“What’s come out of it is something more than we ever imagined.” | Maria Oshodi on bringing Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say to Bloomsbury Festival

Tell us about your show.

Maria: The show is called Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say, taken from the old music hall comedy slogans. We’ve changed the original ‘I’ to ‘eye’ because we’re a visually impaired theatre company. It’s a stand up comedy show with fifteen acts at the last count. Everyone comes from a very diverse range of backgrounds. We’ve got two MCs. One is a seasoned stand up comedy performer, Georgie Morell.

What made you want to put on this show?

Maria: We’ve been running this improvisation club for visually impaired people since last year. It was something that we thought London needed. There were lots of different groups, but nothing around drama and having fun getting together. It was really successful, it attracted a lot of exuberant characters who wanted to do more than just meet up once a month for the club.

So what we thought we’d do is have everyone work on their own individual acts. Everyone seemed to be interested in having a go at stand up comedy for the first time, so we brought Georgie in at that point to mentor everyone. She’s been giving everyone guidance around making their act funnier or if there’s an idea that needs to be developed in certain ways, giving advice on presentation on stage and holding sessions about those kinds of things.

And then coronavirus hit. We were planning to do a semi-launch with an invited audience in June at the Camden People’s Theatre. That had to be postponed so we decided to do it online instead, to a very small audience. Bloomsbury Festival came along to that and it was a real success! We didn’t realise how well it was going to go down. Bloomsbury booked it in June for this autumn, not really knowing if the festival was going to happen or not.

Bit by bit we realised that we can actually do this. We can continue to have rehearsals, for instance. We’re not a very big group. We can have one act come in after the other and have solo rehearsal sessions. We’re going to be mindful of social distancing at the event itself, but have everybody in the space. It’s going to be livestreamed to our audience, but most of the performers will be there. There are some people who are shielding or don’t want to leave their homes, so we’ll set up Zoom for them, but the majority of the performers will be live at the venue.

It sounds like that’s worked out fairly well. How are you feeling about doing a show that has required those kind of changes?

Maria: It’s been a really strange year. We’re part of the arts and performance industry and it’s been really hard for a lot of people. But for us, right as lockdown we started working on a digital production that we were commissioned for last year and it’s just took this long to sort it all out so we were ready to go in March. So we had the perfect project to be working on.

Then this comedy show started happening under the surface. When we were thinking about whether we could make this work live – and Bloomsbury Festival have been really encouraging about us doing it live – it just felt really possible. The pandemic has been really difficult for everyone, but particularly visually impaired people who have had a lot of our support mechanisms for getting around – for instance, guidance from staff at London Underground – has been compromised because of social distancing. It means there’s a lot to get your head around and additional anxiety.

But our performers have done really well, I’m really proud of them. They want to do it and want to be there and we’re prepared to support them in doing that and take measures to ensure that the environment is safe.

One of those things is that we can’t have a live audience, that would be too much to handle. We’ve got fifteen performers plus be staff, so that’s at least twenty people in the room. We’re going to create a seating area that’ll be picked up on the livestream where the audience would be with cardboard cut-outs. We’re going to stencil on famous faces in the audience. People like Tommy Cooper and Alexei Sayle and Lenny Henry. They’ll socially distance with our performers sitting in the audience before it’s their turn to go on.

We want to create the idea of a covert comedy club going on somewhere.

You mentioned issues that visually impaired people are facing during the pandemic and your group explores things you’d face in regular circumstances anyway. Is that something you’ll be exploring in this show?

Maria: They all come at it from different angles, there’s such an array of different people and different backgrounds. Some of them talk about very direct experiences of lockdown and what that’s meant for them. Others aren’t talking about it at all, they’re doing more observational comedy about other things. Like, being an immigrant to the UK, being a middle-aged mum, applying for PIP payments and convincing them that you’re eligible for that. That comes to some quite extreme conclusions. Another one explores what it’s like to date as a visually impaired person, there’s no holds barred on that one. One guy talks about life on the streets of Hackney. It’s really quite eclectic.

Your acts explore some interesting themes that you wouldn’t necessary describe as funny. What do you think the impact is of examining these topics through comedy?

Maria: Well I didn’t really know until they came up one after the other in the rehearsals. We wanted to make sure that what they were doing was funny enough and also not offensive. Just because they’re visually impaired, doesn’t mean they’re going to have the right monitor for that kind of thing so we wanted to check that out.

I was really surprised. Some of the humour is quite dark and satirical. Not that this is an educational thing – I hate the way that disability and performance is always being about education. But I think that inevitably, anyone who comes to the show is going to really understand, for an array of perspectives, if they ever had any misconceptions about visual impairment. If they believe that it was a really diverse experience, that’s going to be confirmed. But anyone who comes thinking of any stereotypes are going to have those blown out of the water.

Is that something that you were aiming for with this show?

Maria: No, we just wanted to give everyone a go! We wanted to have a laugh. Those were the only two things we wanted to do. And what’s come out of it is something more than we ever imagined. It’s fantastic. For each of them, it’s a platform. It’s not doing an hour long show, so there’s not the same pressure. But they can also sit back and watch each other, so there’s a kind of relaxedness and camaraderie about it on one level. As a collective, it’s a great show and a great statement. I think it’s something we all need at this point, with everything so grim. I think you wouldn’t necessarily to expect humour right now, but why not? Here it is and this is it.

What do you hope people take away from the show?

Maria: Their money’s worth. It’s a fiver. I want them to come away feeling like it was a fiver well spent and they want more. This is at Bloomsbury Festival and there are other fringe festivals going on. It would be nice to be able to take it on the road maybe next year. If we leave the audience wanting more then maybe we’ll be able to do more.

What are your hopes for the show next?

Maria: We’re going to see how it goes, see what’s out there in terms of festivals. Brighton Festival is always a really good place. We were at the Komedia about three years ago with one of our shows, it would be great to go there again with this. I know some places not too far from London we’d be able to get everyone to. We just have to wait and see what’s on the cards for the whole entertainment industry. It’s a bit crushed at the moment. But we can think two weeks into the future when we’ll be doing this!

How do you think the way the performance is being adapted at the moment will affect the way we consume it post-COVID?

Maria: Well it’s interesting. I wonder if there’s going to be more a VR style interface between real experience and augmented experience. Maybe that, which has been a bit tricksy and gamey, might have a real life function. I don’t know. It seems like that could happen out of necessity, it could develop into the next generation of Zoom.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to put on this kind of show?

Maria: Get a big enough venue. Goodenough College where we’re going to be is massive. We did a site on Tuesday and it’s really big. That’s important. Also make sure you have breakout spaces to spread out a bit. Definitely observe all the sanitation guidelines. Take lots of hand sanitizer. We’re not asking our performers to wear masks while they’re performing, that would be weird, but it’s something we’re observing personally when we need to.

It’s a combination of Zoom and live. What I’m finding is that, even in my other work, when there’s an opportunity to perform live, there is a mixture of people who want to be there in the physical space and people who don’t. I think we need to perfect this hybrid way of delivering performance or workshop experiences or whatever so that everybody, whether they’re there or engaging remotely, they get the same experience. I don’t know how long this is going to go on for and we can’t exclude people who can’t, for whatever reason, get out. But then it’s sometimes weird to have this flat, two-dimensional presence while other people are there living and breathing.

I think it’ll be important working on that and perfecting that would be really good.

Eye Say, Eye Say, Eye Say is at Bloomsbury Festival on October 17th.

Book your ticket here.

You can find out more about Extant, Maria’s visually impaired performing arts group, by checking out their website and following them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

You can find out more about Maria’s work by checking out her website and following her on Twitter.