Friday October 11, 2013 will be the third annual Read for RNIB Day. There are almost two million blind or partially-sighted people in the UK. Their choice of books is significantly more limited than it is for sighted people. Incredibly only seven per cent of all books are fully accessible for them, robbing them of the opportunity to be fully involved in so much cultural discourse.
In order to raise awareness and funds to address this, the RNIB has devised the Read for RNIB Day to help widen the population of materials available to blind and partially sighted people.
To promote their fundraising day in October, RNIB boldly tasked Punchdrunk director and associate artist Hector Harkness, director Kate Hargreaves of Gideon Reeling and Carnegie Medal winner writer Patrick Ness to produce an inclusive event which told a story in a non-conventional way.
Given free rein to produce the material from this request, the team created Now That You've Died.
Billed as "a book without words, a story without reading", Now That You've Died is a play performed in total darkness. No lights, no flashes. Nothing. I couldn't even see my hand when I held it in front of my face. Intimidating? Yes. Unnerving? For sure. But that, of course, is the point.
With all visual ability not just reduced but removed completely, the story begins.
We are all dead. Welcomed to the afterlife by the Dark Angel, voiced wonderfully by Christopher Eccleston, the audience is forced to address their darkest fears and to let go of hope. This is our first step towards eternity, in whatever glorious, terrifying form that may be.
Of course as one sense is removed, so others are heightened. The audience could no longer see but we could hear, feel and smell. The production team played on this beautifully by situating us on an unstable platform, taking the security of a stable foundation away.
The use of sound in this production was superb. At times there was silence, at times the soft music of love songs caressed our ears. The voice of The Dark Angel would terrify us, and occasionally he would soothe us. But all the time, our ears, our touch, our sense of smell were working overtime to make up for the loss of sight.
The experience was a distressing one for a few in the audience (it probably didn't help that not only had they temporarily lost their sight, but they were being ordered by the Dark Angel to let go of all thoughts of those left behind). But that was a fascinating anthropological study in itself. How would you react to losing your sight? Indeed, how will you react to death?
The production was wonderful and fearless. By choosing not to take the audiobook approach of reading out a simple story to a visually impaired audience, the creative team took the gamble to create a piece of immersive, subjective theatre.
The Dark Angel would spark questions and debate in our own minds. "You are what you remember" he said. What is it that you remember? Then we would be left to confront our own mortality. What memories are we holding on to? Or do we embrace death, hoping to find a lost loved one on the other side? In order to survive the afterlife, we have to let go of all hope. As the Dark Angel says, "You've died. And you've died again."
And so rather than being spoon-fed a story, we were allowed to become part of the narrative itself. Each experience was unique to the audience member. As co-Director Hector Harkness said afterwards, though there's no sight "it's still a world of pictures and of creating them". This time, the world of pictures is in our own minds. Imagination will always fill in the missing pieces.
I hope such bold work inspires similar approaches by other producers. Not only was this ground-breaking for those without visual impairment, but other productions like this would be able to bring in those with visual impairment also.
If you want to get involved with Read for RNIB, visit their website readforrnib.org.uk for more information.