You walk into a building and are ushered into a hallway and told to wait. A friendly man who calls himself Elder Square greets you and instructs you to put on a space suit and some headphones. He hands you a palm sized haptic mechanical device and tells you that this will be your guide in the next place you visit, showing you its simple indications for forward, left, right and stop. You are then plunged into a pitch black space where you discover and interact with various tactile and sonic installations, and are accosted at points by some of the inhabitants of this strange world… so where are you? Is this a science fiction story come to life? In a word, yes. This is Extant’s latest work in progress, Flatland.
Extant Theatre is the UK’s only theatre company of blind and visually impaired people and Flatland is artistic director Maria Oshodi’s creation based on E. A. Abbott’s satirical novella. Abbott’s story and Extant’s pilot installation tell of a two dimensional world with 2D characters, such as Elder Square, who are separated in class by their abilities in the “art of hearing” and “art of feeling.” A story such as this creates an ideal space to play with some of Extant’s favored theatrical concepts, haptic (meaning science of touch and proprioception) technology and theatre in the dark.
This piece is truly innovative and a challenging technological feat. First and foremost, it creates an environment where moving around freely in a non-visual space is not only possible, but necessary. Speaking from a blind perspective, I found this extremely liberating and dove into the experience with enthusiasm. The sets and soundscapes in themselves are very intricate and interactive allowing you to listen, touch and inspect to your hearts content. I could have easily spent my entire time in Flatland just experiencing these, and indeed had points where helpful hands (technicians wearing infrared goggles) had to guide me back to the story as I would often wander slightly off course in the name of exploration. And of course, there was the haptic device itself, a small square with a groove in the middle of one side which indicated right, left, forward and stop. Simple though it may seem, this little mechanical wonder was the key to interacting with Flatland as it told you where to go. I will say that at first I found the device cumbersome to use, but this is only because I was so keen to move through the space. I often went faster than it did. By the end, however, I had worked out a rhythm with my device and began to feel that it was a friend or a partner on my journey.
The intricate set (Lindsey Housden) and sound design (Matthias Kispert) alongside Michael Achtman’s sharp and witty scrip created an immersive world that genuinely made you feel that you were in another dimension. Also, the performances of the live actors added to an experience that grew in tension and wonder as the story unfolded. My only wish with this piece is for more of everything: more sets, more sounds, more actors and more time in the darkness. Given that Flatland is still in a development phase, it is incredible what this team has already managed to achieve. I cannot wait to find out what is next in store for Elder Square and his Flatland. This is a theatrical piece like no other. Extant continues to push the boundaries on immersive theatre and to present non-visual and blind experiences as creative, unique and empowering. They are pioneering a brave and challenging theatre in the dark experience that asks audiences to be active and engaged in a way that I have never experienced anywhere else. It is truly remarkable and extremely entertaining. The next time Flatland is performed, definitely make sure you partake in the experience. You won’t regret it.
For more details on the company and their work visit Extant’s website.