Extant’s Digital Flight Paths: interview with Maria Oshodi

Combining animation, aerial movement and creative audio description, Extant Theatre’s production Flight Paths is now available online. Inspired and guided by the Goze, blind female storytellers and musicians who travelled the length and breadth of medieval Japan making a living from performing epic tales, Digital Flight Paths allows viewers to journey through a unique, multi-sensory experience of Japanese cultural history and storytelling.

Our CEO, Matthew Cock asked Maria Oshodi, Extant’s Artistic Director, about the project.

Matthew: Can you tell readers a bit more about the Goze?

Maria: Most of what we have learnt has come via professor Kojiro Hirose, a blind anthropologist based at Osaka University in Japan. We were initially introduced to the Biwa Hoshi tradition of blind male travelling storyteller musicians through Kumiko Mendl (Artistic Director of British East Asian theatre company Yellow Earth), who we collaborated with to create Flight Paths, but later on found out about the more buried female branch of the same tradition. When Professor Hirose came to the UK to give a presentation  at the  Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation in London on the Goze, we felt this female focus would fit more with the direction our production was taking. Two of our central performers, Takashi and Victoria, who we had developed the project with for five years  before, decided they didn’t want to tour so we only had Amelia the US aerialist left as a live performer.  However, we were contacted by one of the only other five blind aerialists in the world, Sarah Houbolt from Australia, and so  she joined Amelia  to create a female led performance resonating with the Goze. We also found an inventive way to also include Takashi and Victoria….

You can find out more about the Goze in the digital programme.

Matthew: FlightPaths in 2020 builds on a project and takes it into the virtual space. Did you know you were going to do this before lockdown, and did lockdown change the project in in any way?

Maria: Yes. We applied for the Space commission almost immediately Flight Paths completed touring in spring 2019. We felt it had strong potential to meet their brief of re-purposing live performance for a digital medium in a new way. From receiving a positive decision on our application, it took almost a year to take the project through the commissioning amber phase to get it green-lit,  the timing of which just coincided with the start of lockdown. Luckily for us, our wonderful creative and design team, made up of illustrator, animator, editor and web consultant, were all able to work remotely with us throughout. Even the voice of our animated Goze character was recorded remotely, with the performer using a duvet and mic to create a make-shift soundproof  home studio.

In the main we were very lucky that our main artistic production this year happened to be a digital one, when everyone has been forced to turn to out-putting in this realm due to the global health crisis.

Matthew: Flight Paths is a co-production. What’s the origin of the project? How did the idea come up and who else has been involved in the collaboration?

Maria: Since the start, I’ve aimed to define Extant by artistically integrating access for visually impaired audiences into our live shows. However, it was while I was directing Sheer in 2012 with visually impaired dramaturge Alex Bulmer and visually impaired aerialist Amelia Cavallo that I first identified and was excited by the creative possibilities of making aerial performance accessible to visually impaired audiences. Together, we became the first people to explore applying live access to aerial performance, and it is to these early conversations that Flight Paths can trace its genesis. A year later I met Kumiko Mendl and Vicki Amedume (Artistic Director of leading contemporary circus company UpSwing) through Sustained Theatre London Hub which aimed to unite leading BAME artists, and invited them to come and explore further how aerial performance could be made more accessible through the use of song, music and the poetic use of description delivered by its performers. I also brought blind soprano Victoria Oruari and blind viola player Takashi Kikuchi to get on board with Amelia and the rest of us for this thrilling flight.

Matthew: Can you talk a bit about the audio description element of the show, and how this developed?

Maria: I’ve always been keen for the team to keep the ‘amplification question’ in our minds, that is, how do we amplify the voices of the performers from the position of their bodies, rather than coming from a static speaker which confuses location for a visually impaired audience? Crew member Tarim brought us a brilliant solution to this access conundrum in the shape of ‘spatialised tracking’ which I am very excited about artistically integrating into the show.

The production was recorded binaurally so even within this digital interpretation, the audience should be able to pick up on the spatialization of the performers, especially within the aerial sequences. In this aspect we found that the access led the creation of the art rather than the other way around. In this version of Flight Paths, the Goze animation takes on an additional level of on-screen description as some elements of the live experience, which can add to an understanding of what is happening  access-wise, are flattened by the screen, so the Goze fill in these gaps.

Matthew: What plans have you got for future productions on stage?

Maria: We are hoping to produce an outdoor iteration of Flight Paths using  some of the elements  created in the original and this new digital version.  The animated Goze character is a brilliant way of integrating audio description of what is going on, as well as being a central narrator. We’d like to blend live performance of a blind aerialist with animation on a big screen and tour this to festivals next year…. Fingers crossed!

Matthew: That sounds fantastic! Many thanks Maria.

Digital Flight Paths will be online from Saturday 15 August.