brought in subtitles. When we ran it past our visually impaired consultation group, they said that the subtitles were far too small. And so we had to then really work with enlarging those, but not to the point where they obscured what was on screen. A lot that we wouldn’t have known as a team if we hadn’t brought in those consultants to work with.

So that’s another thing really, is just to think about, running it by people who one, don’t know, the work, and two are, you know, they’re going to be the end users really, for all of this. I think it is really important. And also, I think that it sometimes seems like it might be an irksome thing to do on something, that you think ‘oh, gosh we’ve just got to do it’ because, you know, being worthy or something.

But actual fact what we’ve found often is that by bringing in thinking around making something accessible, it actually will generate artistic ideas as well, that you might not have thought of before, there’s can be a benefit, a hidden benefit that you’re not aware of, until you can sort of go in and really explore it.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  13:54

So testing – time for testing these things out.

Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space  13:58

And also the principles of accessibility, why wouldn’t you want to? Any focus on considering how something is more easily shared is going to benefit any project with any audience, I always think, Oh, my gosh, why do we have to have the conversation about this as if it’s ‘other’? No isn’t that what you want to do as a communicator, as a creative? You want to make your work as widely accessible. And, I loved what you guys have done Maria in terms of thinking about it, not as the translation device that sits on the side of the project, but how you can embed it so it’s part of the experience – of the binaural soundscapes. It’s a way of saying no, this is actually just an embellishment to the whole, not a thing that sort of sits on another channel. We feel that this is what we need to move towards – thinking in a much more holistic way about these systems.

Maria Oshodi, Extant  15:11

I agree, I think that there’s something about making something inclusive that really sends a statement out, that this is the world that we live in. What we’re creating here is reflecting the way in which we see the world. And if your work is only working on a particular level, then it means that you’re saying something about who you are as an artist, you know. So I think it becomes more of a kind of statement about the inclusivity  of the of the world around you and how you see it.

Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space  15:51

Absolutely. We did another piece in the Culture in Quarantine series with Cathy Mager ‘Sign Night‘, which in which she works with two performers, BSL signing performers, they are so beautiful and expressive, and by projecting those images massively onto the fronts of buildings. it’s just balletic. It’s absolutely beautiful. And that’s when you want to just sit and applaud and say ‘that’s what we mean’. Don’t make it exclusive, make it inclusive. Because it make it makes for better art.

Maria Oshodi, Extant  16:29

Yes, no, exactly like that. Yeah well, that’s what we’re always trying to do. And sometimes we get it wrong, it’s just the thing about having the awareness. And, and seeing that it’s another tool, really, it’s another tool that you can use that actually, can be really advantageous for yourself, in your own practice, as well as reaching a wider audience as well.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  17:01

Something that I think is coming to the forefront more and more is artificial intelligence. This phrase next generation storytelling. And the fact that it’s looking at having a sense of play, when it comes to creative expression. Your Amazon, Alexa or  Google device, they don’t just have to be about functional aspects, they can have a sense of play. And I know, that’s something that The Space is already working on behind the scenes in projects that are really kind of cutting edge. And also something that I’ll share a link with on the episode description, if people are interested to know more about what AI actually is, and what what is possible with it. Is that something that you will look to embrace Maria, whether you already are, whether it’s something you’re already using and exploring?

Maria Oshodi, Extant  18:01

We’ve been playing… a lot of our interface has been connected with a kind of AI type voice thing, like through JAWS, a screen reader. In a way, it’s something that blind people are kind of used to, and also playing with. And it’s interesting that for Flight Paths in the future, we were hoping that we would like to make it accessible to a Japanese audience.

We were going to have the narrator who’s the animation, speaking Japanese, which we could do quite easily because the former is Japanese and she could basically do all the lines in Japanese. But the actual bits of the tour that were filmed, those aren’t in Japanese, and those would have to be subtitles. So how would we then get those subtitled bits that were in English across to a blind Japanese audience? And we thought the only way we could do that is to have an AI voice performing that – that’s really complicated. We haven’t got there yet. But that’s the way that we just automatically started to think, so yeah, it’s already in our kind of lexicon.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  19:16

What I find really inspiring about your story, Maria is you have a sense of the ‘what’, but you don’t worry too much about knowing the ‘how’ straightaway. You’ll find the right people will come to you. People like The Space will connect you to these people. And I think that’s really inspiring to hear the stories you’ve been telling us of what is possible. And also where something can go. Something that you stumble upon now, and where it might grow, over seven years, maybe you’ll still be telling the Goze story, but in Japanese in 10 years time. Are you able to give us a an insight just to kind of roundup of what nex?

Maria Oshodi, Extant  20:07

Well for Flight Paths, what we’d really love to do – and we’ve got a got a proposal out there and it’s being considered – is an outdoor version of Flight Paths. Which would be a kind of interaction with a live performer and a live aerialist and the Japanese Goze character who would be on screen and interacting with the aerialist. So we’d be retelling the Goze story but through this sort of dialogue between the two. The Goze animation would also be acting as an audio describer as well, so hopefully fingers crossed -something to look out for either next year or at the very latest 2022

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  20:57

Wow I mean incredible. Watch this space. However they word it, watch this outdoor space, wearing your mask. As they say, many forms of art look to inform, educate and entertainer us and i think that is exactly what Flight Paths did when i engaged in it and I’m not someone who is visually impaired but i still thoroughly enjoyed and learned so much engaging in your project. I would recommend it to any listeners. We’ll put the link in the in the episode description, go and have a little play. Maria thank you so much for your time, thank you

Maria Oshodi, Extant  21:34

Lovely speaking to you

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  21:35

Thank you Maria and if you want to engage with some of the skills that we’ve mentioned, some of the articles, learn about AI, learn about this next generation storytelling, we will share the links of things that we’ve talked about in our program description for this episode. And you can go to thespace.org – there are so many different commissioning rounds that are always bumbling around. One that’s on the run up over spring is the Culture in Quarantine round which is available for funding for disabled artists. Jump on that as someone who saw the Culture in Quarantine round earlier this year it opened up some magical things, so please do jump on that and there’s also lots of different commissioning rounds that happen throughout spring.

Clare Freeman, podcast producer  22:22

There’s also the ‘filmed in lockdown‘ series I’m just going to kind of give this a little plug because, if you today or this week, you have a moment where you’re sat at home you’ve got a spare few minutes to watch, you’re downloading, uploading having a screen break, then grab a cup of tea and a biscuit and go type in ‘filmed in lockdown’ where you can see a tonne of different artists, organisation’s cultural work that’s all being filmed throughout the pandemics. A great resource and it’s a great escape moment for your cup of tea and biscuit. In the meantime, follow subscribe tell a friend tell a colleague and we’ll be back with more stories on The Space arts podcast very soon.