Here is a breadcrumb trail leading to how A Trail of Two Cities’ has developed since 2014, a project that proposes to research and develop the urban experiences, connections and inspirations shared between two blind artists of colour: London’s Maria Oshodi and LA’s Lynn Manning.
In 2003 I met Lynn Manning, an African American blind poet, actor, writer and Paralympic Judo silver medalist. I worked with him over the next 10 or so years in various ways, one of the last times being during a cultural exchange in LA when I had the idea for TO2C. We both worked on the project proposal, and after 4 failed attempts to raise funding through:
• Artists International Development Fund (twice) 2015
• Jerwood Foundation 2016
• Unlimited international 2017
Finally on my fifth attempt, the Arts Council England ‘Grants for the Arts’ old scheme, thankfully came good and supported the project in 2018 at R/D stage. Don’t let it be said that having nearly 30 years of arts experience or being of colour or disabled is a fast track to guaranteed arts funding… even in these Renowned times of poor diversity engagement by the major arts institutions!
During these years of fund raising attempts the project had to under-go changes in it’s definition , for reasons that will become apparent if you come to see the eventual show…. But, I stuck with it through every negative funding outcome and the curve balls life lobbed my way, meeting every challenge with re-enlivened artistic inventiveness. As an up-side I gained more partners along the way, like the ARC in Stockton, and Nick Tyler of the PAMELA research lab.
So in the project I aim to explore:
• How two blind artists of colour , who lost their sight in their early twenties, respond to their very different urban spaces: London and LA.
• How they have plotted their personal journeys through their cities, examining the relationship between non-visual street awareness, ethnicity and gender.
• How memory and descriptive language creates its own reality in two evolving urban landscapes.
High ambitions, but where to start!
Well Gabi the Producer and Terry the film maker/co-director from Braun arts and I spent 10 days in LA in the summer of 2018. We researched, searched for and filmed locations across the city with particular reference to Lynn’s life. We also met and interviewed a range of artists and friends of Lynn’s and experimented with accessible ways of travelling around when visually impaired. As well as this we got entangled in lengths of red tape issuing from the Bancroft Library in Berkley who sent us on a ‘Circumlocution’ trail of theirs, in our hunt of some relevant archival recordings, that went on for months after we left LA, ending up as a total wild goose chase… So is the path of research sometimes!
As Artistic Director of Extant I had other schedules running parallel with TO2C and it became apparent that I would have to put this project on pause while I focused on directing and touring another production (Flight Paths) for Extant in 2018 going into 2019. The Arts Council were understanding and granted me an extension so I could pick up on TO2C development again after the Spring of 2019.
I began my writing side of the project, working in response to some writing that Lynn had produced for us and also from some interview transcripts with him. One of his early memories was being taken to see the B movie ‘The Blob’, and Without too much thought, I started my own trail writing about old films I’d seen at local cinema’s too . I very quickly discovered that as well as writing about the locations and events in the films, I was writing about time and the body, in particular fading sight and captured visual memory.
I asked Glen Neath, who has a great track record of writing, and working experimentally with performance in theatre , to give me some regular feedback on the writing I was producing for this project. When the trail sometimes disappears into the dense wood, it’s been good to hear someone calling out , even in the distance … “Try coming over here in this direction …” And I’ve found that by following the voice it’s helped lead me through the thicket!
However, the writing I was producing was following more a prose trail, and ultimately the piece that I needed to create for this had to work for stage, and several things influenced the next writing turn I took :
• I happened to see some interesting confessional one person performances at the time like Nye Russell-Thompson in Stammer Mouth.
• Then there was the wise words of Melvin Johnson who I had interviewed during my LA research trip, who had said, “Tell the story of Lynn from what you were telling me about your first reaction in meeting him and how you became friends and soul mates and fellow artist. “
• Also There was a totally tangential strand of exploration that I began around this point where I worked with another film maker to record my mum who has dementia, and I began to understand this project being the beginning of several different but interrelated bodies of work.
• Then in the summer of 2019, Terry, Gabi and I spent the day in a hired car driving around several South, central and North London locations to film recs areas from my past, and this stirred up powerful memories, thoughts and feelings…
Immediately after this I took my laptop away with me on a visually impaired tennis tournament in Gibraltar and in-between matches, I wrote the first draft of the script, in which I also featured some of the prose film writing. I found it productive to write while away so sandwiched in a few breaks following feedback sessions on each draft from Glen and the Brauns.
We needed to manifest Lynn and PAMELA was there to help us. In spite of a ridiculously tight diary we did manage several meetings with the incredible polymath Nick Tyler, director of the research lab, and it’s new bigger sister enterprise PEARL, currently being built out in Barking. At one point we discussed embarking on interesting experiments with fog density which was something PAMELA wanted to test at the lab with regards street lighting visibility and also that we might find useful in TO2C.
Apart from this, throughout 2019 Melvin Johnson, writer and director of Skid Row radio in LA, was staging his piece ‘Voice from the Village’, a play that tracked the work of Lynn Manning and Quentin Drew in their efforts to set up Watts Village Theatre Company over 20 years ago. The play featured a scene between Lynn and an actor who played me, and Melvin kept us informed of the productions various performance dates in Hollywood, and sent me a film of the show at one point. I decided to audition a couple of people in LA, an actor friend of Lynn’s and Gary Robinson who played Lynn Manning in Melvin’s show, using some sections from the developing script. Bingo! Gary cracked it with an uncanny resemblance to the voice of Lynn, no doubt working on Melvin’s play having helped!
PAMELA research time
In October 2019 The Brauns and I spent a week at the PAMELA facility with their technicians exploring what the projection, sound and staging possibilities might be for the spring 2020 sharing of this work – We found:
Terry’s filmed locations in LA were fantastic evocations of Lynn’s city and are absorbing when projected onto big screens in the Lab.
We decided on a way to bring Lynn into a performance relationship with me on stage.
I played with my voice on and off mic to address the audience direct, and also to achieve a more reflective delivery. Gabi mocked up a system where I can control cues accessibly while on stage. I found recording part of the script to play back as line feeding while in this exploration, helped me hear myself in performance mode and hear the script in a new way, and I gained better perspectives on new ideas or elements to make clear, or further draw out.
We worked with the lab technicians, Nikos and Tatsuko, to raise the pavement modules on the platform stage in the lab to different level configurations to see whether this affected the staging and feel of performance, and we added different street light colours and directions to try and support this.
When we explored a section of script featuring Lynn and I in dialogue, I found what nerves I thought I might have about performing beforehand, disappeared in the excitement of being able to deliver lines and with supported physicality that I’ve tried to achieve in rehearsal rooms for years with actors in my role as Director, but now I could just do it myself!
I can’t state enough the benefit of having this dedicated research play-time during script development, as it has accessed us to a multi-dimensional relationship to the project idea which has been different to preceding phases. I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the potential of the piece as a result, and now, excitingly have a whole new stack of work to do to bring this to the fore….
Over the next few months of the project, leading to the spring sharing at PAMELA:
• I will continue to write.
• Gary and Melvin will produce some raw performance material for us in LA.
• We will spend two more days back at the lab to test sound integration.
• Embark on real filming of a couple of my locations in London.
• The editing of visual and audio content.
• Creating an AI access tool to demo at the spring sharing.
Continue to check in to the site for further updates!