Meet the visually impaired performers reimagining Shakespeare

As a disabled theatre fan and photographer I love nothing more than when an email lands in my inbox telling me about an inclusive performance, or a show featuring disabled actors. Representation is so important, and each time we cast a disabled performer, hire disabled creatives and generally give disabled people a seat at the table, we move one step closer to equality. 

This week I got the chance to speak to Gillian Dean and Robin Paley Yorke, who are performing in the premiere of States of Mind, a compelling play based on Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis. The play is being produced by Extant, the UK's leading company of visually impaired performers, and has been reimagined by director Christopher Hunter. The play is a part of Bloomsbury Festival 2021 and will be performed at RADA Studios on Saturday 16th October.

Both performers are visually impaired and live audio description has been embedded into the performance, meaning that everyone watching the performance experiences it rather than it being an afterthought and something only for visually impaired people. The original poem was written during a plague epidemic, so it feels only right that it's been reimagined during a pandemic.

A blackground with a white bed on that has blood and a flower on.

The play follows 2 characters as they explore the issues surrounding their attempts to escape a cycle of coercion, lust and love that they find themselves trapped in. The cast told me in their own words what you can expect, "I think it is an exploration of what love means to different people, and the ways in which your own perception of what you think love is might not match with your portrayal of it to other people". Gillian also shared that it explores how past events and traumas can taint the view that you have of what love is and what it should be. Robin also followed up, "it explores what relationships are, and the norms attached to what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman".

They both also shared with me how refreshing it was that the fact that they are visually impaired has no bearing on their characters. So often in this industry when we cast disabled performers we often cast them in roles that are disability specific, believing that if we cast a disabled performer then their characters story must completely revolve around their disability. Gillian told me, "I think that's what is really refreshing because as a visually impaired actor I have it listed on all of my profiles and it's always lovely when you get approached for a role where you're like, okay, where is the blindness? And they respond 'Oh, nowhere really!'. That's always lovely".

A graphic with the text 'states of mind' the headshots of two performers. One white male with dark brown hair and facial hair, and one white female with a short blonde bob.

The use of embedded or integrated audio description is a concept I was introduced to almost 2 years ago. Rather than having select performances where audience members can choose to hear audio description alongside what is being performed on stage, it's weaved into the performance instead. Both Gillian and Robin spoke about how they like both ways of doing things but also highlighted the need to make audio description part of the process, rather than an afterthought. 

"I personally don't have a problem with audio description being something that you choose to watch, but I do have a problem with it being tacked on in such a way that nobody on stage is leaving any space for it to happen, they're not even aware of what audio description is. I do think it has to be considered right from the beginning of the process so that everybody on stage and in the audience knows its happening and gives it the space and respect is deserves", Gillian told me. 

Robin also highlighted the difficulty of making shows accessible to everyone, and why it's often not possible, and how access needs can often be conflicting, making shows that specialise in one need is important. "I don't think you can make every show accessible for every person all at once". It highlighted how vital it is to make accessibility a collaborative effort so we can meet as many needs as possible, but not necessarily all in the same performance. 

"The more people representing all aspects of the industry, the better"

Both of them talked about how often conversations about accessibility are being had by people who don't have the right knowledge to guide others. Gillian said, "the more people representing all aspects of the industry, the better the access is going to be, because you've got people talking about what they know, rather than assuming what is required".

Robin followed up with, "when there isn't actually a disabled artist, creative, technician and they're not at the table, places say 'but we're inclusive', but where is your disabled artist in the room, or access consultant, that is guiding that?".

We finished off by discussing what it's like for them both to work alongside another visually impaired performer. "It is lovely. I certainly feel it's really nice not to be the blindest person in the room, especially as Chris, the director and creator, is also visually impaired. So, there's 3 people in the room, and not one of us has got the same access needs or level of useful sight", Gillian shared. 

Robin added, "we're very good at listening and asking for what we need, which should be in every rehearsal room, that's not just an access thing".

Gillian finished with, "I'm also finding some of it very funny as well, because as I say, not one of us has the same level of sight. Earlier on today Chris nearly hit me in the face with his script because he couldn't see that I was on his left, because I'd moved up and didn't say. We're doing things to each other that sighted actors do to us. I kind of love that as well actually, it's making me really laugh".

You can watch Gillian and Robin in States of Mind on Saturday 16th October at RADA Studios, buy tickets here. You can learn more about Extant on their website.

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