Martin Freeman as Richard III
I recently attended an academic conference called, “Theatre in the Dark,” which was about what the title suggests. I went as a presenter in order to talk about two shows in which I have performed that were in complete or mostly complete darkness. These shows were created by a theatre company that I work with often. The company is unique in that it is the UK’s only theatre company to work with blind and visually impaired people. The artistic director, also a blind woman who we’ll call Penny for the sake of privacy, went with me in a show of support, and also to find out what others in the country were doing and saying around this field of performance. We also went with a bit of an agenda…
Disability often gets used as metaphor, especially in performance. Think about Tiersias, the blind prophet in Greek mythology or Shakespeare’s Richard III, just to name a few. Usually, these stereotypes have a number of negative effects on the disability being represented. Tiresias is one of the reasons blind people are often considered to either be hyper sensual (of above average hearing) or that they have a sort of sixth sense (which is hilarious as we don’t really have a fifth one). Richard III promotes the idea that physically disabled people are evil villains. And I promise you, speaking as an actor, it does not matter how exciting and challenging these characters might be to play, the structures in which they are created seem to continually promote these negative stigmas and stereotypes.
In this conference, Penny and I were worried that blindness would serve this kind of metaphorical purpose for these researchers and practitioners. Most people are likely to equate darkness and blindness as the same thing. We were there to make sure that idea wasn’t gaining momentum with other practitioners. To those that find this surprising, I will say the same thing that I opened my presentation with: darkness and blindness are not the same thing. There are a lot of studies around the ocular realm (i.e. what you can physically see) that make it clear that darkness is actually a form of seeing in that you cannot have it without having an understanding of light. More to the point, the medical model of blindness shows that most blind people have some vision, just like most deaf people can hear something, and most wheelchair users can stand and maybe even walk. Also, what we don’t see is not “darkness”, it’s just nothing. If that seems impossible to understand or maybe even a bit pitiable, think about this: you can’t see out of the back of your head. Does that mean there is darkness behind your head? No, it means there is nothing. Seeing out of the back of your head isn’t possible, so it would be silly to equate that experience with something based in sight, and is certainly not worth getting upset over, right? (Obviously, this is a general statement about blindness, and experiences will be slightly different for each individual)
What darkness does do in a performative setting with relation to blindness is it levels the playing field. Suddenly, everyone is in an environment where the normal processes and understandings of sight aren’t possible. This is where blindies get an advantage. We spend our lives outside of the normal processes of sight. What you get if darkness is controlled by the blind is not an experience of blindness, but a shift in social structure. The sighted have to depend on us for a change.
In this conference, this social shift was exactly what I was talking about. My presentation was one of the first to be heard, which I think was a wise choice by the organizers. It set a precedent that didn’t allow others to slip into metaphorical concepts… at least not without feeling that they seriously needed to justify why they went there. Along with that, throughout the day Penny and I made a point of asking questions and being very active in the discussions. As the day wore on, it was clear that there was a genuine interest in interacting with concepts around visual impairment, and honest admissions about ignorances that various individuals might have, which is fantastic. It also felt a bit like there was an elephant in the room (metaphorical, of course… no offense to any elephants who may read this). Every time I asked a question or made a comment, responses would head towards issues such as access with a slight apology behind the words about the fact that their presentation and/or performance was not accessible to people with a visual impairment despite the supposed metaphorical correlation. Along with that, whenever the word “blind” did come up, people would stutter and stammer around it like it was a swear word. “Bl… uh… people who can’t se… those without sight…” (Just say blind! It’s the right word unless someone tells you otherwise!) It started to feel a bit like people did not know how to interact with us as practitioners and researchers without feeling some socio-political responsibility to make up for what they may have been lacking prior to meeting us.
To be clear, I do not mean to put these researchers down, nor do I want to put this conference into a bad light at all. There was some amazing and exciting work being presented, and Penny and I were treated very well throughout the day. What this does speak to, however, is a slight ignorance and general discomfort around disability in both academic and research sectors that are usually read as outside of minority identity issues. I realized after this day that I have been very happily sitting in my circles of queer and crip theory, and that I had forgotten how far some parts of the performance world still have to go.