Extant theatre company hopes sharing best practice across the industry will lead to increased sector opportunities for visually impaired talent.
Extant theatre company has announced a training programme aimed at bringing systemic change to the under-representation of visually impaired talent in the industry.
The three-year programme, EVOLVE, will see the South London theatre company “turn [itself] inside out”, with a focus on training the next generation of visually impaired leaders and sharing expertise with the wider industry from its 25 years experience.
The programme emerged from discussions about the future direction the company when founding director and CEO Maria Oshodi steps down in 2026.
“We had to ask what will the future leadership of Extant be like?,” Chair Mary Paterson told ArtsProfessional.
“This led to questions about the arts sector as a whole. Are there enough senior, disabled leaders in the arts? Are there enough opportunities? Is there enough job security? How can we support visually impaired people to become the artists and leaders of the future?”
The programme address the lack of representation of disabled talent in theatre, particularly in leadership roles. According to Arts Council England’s Diversity Report 2019-20, disabled people make up 11% of chief executives, 8% of artistic directors and 6% of chairs.
Extant says there are only a handful of visually impaired leaders in the UK from a population of two million visually impaired people.
EVOLVE will offer two trainee artistic directors 15-month training programmes as a means of nurturing Extant’s future leaders. The application process for the traineeships will begin this autumn, with the first trainee director expected to start next spring.
“Rather than run a competitive recruitment process for a successor to Maria, we want to support people to find out what it is like to lead a company - so that they can learn on the job, and we can learn from them what different approaches to leadership might be,” Paterson explained.
The programme announcement coincides with the company’s relocation from Lambeth Town Hall to Brixton House, a cultural hub which also homes B3Media, Corali and Box Clever.
EVOLVE will work with academic partners and practitioners to share lessons in leadership with the talent pipeline.
Extant is partnering with Middlesex University to deliver a Master’s course in Radical and Inclusive Arts Leadership, which will “enable us to pass on expertise and link it with that of international research and practitioners,” Paterson says. Once she steps down from her current role, Oshodi plans to supervise a PhD on Extant’s history.
A cross-sector steering group, Performing Leadership Differently, will evaluate the success of EVOLVE. Extant has chosen them as evaluation partners because of their experience of exploring the ways arts leadership can and must respond to social justice movements, Paterson says.
“Working in a world of competitive and ever decreasing resources, it is always tempting to produce projects that can be quantified in audience numbers or return on investment. But, if we want lasting and meaningful change, we must challenge the systemic thinking that pits people against each other.”
Extant is also working on multiple public campaigns to increase the representation of visibly impaired theatre workers.
They include The Disabled Performers’ Charter with performers' union Equity, supporting sustainable careers for disabled people in the cultural sector, and Open Script, a movement advocating for scripts to be more accessible to visually impaired creatives.
Paterson says inaccessible scripts are just one example of a “multitude of barriers” that visually impaired artists face. Others include inadequately thought out access support, but “by far the biggest is other people’s ignorance”.
At Extant’s 25th anniversary event this month, artist and co-director of Quiplash Amelia Cavallo told how, when at drama school, she was advised that she should pretend not to be visually impaired if she wanted to work.
“The drama school advice was patently wrong, yet that kind of attitude is still pervasive,” Peterson said.