Dark City – An Interview with Rachel Aspinwall and Holly Thomas

Over the past year, PECo Theatre have been developing ‘Dark City’, an immersive performance exploring visual impairment (VI). Collaborating with a group of older people and visually impaired co-creatives, PECo are working to improve cultural access for the VI community in Bristol and alongside the devising they’ve produced a series of podcasts with members of the VI community taking about creativity in their lives.

Here you can read a Q&A about the learnings from the R&D creative process.

At a visual impairment accessibility lecture, attendees find events interrupted by a voice that hijacks the airwaves of the audio describe headphones they are wearing, calling them to action. The Dark City is in peril.

Whole areas are disappearing, becoming impassable voids. Buildings and parks that used to be favourite haunts are causing sickness and injury. And now some of its citizens have started to disappear.

The remaining citizens are organising to resist this threat to their world and they have sent out a call, will you take action, work with them to uncover the mystery of the peril, be part of helping them to save their world from destruction? 

To do so you must enter their world…

PECo theatre’s Dark City project invites its audience to discover the city through the perspective of visually impaired people, in an immersive, interactive, multi-sensory theatre piece that is ambitious both in theme and style.

Rachel Aspinwall and her team are inviting you, the audience, to take action, and work with the citizens save their city from peril. The work takes you on a journey into the Dark City, utilising new technology to create an immersive and individual experience for those taking part.

Part way through the R&D for the project, PECo’s team incorporates both visually impaired and sighted artists and collaborators. They’re currently experimenting with incorporating assistive technology, testing ideas, and gathering experiences; and gaining feedback from the wider visually impaired community through their Dark City Sessions. I was able to catch up with Artistic Director Rachel, and Dance Artist Holly Thomas, to find out how the Dark City is evolving, what motivates the project, and what to expect from the final experience.

First off, how would you like to introduce the project?

Rachel Aspinwall: The piece is a mixed reality performance, designed with visually impaired people, with the intention of imparting an experiential understanding of the world of visual impairment through a heightened imaginative fiction.

We are integrating technology with site-specific work and trying to create an embodied experience for our audience. For us it’s taking things to a new level. Creating an embodied somatic experience, as opposed to an observational one and making a piece that’s inclusive in both process and product.

Beginning with an initiation into a new way of ‘seeing’, it moves from an indoor immersive multi-sensory experience to an interactive journey through various city environments, augmented by sound and other sensory stimuli. It explores weaving elements of game based task driven activities with a powerful emotive narrative within which the audience becomes a participant, interacting not just with the creative content we have made for them but also with the other audience members.

Who’s involved, and how are those relationships developing?

RA: So there’s Holly…

Holly Thomas: My background is in dance and movement and I’m visually impaired myself. Then there’s Steph [Stephanie Kempson], our writer, and she’s doing all the audio description too, she’s really been absorbing everything. And then there’s Tom Newell, our creative technologist and audio-visual artist.

RA: And then there’s a core team of 12 co-devisers who come from a variety of backgrounds, the majority of them are 55+ some working, some retired but all very active in their lives. Some are musicians, or write or have been involved in theatre before, and some were or still are involved in technology, teaching, accessibility training, and sighted guiding. So that’s the core team, a really broad and diverse range of people actually. We’ve become a bit of a family now!

HT: We also have a note taker Chloe Scholefield, who’s fantastic, who makes everything from the meetings accessible.

Where did the inspiration for The Dark City project come from?

RA: That inspiration came from PECo theatre’s Hidden City project in Bristol in 2015; we placed eight talented local writers in buildings and places that were opening their doors for Doors Open day; and one of those buildings was at the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) on Stillhouse Lane. Steph Kempson, the writer, who is still on the project now, was placed there and came up with a beautiful piece of performance poetry. She performed it live and it had a fantastic reaction, people were moved by it and moved by hearing the way that she’d managed to incorporate elements of the stories they (the centre’s users and staff) had told her.

Retrospectively I went back to a number of these buildings and asked ‘would you like to work with us further’ and the RNIB made it easy, they were instantly supportive. Bristol Aging Better then funded us in running an intergenerational project over 12 weeks at the Stillhouse Lane site in 2016. The group swelled from 8 to 35 depending on what we were doing, but there was a core group of 8 that stayed with us throughout. That group came up with the seed idea for a piece of theatre that would be this multi-sensory interactive journey into a place called the Dark City. Everyone loved the idea of using a heightened imaginative narrative rather than creating a documentary style piece.

The term Dark City actually came from blind academic John Hull, who, in his lecture on blindness and memory, welcomed any ‘fellow citizens of the Dark City who might be sitting in the audience’, but we are currently considering if it’s the right title for the show now.

Holly, what motivated you to join the project?

HT: I went along to the sessions when they were at RNIB. In the publicity it said something about sharing stories and I thought that sounded interesting. In the end I went along to as many of those as I could.

One of the things that came out of it at that time was this idea of the invisible palace, this place that you could go to (and for me at the time it was the Stillhouse Lane building) that was architecturally designed in such a way that it was completely accessible for you, as a visually impaired person. So some questions came from that; How do visually impaired people come together in that place? What does community mean in that place? And we also touched on the fact that that place is hidden from the rest of the city.

I talked with the group and with Rachel about movement; I’ve worked a lot with visually impaired people looking at embodiment, movement, and dance practice, and I was considering how that might form part of the journey, how could people potentially move through a journey and what does that mean. I was then asked to be part of the core artist group and have a role in the steering group as well. I’m excited about how these journeys develop, and how we can embody those experiences and somehow translate that through, to our audience, so that they have a different sense of navigating the world.

Inclusivity and authenticity seem to be at the heart of the project, both through the core collaborative team’s visually impaired members, and through your Dark City Sessions. How is that inclusivity guiding the project?

RA: What we are trying to achieve is an inclusive approach to both process and product. Of the 15 people in our core creative team, 11 are visually impaired. And these core collaborators are a diverse group of working age and retired adults ranging from 26 to 81.

The final piece has to be accessible first and foremost by visually impaired people, and through the research we came to realise that understanding the process to making inclusive immersive theatre was crucial before moving forward with the creative elements. The value, the heart of it, is that there is this fantastic group of people that are from such different backgrounds and ages and experiences, working in a way that is complex; but I don’t see how you could make a project like this in any other way.

So there’s the practical, technical element of what that process is, and then there’s how incredibly rewarding the process has been so far; everybody has made friends, and connected, so there’s this fantastic process that took the group from a ‘Them and Us’ dynamic to ‘We’.

HT: It’s a collaborative approach, that feels really important to me, that it’s about collaboration from the start and right the way through the process. It feels like the voice and the stories and the experiences of ourselves as the visually impaired people involved are at the heart of the work. You’re not just this amorphous group of the visually impaired or the blind, it really touches on who these citizens are. The very material of what it is, is because of the way we’ve been working.

What has surprised you most in the work you have done on the project so far?

RA: I started with nothing but questions, so I didn’t have set ideas about what the project was going to give me. But I would say the thing that has most taken me aback is my own lack of awareness about my own lack of awareness! All the assumptions you make as a sighted person, even when you think you’ve listened; it can’t be helped, that’s the world you’ve grown up in and that’s your set of references, yet again and again I’ve had to question my own assumptions and reconsider.

The other thing that has humbled and filled me with awe, is that some of the people in our group have either none, or almost no, sight; yet they have the capacity for travelling the city and living much more interesting lives than me!

HT: And not a surprise as such, but with any group there’s this finding and establishing of trust and communication. I’ve been amazed at how we’ve all grown through that journey. Sometimes things have been quite raw or personal to yourself, and to be able to find this place of trust and equality of relationship where you can begin to explore what it is that you want to put forward, that’s been amazing.

Something else that surprised me, is how working in the group, and talking about our experience in the city, changes how we relate in the city outside the project. It makes you begin to relate to it in different ways and to be informed by other peoples experiences too; it’s integrated into my life and my orientation in space.

What value do you hope your audience will take away from their experience in the Dark City?

RA: I hope people have a profound experience. I would like people, in the best possible way, to have something of the journey that have I had on the project so far. Hopefully we can achieve in the performance some of that process that we’ve gone through, in understanding other people’s perspectives, and in connecting deeply and empathically with other people so that it changes the way that you see things and it changes the way you respond to the world. It’s changed everything for me. I’m hoping that we can find something of that for people to take away with them.

And that it makes a difference in a real way to the attitudes that people have, which range from what I had – unexamined preconceptions – to people who are actually pretty abusive.

HT: I really hope that people come away with some practical knowledge, understanding that there is this spectrum of visual impairment; and come away from this not questioning or disbelieving or needing you to prove something. And to not be afraid as well. The project should break those barriers down.

What do you hope to take away from the project itself?

RA: One thing that I was exploring throughout this project, that I’ve been trying to weave more deeply into every part of the work, is the collaborative co-devising process. I’d already been doing that, but it’s really tricky to do it and to do it well. And so, for me, I feel like this group has helped clarify that process. There’s been a real sense of shared commitment and co-authorship, and that’s one of the key things that will go forward into all PECo projects.

For more information please contact  or visit http://www.partexchangeco.org.uk

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