I’ve been acting professionally since the earth’s crust was still cooling. When I started my acting career, I could see pretty well. I actually remember the pivotal moment on stage when I first realized I had a visual problem. A little backstory is helpful here.
I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (affectionately called RP) when I was 17 years old. If you think of a computer or TV screen being made up of a zillion pixels (a pixel is the smallest electronic element on the screen) and then slowly the pixels, one by one, burn out, you have an idea what happens to your vision when the zillion receptor cells on your retina start to die off one by one. I was in for a routine eye exam when this diagnosis was heaped on me. Since the receptor cells die off slowly, I wasn’t aware that my vision was any different than my neighborhood buddies. I was told that I would lose a significant portion of my sight – the amount and time table was unknown. Being 17, I didn’t pay much attention to it and went about living life; I drove cars, chased girls and played volleyball.
When I was 25, I was on stage rehearsing a company dance number for the Sunrise Musical Theatre production of Godspell and I was apparently out of step. The director yelled for me to use my peripheral vision. My immediate response was: “I have no peripheral vision!” (As if he was supposed to know.) It was precisely at that moment when my conscious mind registered the fact that my side vision was gone. Depending on what variety of RP you have, you lose your vision slowly – so slowly that you don’t recognize the visual changes as they occur. If half a zillion pixels stopped working in your computer monitor, you would see an incomplete image but could probably figure out the doppelgänger on the screen. As your retina loses its ability to send the proper messages to your brain, your brain tries to be helpful and sort of does a paint-by-numbers thing; it instantly analyzes what you can see and fills in your visual gaps with pieces of the image from the sample. So in essence, until you lose a significant number of receptor cells, you think you can see normally. I was no doubt out of sync with the actors next to me when my director popped his cork and yelled for me to get in step.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that acting was actually a good profession for a blind dude. Stages and film sets are small spaces and you rehearse the scene over and over until it is right. Ah! To be able to practice your “real world” till you get it right! Essentially, you’re memorizing where to move while you're memorizing your lines. With your lines you take your cues from the other actors. Your cues for your movements come from counting steps, keying off a set piece like a chair or coffin, a change in flooring going from hard surface to carpet for example, and when there is no one or nothing to anchor me, a small thin strip of wood called “half round molding,” like a mini broom stick cut in half, can be painted the same color as the stage and tapped into the boards with thin nails. It is flush with the stage so the audience doesn’t notice it and it doesn’t interfere with the movements of the other actors. You can find the strips with your foot and orient yourself accordingly. You may want a warning strip 6 inches before the lip of a platform, a real neck saver! Strips forming t's or crosses help with north, south, east and west orientation. At the end of the day, it's all about collaborating with the director and set designer. And oh yeah, even though I’m now totally blind, I’m still dancing! Memorizing the dance steps for the “Tradition” and “To Life” numbers in Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago was no sweat. (Amusingly when folks in the audience were asked by friends to pick out the blind guy in the cast, they always chose another actor, usually the one who didn’t dance so well.)
At the heart of the challenge is connecting with a director who sees past the disability (pun intended) to your talent and is excited to work with you. As directors don’t have a lot of experience working with an actor who is blind, I encourage them to think of me like any other actor. Just tell me where you want me to be at any given point in the script, and together we will figure out the on and off. I have played emperors, priests, military officers, funeral directors, a 105 year old American Indian scout, several Shakespearean characters, and occasionally a blind guy.
This last point I’ll make: there are not many blind characters written into plays and film scripts which is why I’ve played mostly sighted characters. Though I’m always happy to pretend I can see, I look to the future when our stages and screens are populated with more characters with disabilities since we are the nation’s largest minority. But that’s grist for the mill for another blog. Stay tuned.