‘When I walk on stage with my white cane, it is a revolutionary act’

Ben Wilson lost his sight in his 20s. Now he is trainee artistic director at Extant, a company bringing non-visual storytelling to the London stage

Portrait, black tee shirt, beard, no glasses, side on, slight smile
Extant's Trainee Artistic Director Ben Wilson. Pic: Extant

“Although acting is my first love, I’ve also got too much of a big mouth to stay quiet,” laughs Ben Wilson, an actor, director, and trainee artistic director of the performing arts company, Extant, and who is also responsible for widening access to the theatre and organising the audio descriptions that are used to help visually impaired audiences.

A performing arts company run by and for those who are visually impaired, Extant is an example of what creative companies can accomplish when not stripped bare of funding. Some of its funding has previously come from Hackney Council, which received £168,870 from ACE under its 2023-26 plan.

Most recently, Extant released an audio drama called Unseen to highlight how visually impaired people are three times more likely to become victims of domestic violence, and how victim services are often inaccessible for the visually impaired.

Extant’s visually impaired cast members, writers, directors, and board members are a priority for the company, but so are its audience members. Extant was established in 1997 and has taken the lead in developing theatre for the visually impaired beyond the traditional audio description headsets that explain to audiences the visual elements of a show.

One way that Extant does this is by incorporating colourful descriptions written by poets or writers to maximise the headset’s ability to create a tangible atmosphere, which Wilson did for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Another method is ditching the headsets and embracing descriptions as a storytelling tool played out loud. Wilson recalls that this method of making the non-visible appear through language had a profound effect on him when Extant performed The Chairs – a play where characters grapple with a dystopian future ravaged by rising sea levels and the imminent breakdown of civilisation.     

The third way, which Wilson has been using for years, is found in the blueprints of the play itself. Adjustments are made to the play’s sound and text to allow audiences to follow the storyline, whether they can see it or not. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s line “I will kiss thy lips” indicates her plan to reunite with Romeo in death.

Wilson, who lost his eyesight in his 20s after battling a series of eye conditions since childhood, hopes that these methods will not only normalise visually impaired representation but also act as a pillar of support for those struggling with their impairment. “I think about the people in the audience who were like me, who don’t know it yet, but are going to go blind in the future,” he says. “If I had grown up in a world where visually impaired people and stories were just normalised and represented in the way that other people’s stories are, then my transition into being blind would have been far easier.” For Wilson, the hardest part about going blind was being treated differently and overcoming the mental hurdles of being disabled. “Society tells us disabled people are worthless,” he says.

Integrated into Extant’s strategy is the belief that representation and overcoming prejudice in theatre is best tackled through the casual inclusion of visually impaired people. “When I walk out on stage and I’ve got my white cane, it’s a revolutionary act because we’re not normally represented in those environments,” says Wilson. “The fact that we’re just existing in a an escapist, joyous piece of entertainment is a brilliant bit of campaigning representation.”

This is partly why Wilson agreed to assist Zoo Co Theatre with creative audio description for its most recent project, Memories of the Marshland, written by Disabled Movement Director Jack Norris.

Of course, none of this would be possible without funding. While the ELL boroughs have faired better than many of their neighbours, it hasn’t been easy to constantly wonder where money will come from next.

The government’s plan to pepper the rest of the UK with arts funding means brutal pruning to London’s budget, the sting of which is felt by theatres throughout the city. Additionally, recent economic turmoil makes those cuts harder to withstand. It’s an age-old story that arts organisations know well. The hard times arrive – a pandemic, a war, a recession – and councils tighten their purse strings, hoping that cultural cuts can spare them.

“I find that really upsetting and short-sighted,” says Wilson. “Every penny that’s invested into the arts comes back tenfold into the economy. By investing in culture, you’re making your cities, towns, villages and streets better places to live. You’re also investing in people and in the well-being of the nation by giving people the opportunity to combat loneliness, to be collaborative and creative and to have these stories that challenge us.”

Extant has certainly helped numerous visually impaired people find a community, whether they are artists or audiences, and nurture their creative side. “[Visually impaired people] can be isolated, we can be cut off, we can be trapped away and not able to dive into the world as freely as other people are, and so it’s amazing to be able to work in an industry that brings people together,” says Wilson.

“I would dread to think what this country would be like if there weren’t any theatres. It would just be such an empty, soulless place.”

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

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