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Disability representation in theatre: Be better. Do better.

Actor and director Ben Wilson talks about the importance of disability representation in theatre - and how Extant, a professional performing arts company of visually impaired artists, gets it right

Extant Theatre's Ben Wilson, a white man with short blonde hair and a beard wearing a floral shirt, is captured on-stage, mid-sentence. (Credit: Jamie Dennis, Primo Digital Video Productions)

I’m Ben, a blind actor, theatre maker and accessibility consultant. I joined Extant, the UK’s leading professional performing arts company of visually impaired (VI) artists and theatre practitioners, in July 2023 as their first Trainee Artistic Director.

Prior to that, I’d spent most of my career working in mainstream, non-disabled led organisations, where sometimes I felt like the odd one out. That’s why coming into Extant felt like a weight lifted had been lifted off my shoulders – here’s a UK theatre organisation that is completely inclusive of and celebrates the brilliance of VI people.

Unseen

One of my first projects for Extant was to direct Unseen, a gripping audio drama that examines the effects of domestic abuse on the blind and VI community. It responds to the Unseen Report, by the Vision Foundation, which highlighted that 1 in 12 disabled people in the UK will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime.

The production was devised, performed, and led by a creative team of talented VI artists who poured their hearts and souls into making sure the work honoured the stories of survivors of those who contributed to the original report.

As a theatre company, Extant always want to tell nuanced stories of VI people to help champion and challenge issues that are vital to the VI community. As an artist, Unseen is exactly the sort of work that I want to be making – I am proud of the finished product and the brilliant artists whose ideas went into making the project happen.

Let us play us

Running alongside my work on Unseen was The Globe controversy where they cast a non-disabled actor in a lead role. I wrote a blog about it that was quoted in the Guardian.

At its best, the theatre industry can be part of the battle to make society a more equal and fairer place. But yet again, when it comes to disability representation, not only is the theatre industry not part of a solution, but it’s very much leading the way in being the problem.

If I had grown up in a world where visually impaired people and stories were normalised and represented in the way that other people’s stories are, then my transition into being blind would have been far easier. And this is why Unseen is vital.

You can listen to Unseen for free. Please note, it contains themes of domestic abuse, violence, trauma, and strong language.

Disability representation = access to success

Outside of Unseen my role as Trainee Artistic Director has enabled me to develop artistic leadership. Spending day in, day out, observing and being part of the daily operations of a theatre company, which has enhanced my skills in fundraising, marketing, report writing, developing relationships with partners, re-writing HR policies – all the areas that I have only learnt by doing.

So, what’s next? I now have my own artistic project to be cracking on with and hope to bring together the contacts and relationships I have built in my previous work in other venues and the skills and experience from Extant to create an exciting piece of theatre with even more brilliant VI artists in the process.

About the author

Ben Wilson is a blind actor, theatre maker and access consultant who currently works as the Trainee Artistic Director for Extant, the UK’s leading professional performing arts company of visually impaired artists and theatre practitioners.

He spent five years as the Ramps on The Moon Agent For Change at Sheffield Theatres and co-founded both creative audio description company Hear The Picture and theatre company Brick Wall Ensemble.

He recently received a commendation at the National Theatre and Sunday Times‘ prestigious Ian Charleson awards.

For more insight about disability representation in theatre, check out the #MyBlindStory posts from actor Ronnie Chism and actor Matthew Saracho.

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