Maria Oshodi is a blind writer, theatre director and the founder and artistic director of Extant, the United Kingdom’s leading performing arts company of visually impaired artists.
In 2018, Mobility First! supported her travel from London, United Kingdom to Tokyo, Japan to direct a workshop for visually impaired performing artists by the Nippon Foundation and SLOW Label and to conduct research for Extant’s next touring production inspired by blind travelling musicians and storytellers of medieval Japan.
My name is Maria Oshodi and I worked as a script writer for theatre from 1984-1992. My plays including The S Bend, Blood Sweat and Fears, From Choices to Chocolates, Here Comes A Candle and Hound were produced by national touring companies such as Talawa and Graeae, and later published by Longmans, Methuen and John Murray. I also wrote the screenplay Mug, which was produced by Warner Sisters as a short for Channel 4 Television.
Taking Flight to Japan
In this story, I wish to expound more on the resulting project from my eventful trip to Japan almost 2 years ago. I was awarded a cultural mobility grant by ASEF Mobility First! in 2018 and in October of that year I visited Japan for the first time. Armed with the knowledge and contacts collected from that trip, I soon began production back in the UK on a new touring show called Flight Paths in collaboration with Yellow Earth, the UK’s leading East and Southeast Asian theatre company. Together, the artistic Director Kumiko Mendel of Yellow Earth and I co-directed the multimedia production inspired by the Japanese tradition of Biwa Hoshi and the Goze women who were blind historic story-tellers and musicians who travelled Japan earning their living. Flight Paths tells the story of contemporary blind artists who have travelled from their homelands of four continents, Asia, Africa, Australia and the USA, to forge their careers in the UK.
What are some of the most interesting lessons you have learned during your visit?
As the show has a strong Japanese theme that features a blind Japanese artist, Takashi Kakuchi, I wanted to have an opportunity to visit Japan ahead of the production before it went into rehearsals. This was to help me connect more with Japanese culture before taking on the challenge of directing the production and also to make stronger contacts with Japanese disability arts organisations.
So during my trip to Japan I gave a lecture and ran a workshop for some associated artists of SLOW Label in Yokohama. They ranged from circus, dance and visual artists to musicians, and all had an interest in disability art, galvanized by the Director of SLOW Label Kris Hoshi, who was also advisor to the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
I gave a presentation for Eiko Sasaki who runs Applied Theatre club in Tokyo. This was an interesting and thoughtful gathering of Japanese psychologists, educationalists and arts practitioners, keen on bringing new perspectives to their work.
Over dinner with Miyuki Tanaka, an independent producer and developer of audio description, I learnt that the role of the contemporary artist in Japan is very marginal, with design being much more highly valued. I gained an understanding that to be an ‘artist’ in Japan very much meant doing this as a hobby or along-side another job that could bring in an income. Unless it was the kind of art that was highly commercial, which within Japanese culture is very much influenced by the US market. This chimed with the fact that I learnt that the equivalent of the Arts Council has only just been set up in Japan within the last two years in response to the lead up to Tokyo 2020.
In comparison, England has a rich appreciation and support of the arts, both commercial and subsidised which is perceived as culturally valuable for its own self-expressive, training, engagement, educational and artistic reasons. Though both countries are driven by capitalist market forces, there seems much more emphasis on this in Japan with design and productivity being prized.
I was aware of quite a few disabled people while I moved around Tokyo but learnt that it is very different outside of the city centers for disabled people, who very much stay within the home and within institutions.
Therefore I feel Japan has a long way to go in developing the artistic and organisational leadership of disabled artists but the organisations, groups and individuals I met are enabling this journey to start.
One highlight of my trip was making contact with the coordinators of the blind tennis game Sound Ball which was invented in Japan by a blind student called Miyoshi Takei in the 1980’s. Since then the game has grown and developed in many countries all over the world and is very popular in the UK. I wanted to meet some visually impaired people outside of the arts sector and take part in one of their sessions. I enjoyed meeting and talking with these Japanese visually impaired people who welcomed me generously.
Having experienced the intensity of the Tokyo subway during my visit, it was unsurprising but tragic to learn of the death of Miyoshi Takei a few years before on the subway system. My trip deepened my understanding of the experience of blind people in Japan which increased the connection with Mr. Kojiro Hirose, a blind anthropologist Professor from Osaka, who we brought to London as part of our research to share his knowledge of the culture of Biwa Hoshi and Goze.
Developing Flight Paths
In February and March 2019, The production of Flight Paths toured to 6 venues in 4 regions in the UK over 9 dates. The show told personal stories of contemporary and historic Goze through aerial movement, music and dialogue.
The Biwa Hoshi were blind men who travelled around medieval Japan playing music and telling stories. Some centuries later groups of blind women, called Goze, organised themselves into guilds: living, training and travelling together in small groups. They played songs on a simple stringed instrument called a shamisen and told stories, changing the narrative according to the needs of the audience in the towns they visited. The Goze learnt their art from each other, by guiding the hands, showing their student how to play through repetition. In this way the repertoire of the Goze was imprinted in the bodies of the blind women, as was the landscape through which they travelled and the reverberation of the audiences to whom they performed. The Goze trained for 5 years under a female guide. After which they presented at a ritual festival before a gathering of other Goze, who decided whether to pass or fail them, and their performance was determined by the skill of our guides. To fail meant starting again from year one, to pass meant fully joining and starting the journey.
We were commissioned shortly after this by The Space to evolve this epic multimedia production inspired by the Goze, and bring it to life on screen for the first time in a new digital retelling. We began work on this in March 2020 at the start of the Coronavirus Lockdown, being joined by a new team of film editor, animator, illustrator and web designer. I worked with them to create the story board of the film of the original Flight Paths production and create 4 episodes from the story to construct this new interactive experience. We added the animation of a central Goze character, Take, to act as a guide, narrator and audio describer for the visitor to help them through their online journey, encountering unique reflections on travel, blindness and migration.
Flight Paths digital was launched in August 2020 to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. Now the Olympics have been re-scheduled for 2021, we are aiming to raise funds to create a Japanese language version of the experience in time for this. There are also plans to create an outdoor production of Flight Paths which will involve live performers interacting with the animation character of the Goze that we created for the digital version and we hope to tour this to outdoor festivals in 2021 in the UK and internationally.