The Seven Steps

Blind folks and old folks have something in common: they prefer their own bathrooms. One exception is the airplane lavatory. It’s very efficient for a blind person. Everything you need is nailed down – soap pump to the left of the sink, paper towels to the right, trash shoot below the paper towels. And all within reach.

Going out and about in public is something we all need to do from time to time, say, to take in a movie, travel to Boise or hit the pool hall. Generally, unfamiliar bathrooms can be tricky for blind folks.

First off, if you’re a blind guy out with your girlfriend or wife, which bathroom do you choose? Today, many large theaters and buildings have a family restroom. No-brainer here. In you go. But, in loo (mandatory pun!) of the family bathroom, you usually have a choice of either the men’s room or women’s room.

I have found that most men don’t care if a woman is in their restroom. However, if your female companion is wary of entering the men’s john, she’ll plant you inside the door where you promptly announce: “I’m a blind dude. Can someone guide me to the urinal?” Guys are usually happy to do so, then lead you to the sink, Johnny-on-the-spot with the paper towels, and then offer a helping hand to the exit.

I actually prefer entering the women’s bathroom with my girlfriend – it’s easier to navigate when you’re with somebody familiar. Of course, there are times when a lady inside the restroom protests my presence there. To stem the ‘outrage,’ I usually ask her where she studied Criminology and then congratulate her on recognizing me as a nefarious rascal.

Public-Bathroom

If you wind up alone in an unfamiliar restroom, say in a restaurant or office, there are seven steps to follow before you get down to business: you must first locate 1) the toilet, 2) the flusher, 3) the toilet paper, 4) the sink, 5) the soap, 6) the paper towels and 7) the trashcan. (Oops – the eighth step is remembering your way out.) If you’re in a hotel room, add the bath towels, the floor mat, the shampoo and then work your way to the bed, the thermostat, outlets for your adaptors, the room phone, the TV remote on/off and volume/channel buttons, the do-not-disturb sign and where to unplug the clock radio which was set to go off at 4:30 a.m. by the previous guest.

Flushers keep it interesting. In the airplane lav, the 4-inch square flush panel is a relatively easy target to tap with the toe of your sneaker while you’re washing up. The joystick or handle flushers on your standard commodes are a matter of which side their situated on. The newer toilets with the push buttons are a little trickier – especially when there’s two buttons.

Automatic flushers can be problematic. While standing in relief mode, you search for the flush handle with your other hand. Finding none, you back away hoping to hear that familiar ‘click-whoosh’ sound. Similarly, the auto sink and soap dispenser can be a bit frustrating, especially when one doesn’t work or you can’t find the sweet spot for engaging the auto-response mechanism. (I am told this often isn’t easy even for sighted folks.) You cup your hands under the water spigot. Nothing. So you search for the water handles or push on the soap nozzle, and nothing. You unwittingly repeat this process several times – similar to the way you retrace the same steps 18 times at home when you can’t find your wallet or keys. Finally, it dawns on you to work your way to the next sink where you repeat the dance and hopefully wash up. You also figure out it’s an automatic towel dispenser as a little paper towel finally comes buzzing out after frisking the entire metal box for its nonexistent lever.

urinals

Of course, none of these strategies are perfect. Once, I was in a high school bathroom and (as I always do) first measured the target urinal to center myself for optimum aim. Starting with my palms together about waist high, I slowly widen them until the backs of my hands touch the outer edges of the porcelain. This helps to measure the width of the urinal for proper centering. As I was emptying my bladder, I slightly moved my feet and heard the faint splashing of a shallow puddle of water beneath my sneakers. Yep. I had positioned myself in front of the wall between two urinals.

Steve Gladstone, The Blind Dude

I am Orange

Here’s how a certain color, orange in particular, manifests itself in the brain of the blind dude…as a poem. I Am Orange

I am orange. Not an orange, though I like the way it tastes.

I am the blossom of clouds on the horizon at sunset and the first beam of sunlight blessing the morning.

I am the sun passing from portal to portal, dividing the sky and defining time.

I pull the best from the colors that flank me: the romance out of red and the risk out of yellow.

I am the complexion of fire, warming as much as possible, burning when I need to burn.

I am the thoughts of a newborn child who has yet to know language, with little to mediate his surroundings, longing to know his world.

Halloween runs through my veins and keeps me in a nice dark place where I can get a thrill, a chill and a shrill, reminding me that dark isn't deadly.

On those rare days when all’s well – the weather is a breezy 72 degrees, everyone is helpful and friendly, two old problems are solved and the bills are paid – orange is what I am.

Missing Color

There are certain things you miss after seeing perfectly well and then becoming totally blind. It goes without saying that your children’s faces are at the top of the list. Certainly watching football and looking at a beautiful woman make the grade. Reading labels on cans and washing instructions on clothing are also included on this unusual roster. But color is a very special and peculiar line item on that daunting list of things you miss.

I remember being in my late 20s and catching a shot of vivid blue in the bottom corner of my right eye. It was both shocking and wonderful – shocking because it had jolted me into realizing that I had not been seeing color for quite some time, and wonderful to see some color again. Though I hadn’t been seeing color for years, it strangely never entered my conscious mind that I had lost it.

Losing color is something entirely different from losing vision. Curiously, colors continue to paint the walls of your memory long after they have disappeared from your sight. I remember vibrant reds, crisp greens and brilliant blues. I still recall the pastels of pinks, oranges and yellows evaporating into the horizon of the setting Key West sun.

As a child, I lived in Coral Gables, down the street from a fellow named Anthony Abraham. Mr. Abraham owned a huge Chevrolet dealership and had one of the biggest houses in the neighborhood, complete with a sprawling manicured garden. Every Christmas season, his house and garden was adorned with soft blue bulbs, a life-size animated Santa, flying reindeer, a singing choir and, most vividly, a huge tree strung with brilliantly multi-colored blinking lights.

Between every Thanksgiving and January 1st, This twinkling display (and also another large, beautifully lit house across the way, no doubt keeping the Abrahams on their holiday lighting toes), turned my otherwise sleepy little neighborhood street into a bustling highway with cars rumbling toward and away from the magnificent glittering tree that people from several counties away would drive to see. I recall lying in bed, wearing my Dr. Denton pajamas and watching the jalousie glass of my bedroom window flair up with bursts of white light as the headlamps of cars moved down and up my street.

As the evening wore on toward midnight and the traffic subsided, I would take just a few steps down the walkway from my front door, cross the swale into the street, and my eyes would fill up with the sparkling colors of this fairy-bush. Pure magic.

Happy Holidays!

Steve Gladstone

 

Sight Becomes Imagination

laurel-and-hardy.jpg

Sighted people who read a novel are essentially blind. They don’t see the actual characters they’re reading about. They are also blind when they listen to the radio. However, the words they read or hear may trigger vivid pictures in their head.

As they read, sighted folks will unconsciously cast the good guy, the bad guy and the girl with specific features and expressions (especially from those sexy passages) based on previous images stored in their memory banks.

People, color, places and things come alive in our minds; we mentally assemble a person or animal or bus or autumn tree or white picket fence as our unconscious pulls from our stockpiled memories.

Of course, the imagined characters in your head don’t match the real ones. You go to see the movie adapted from the novel and say, “Yikes! I didn’t picture Portnoy looking like that!” Or you hear the jazz musician’s deep raspy voice on the radio and conjure up a large, big-cheeked bald headed dude and then see him on some late night talk show a month later and he’s a little man with brown curly hair and narrow eyes.

At times, imagination can be more satisfying than the real thing.

Perhaps you’ve been speaking to a business associate for months on the phone and when you finally meet for the first time, the nice smile you imagined is loaded with bad teeth or the long skinny fingers you pictured suddenly become fat clammy hands.

Having now lived the first half of my life sighted and the second half as a blind man, I often reflect on the transition from being sighted to being blind – what I saw and didn’t see during those transition years. When you gradually go blind, there is that grey period when you wonder if you saw things or if it was, as the song says, “just my imagination running away with me.”

Since imagination and the real world are two different places, in which world was I living? And which had the better view?

That five year period of time when I was losing the remainder of my sight started around the release of the first Star Wars movie. I still wonder if it was in my eyes or my imagination where I first saw C-3PO and R2-D2. In my recollection is a tall metallic guy next to an industrial looking vacuum cleaner, the sci-fi equivalent of Laurel and Hardy.

R2D2andC3PO

courtesy of redlist.com

So now my day-to-day world is pretty much like a big radio that’s always on – disembodied people becoming three-dimensional in my head. I speak with somebody and their voice takes physical shape – my imagined image often quite a bit more colorful than the actuality. I recall working with Donna many years ago. She had a rough voice and smelled of cigarettes and drove our service truck. Yep, now you’ve got the picture. So when she gave me her smooth and petite hand to shake one day, I was flummoxed – she instantly transformed from someone with half a Y chromosome into a princess in distress.

Even though the reality doesn’t match the imagination, I often find people expecting me to be spot on when describing some person I just met, as if they are in the presence of a sorcerer. I must admit, I have resorted to artifice at times, asking a friend to secretly describe the new person to me first so when I’m later asked to give their description, I nail it and amaze the chumps gathered around to hear me wax on like some wizard.

Heck, even in college when I couldn’t see so well, I’d ask a pal for the specifications of the coed I was chatting up so that at the opportune time, I could tell her what she looked like, Impress her with my paranormal powers, and maybe get lucky.

So while you sighted folks read your novels, we blind guys listen to our talking books and converge on our imaginations, where sight has no advantage for either of us.

 

This Ability

You read it right: this ability. What I can’t do is see.

What I can do is act, write, sing, dance, tell jokes (my best virtue), run a business, listen, observe human behavior, give guidance to my adult children, love, shop for groceries, and water my plants. I can also clean my house (but avoid doing that as much as possible).

I’ve found that most of the world sees my disability first – blindness trumps all my other abilities until people get familiar with me. And then something curious happens – they forget I’m blind.

Often a pal will walk away from me when we’re out and about. We stop to put our plastic bags in the recycling bin in front of the supermarket and my pal takes off without me. Funny stuff. I simply call out, “Hey, did you forget something?”

I’ve always found it curious that folks in our society create an instant opinion of others based on skin color, gender, disability…hey, even clothing, before the first words are uttered between the two parties.

Years ago, when I was selling consumer electronics, an unshaven customer walked into my shop wearing cut-off jeans, flip-flops and a torn sweatshirt. All my salespeople ignored him until he asked for some help. I immediately gave him my full attention. An hour later he was out the door with a $4500 stereo system. Turns out he was an attorney, satisfying his inner slacker on his day off. My sales guys were miffed.

I suppose it’s our nature to judge folks before we get to know them. Must be in our DNA. Where disability is concerned, the ruling seems to be if one part of you is broken, the rest of you must be broken too.

It has occurred to me that Franklin D. Roosevelt might not ever have been elected President if TV sets were abundant in the 1930s. People seeing a man in a wheelchair might have had serious doubts that he could lead this country out of the Great Depression or be a strong Commander-in-Chief as we entered World War II.

Imagine seeing a woman in a wheelchair and instantly becoming interested in her skills rather than her method of ambulating. And then maybe also finding out that she plays basketball and is a med student too. It’s about what we can do, not what we can’t do. It’s about this ability.

By the way, I now only give guidance to my grown children when they ask for it. Unsolicited advice from anyone is unwanted, especially from blind fathers with this ability.

Inclusion

Cast Photographs by Mitchell Zachs Photo of Geordi La Forge courtesy of www.stagefisher.com

I think about the crew of the starship Enterprise – Asian, African, Russian, Scottish, Vulcan, American – and the perhaps elegantly unintentional message it sent: Diversity can run one of the most powerful starships in the universe.

Then I recalled a Star Trek episode with the paralyzed Captain Pike – dependent on a brainwave-operated wheelchair. And in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there’s blind Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, with a super-bad visor that allows him to see.

Geordi La Forge

The series got it right. Ability is what counts, not race, nationality, gender, age or disability.

That was the 23rd century. Fast backward to the 13th century.

The year is 1236 AD and the place is Cordoba, Spain. Christians, Muslims and Jews have been living in this town for hundreds of years, coexisting peacefully, tolerant, respectful and appreciative of their differences.

Water cast

This medieval world is illuminated in a new play, Everybody Drinks the Same Water, having its premier at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores. It is historical fiction centered in Cordoba, “The Ornament of the World.” There are aqueducts (built by the Romans) bringing clean water into public baths, fountains and homes. Serious advancement is occurring in philosophy, medicine, architecture, science and law by the multi-racial and multi-cultural inhabitants of this progressive medieval city.

Qadi and Fatima close up

The terribly handsome guy in the turban is yours truly, playing the Qadi, a Muslim judge. The Qadi is also blind. Kudos to artistic director Stephanie Ansin for creating such diverse characters and casting diverse actors to play these roles.

As a performer with a disability, I’m abundantly aware of the lack of characters with disabilities on our stages and big and small screens. For example, there is a massive gap between the 13% of Americans with an obvious disability, and the less than 1% of prime time disabled series regulars on broadcast TV.

The crazy next-door neighbor, the DNA expert, the girlfriend, the eccentric grandpa, the guy eating beef stew, the lawyer, and the hundreds of other roles that are being cast every day around this country, don’t specify a disability. But they could be played as a character with a disability since there are many disabled folks who are these people in the real world.

A major problem is that the mindset of most story-makers is that if a character with a disability is featured, the story must somehow be about their impairment. Not! The most interesting stuff happens when there is no attention paid to the disability and the dialogue remains focused on the character. Once the focus is taken off the disability, the character is no longer a super hero or victim, but a fully realized being, with an extra dimension.

What is cool in our play is that there is no reference to my character being blind. He is a central Muslim figure in a city of 500,000 people, going toe to toe with the new Christian ruler, Queen Berenguela.

I perambulate around a movable rectangular platform that sits atop the stage. It is also positioned on a 30 degree angle. Many directors would be leery about having a blind actor on this surface. Not Stephanie. She is focused entirely on the total character. She gets it right.

Inclusion, diversity and tolerance – that’s the way of the world. And our theaters, films, television and other media serve us well when the people on the stage and screen look and sound like the people who are watching the show.

 

Broken Glass

dirty dishes photo by George Schiavone

I just finished stuffing some tuna fish into a green pepper, when I bumped my dish strainer and a glass plate came crashing down on the tile floor in my kitchen. I could hear it shatter into a zillion pieces. “Don’t panic, don’t move,” I thought, “and eat your lunch.”

I did and it was tasty. The problem was that the thousand shards of glass were still there after I finished eating.

I employ magical thinking at every opportunity, and when that doesn’t work, I turn to wishful thinking. I believe these sorts of sophisticated thought strategies are practiced by most everyone. A fine example of this is the decision we all make everyday whether or not to wash the dishes right after eating, or wait till tomorrow. If we wait till morning, the dish-fairy might just get them done for us.

Usually both the magical and wishful tactics come up short in solving real problems, and then I find myself resorting to reality, which is not as flexible as the magical approach. So, the myriad slivers of glass didn’t all by themselves suddenly wind up in the garbage can, migrate to a neat little pile to be sucked up easily into a vacuum hose, nor did they find their way back together again into a useful saucer.

What to do. Blind and barefoot in a kitchen with broken glass frosting your floor is a difficult situation.

Rule 1: Obtain a layer of protection. Rule 2: Move slowly. Rule 3: First, finish your lunch.

Fortunately, within arm’s reach were some paper towels. I grabbed several, crouched low and slowly ran the paper towels along the floor, moving the sharp little slivers aside and creating safe passage out of the kitchen. All 3 of my “call-me-anytime-if-you-need-any-help” neighbors were unavailable. I put up a blockade at the entrance of the kitchen so my guide dog Billy wouldn’t wander in. Six hours later, a friend swept and vacuumed my kitchen floor. I suppose she was a fairy of sorts.

So, when you’re blind and live alone and your dog throws-up, what do you do? Yep, magical thinking aside, obtain a layer of protection and move slowly (with some Lysol spray in tow). But first, finish your lunch.

Arriving a Day Early

(photos courtesy of George Schiavone) I’m traveling for an organization which recently issued a bulletin indicating the specific travel dates to all participants. This prompted the following email thread. The names have been altered to preserve the identity of the questionable.

Sarah is an administrative Executive for the organization. She knows I am blind.

From: Steve Gladstone

Sent: Thu September 26, 2013 1:52 AM

To: Sarah Wood

Subject: Atlanta travel

Hi Sarah,

I’ve been authorized in the past to travel a day earlier than posted. I wanted to verify this with and through you that I will be traveling to Atlanta on Thursday October 24 instead of Friday October 25, 2013. Please confirm.

Thanks,

Steve Gladstone

 

From: Sarah Wood

Sent: Thu September 26, 2013 7:50 AM

To: Steve Gladstone

Subject: Re: Atlanta travel

 

Hi, Steve. Your first engagement is 7:00 pm on Friday and you are traveling in the same time zone on a relatively short flight. For this and future reference, do you mind providing detail as to necessity for coming in a day early? Thanks.

Sarah

 

Sent from my iPhone 

 

From: Steve Gladstone

Sent: Thu September 26, 2013 5:28 PM

To: Sarah Wood

Subject: RE: Atlanta travel

Sure. When I'm traveling to a new environment, there is a process I go through to orient myself. For example, when a person can't see, finding a shuttle or taxi from an unfamiliar airport to an unfamiliar hotel, takes time. Gotta talk to a lot of strangers, who are always most helpful, even though there is always a fair amount of backtracking to do.

Once at the hotel, I go through the following routine:

1. Find a hotel person who can escort me to my room and show me:

  1. How to unlock the door – if The card key goes into the slot vertically or horizontally, the rhythm of how slow or fast to pull it out of that slot... then I have to mark the bottom left corner of the card with a piece of tape so I know where the top is so I can position it correctly. Gotta practice this a few times.
  2. Tour the bathroom to find the soap and distinguish between the little bottles (once I washed my hair with body lotion), learn how the shower works, where to find the toilet, the toilet paper, the sink, the towels and the trash cans, then onto the bed, the drawers, the closet and the do not disturb sign.
  3. Where the thermostat is and how to work it. Some of them can be very tricky as they might move in 1/2 degree steps (I think that was Detroit), some are digital, some have knobs, some have all the controls inside a panel, etc.
  4. Next is the desk, how to operate the hotel phone, where outlets are so I can plug in my devices, how to work the TV remote control (that alone takes a good 10 minutes and I don't even watch much TV but I use it to fall asleep at night and that sleep mode is tricky to operate).

2. Once I have memorized all the above, I then ask my hotel employee helper to show me the way from my room door to the elevator so I can count the number of steps it is from those 2 points. Unfortunately I must do this a few times with my helper to set it in my guide dog’s mind. What is cool though is that my dog Billy, once he learns this route, gets me from my room to the elevator fairly quickly on subsequent trips. He’s pretty impressive!

Photo by George Schiavone

3. Now I must learn the elevator. Oops, I forgot, I first have to learn where to find the up and down elevator buttons. If there is a plant or framed picture near the buttons, that helps. Invariably they are on a wall and may be between the first and second or the second and third elevator, and when there are 2 banks of 3 elevators facing each other, it gets real tricky. I need to mark whether or not I turn left or right depending on which elevator I exit to get back to my room. (I think it was also Detroit where the elevator buttons weren’t even on the wall but on a pillar in the middle of the room in front of a bank of elevators. I'm certain the person who designed this lobby didn't have any blind relatives or friends, though maybe possessed an abnormal sense of humor.)

elevator doors open

Now to the elevators. When there are 6 elevators operating, you gotta listen real closely to catch the one that is opening. Some of them are pretty quiet. Billy does a good job getting me inside once I give him the command to “find the door.” Each panel in each elevator in each different hotel takes time to learn. It sometimes annoys folks because I ask the hotel employee helper to push the "hold door" button while I learn the panel. But I do learn it fairly quickly. BTW, some panels have Braille on them but the panels tend to be waist high and I’m a tall guy so I prefer not dropping to a knee to read the Braille and I just count buttons. It’s a little quicker that way.

4. Once I'm on the ground floor…  Oops, I forgot to mention that the last hotel in New York where I had to take 2 elevators to get to the ground floor took extra time... we count steps again to get outside and now we have to find an area where I can relieve my dog. In Chicago it was very tricky as there was no grass anywhere. We had to use an alleyway. Again we have to walk this route several times so my dog and I could do it alone. Of course, we need to identify a strategic trash-can along the way for Billy’s scooper bags.

5. The rest of the orientation like finding the hotel restaurant, snack store, etc. requires the step counting thing. You might be saying, “Wow! There are several routes that all have different step configurations to memorize,” and while this is true, after walking them all a few times it gets easier. It's the initial patterning and learning that take the time up front and that is why I appreciate coming in a day early. Oh yeah, when I get back to my room, it takes a little time to plug my stuff into the electrical outlets. I have to use my fingers to find the slots where the prongs go and... well, this is a very slow process as you can imagine.

Could I do this all on same day to attend an evening meeting? Sure. It is taxing to do it same day and I appreciate the low stress option of coming in a day early to orient myself.

No one has ever questioned the necessity for me to come in the day before. They always just said o-k when I requested it. Thanks for taking the interest. And if you need any further clarification, don't hesitate to ask me.

Steve

 From: Sarah Wood

Sent: Fri September 27, 2013 6:12 PM

To: Steve Gladstone

Subject: RE: Atlanta travel 

I hope I didn’t offend you with the question and really I was not looking for such a thorough explanation, just something to put in a file so that next year we remember to budget for this since it’s the first time I’ve learned of the extra night request for you.  Now that I have the information and it will be in the file, my hope is to not pester you with further questions about it.

 And yes, the buttons in Detroit were quite frustrating, even for one with decent eyesight – I turned circles before I figured out those darn pedestals had the up and down buttons on them.   

Have a good weekend.

Sarah

Sent from my iPhone

When “The Best, Nothing Less” Ain’t the Best

ice cream
ice cream

Photo by George Schiavone

Blind folks run a little bit late just like sighted folks.

Yesterday I received an important call at 10:45 a.m. for which I had been waiting for 3 days. It was a productive call. It was 11:15 a.m. when I hung up.

My county transportation was scheduled to pick me up between 11:28 and 11:58 for my dentist appointment so I hopped like a bunny into the shower, hopped out with bunny-like intensity, and started dressing at an impressive clip. The doorbell rang and still in bunny mode, I opened the door and there was my driver announcing that he was here to pick me up. I told him I needed 5 minutes; he growled but said, “Ok.” I asked him what time he had and he replied, “11:31.” Stay with me on this one. I finished up, grabbed my dog and my backpack, and on my way out the door I punched the button on my talking watch and the voice announced, “It’s 11:36.” Yep, you’re one step ahead of me – he was gone.

The Rules

When you rely on public transportation, you gotta make your reservation by 5 p.m. the day before you ride. No same day reservations. This does help you get organized but kills spontaneity. Like, you get a headache tonight and have no aspirin. You’re pooched for a day and a half before you can get to the aspirin store.

When you do make your reservation for the next day, Central Office Command gives you a half hour pickup window. This means that in a perfect world the driver will pick you up anytime within that window and deliver you to your destination on time. The driver is required to wait for you for 5 minutes from the time he arrives before he can leave without you.

The Facts Your Honor

My pickup window today was 11:28 to 11:58. The driver arrived at 11:28, rings my doorbell at 11:31. I say I’ll be out in 5 minutes. He says ok. I’m out at 11:36 and he’s gone.

The Verdict

The driver didn’t break any rule. He was allowed to leave at 11:33.

I called the county transportation company to have a meaningful conversation about the real world, The Golden Rule, and reasonable flexibility, which are generally meaningless except when you are adversely affected. I reached 3 different message machines of various official company people, all of whom say in their voice message that “we are committed to providing our best, nothing less.”

When a county rep called me back, I suggested that the company’s “best” needed some rehab and introduced the concept that “I’m not a PIN, I’m a person.” He appeared to listen, mentioned processes in the works to avoid problems like mine in the future, and wanted me to have a nice day. The last part was hard to do with a throbbing tooth.

Summation

There was actually one rule (besides The Golden One) that the driver did break. It was the rule that states: Be a standup guy and when you know a client is inside their house and is definitely coming out very very soon, don’t leave without them you big serious major-league a**hole.

Conclusion

When sighted folks run late, they hop into their car and take off. When blind folks run late, they go nowhere – stuck, stranded, grounded, trapped, marooned.

In all fairness, many drivers go that extra mile and bend the rules where they can be bent. But it always seems for that one real important appointment, you get that driver with GRIS (Golden Rule Impairment Syndrome).

When a company adopts a motto, they ought to take great care to see if it can be followed in the real world. Otherwise they start to look silly to their customers. This public transportation company is more accurately committed to: “The Best Most of the Time, Nothing Less We Hope.”

Getting around town without a car can be a bit inconvenient – hells bells, actually a lot inconvenient. Say you want to pick up some fish to cook for dinner tonight. Without a pal to schlep you to the nearby super market you're pooched.

Speaking of pooches, after 7 years living across a very busy street from Publix, I’m now attempting to cross it with Billy the Dog. He’s reliable. I’ve learned not to buy ice-cream when I take public transportation because they are too often late picking me up. But they’re allowed to be. Where’s the justice!

Retrievability

all photos courtesy of George Schiavone The sighted world does not put stuff back where they found it. Something placed just a couple of inches away from its designated spot can send a blind person on a sometimes endless wild goose chase to find it.

 The Toothpaste

Your toothpaste put down by your sighted wife a foot away from its usual spot just to the right of the sink, can be annoying, and if placed on the other side of the sink, grounds for divorce. I recall once picking up the toothpaste in its correct spot, twisting off the cap, squeezing a dollop of paste onto my tongue, and brushing with abandon. Within seconds my tongue and lips were numb, the understandable result of brushing my teeth with my wife’s diaphragm jelly.

Toothpaste on Sink

The Housekeeper and the Spray Cleaner.

Housekeepers can be really difficult because the blind person assumes the HK automatically understands the importance of putting stuff back. And if not, surely once you point out the importance of doing so, they get it. But sometimes they don’t.

I had a HK who wouldn’t put my spray cleaner back in its place all the way to the left under the kitchen sink – possibly the easiest spot for a retrievably impaired sightling to remember. After the third time addressing her baffling behavior, I asked her why she wouldn’t put the cleaner back in the same place. She apologized again, but this time also asked: “Why do you need it?” Once my brain cooled down from almost bursting into flames, I asked her what happens if my dog vomits, or I spill something nasty on my counter, or have to clean the singed hair off the top of my head after combusting from being asked a really dumb question? I can’t report with certainty if the deer –in-the-headlights look was on her face, but the long pause before she spoke again suggested that she was beaming with that special look.

Spray Cleaner (with Bleach)

Solution

After the fourth time my spray cleaner was missing, I bought a second bottle and hid it in my second bedroom closet. It’s always there, steadfast and ready for action.

I’m no longer married and that particular housekeeper no longer works for me. I can’t say it is just because they didn’t put stuff back, but there is certainly something missing in my life for which I am most grateful.

Practitioners of Retrievability

My two children are naturals at “retrievability” (a term coined by my buddy George) – putting things back in their specific spot so you can retrieve them easily with no angst or drama. Maybe that’s the key – train ‘em when they’re young. Unfortunately, blind parents aren’t in the majority, so there are only a few thousand adults, who were once children of blind parents, who practice this time honored tradition of putting stuff back.

Keys in the Fridge!

I do notice that I do not constantly search for my keys and my cell phone like most of my sighted friends do. One of my pals actually puts his keys in my refrigerator when he comes over to visit. He is a practitioner of retrievability.

For blind folks, retrievability is survival; for sightlings, it’s a good idea.

Another equally troublesome behavior is when someone brings something to you and says, “I’m putting it on the table.” A table’s a big place. “I’m putting the candy on the corner beside the fruit bowl,” is much better. Or when you ask where something is and you’re told, “It’s right there.” “There” means nothing to a blind dude.

I once thought that these curious behaviors were compliments to me because the sightling forgot I was blind and was treating me like a sighted person. I realized I was mistaken when my dog recently threw up on my hall carpet and I hopped over to the cabinet below the kitchen sink and once again reached down into that empty void where the spray cleaner belonged.

My kids get agitated with me because I ask them after the fact if they put things away, turned off the lights and cleaned up their mess. But they are all forgiving as they know of my ongoing struggle with the sightlings of the world who put stuff down randomly, carelessly, arbitrarily, haphazardly, passive aggressively, aimlessly, casually, indiscriminately, indifferently, thoughtlessly, unintentionally, inadvertently, erratically, insensitively, or inconsiderately.

And so my daughter said, “Everything is clean, the trash is in the trash, and all the lights are out,” as she left my house last night. Ah!...a moment in Utopia.

It's Good to be King

All Photographs by Daniel Bock

I’m again playing King Silvio in The Love of Three Oranges, a curious little play that is based on an old Italian Commedia scenario by Carlo Gozzi. (Commedia dell'arte was a popular form of theatre in 16-18th Century Europe, performed on outdoor stages and based on comic sketches and stock characters – a sort of old world Saturday Night Live.) Three Oranges was turned into an opera by Prokofiev, which premiered in Chicago in 1921. And now the play has migrated to Miami.

When I was first offered to do this show several years ago, director Stephanie asked me if I would like to play the King as blind. Being proud to pretend to play sighted characters, my knee-jerk reaction was to play him as written (old but sighted). Then I got to thinking about this opportunity. And why not? I’m a blind guy.

This begs the old conflict I’ve had for most of my acting life. Since the vast majority of the characters written into plays, movies and TV are not disabled, my mind-set has always been to audition ‘sighted.’ Actually, when I first started going blind, I used to try and hide the fact that I could barely see. It only occurred to me later in my career that many nondescript characters could easily be in a wheelchair, deaf or blind – provided of course that the director had the imagination to picture it. When I auditioned for the role of Teckie, a forensic analyst, in the movie The Specialist, the director liked the idea of turning the character into a blind audio wonk. I was hired and played alongside James Woods. My first guide dog, Recon, was also framed in the scene.

Of course, one has to land the role initially…you’ve gotta be an actor first and then a blind guy somewhere around number 6 or 7 down the list.

I was recently contacted by a deaf actor who was discouraged with the business and asked me about obstacles that I had encountered as a disabled performer. I told him that the biggest obstacle I had faced was people. Casting folks will prejudge you, or will wonder “why the agent sent a deaf guy,” or just simply lack the ability to imagine the extra layer of character that a disabled actor might bring to the role. However, I suggested that he had the benefit of low expectation. By nature, when disability walks (or rolls) through the casting door, expectations of those in the room will naturally drop. Getting in the door can be tricky, but once you do and show them something special, the element of surprise kicks in and they get interested real fast. The message: be an actor first. Study and hone your talent so that you're ready to kick butt when that audition comes up. I also reminded him that all actors, disabled or non-disabled, experience rejection on a routine basis. That’s the biz. Besides, rejection is one step closer to a gig.

So now, as an older actor, I’m happy to ease into a blind character role.

I’m the blind elderly monarch of Lugubria and my only son and heir to the throne, Prince Tartaglia, is dying of terminal hypochondria. If he is not cured, my crown will pass to my evil niece, Clarice. A pair of mystical doctors suggest a cure: “Make the Prince laugh soon.” My servant and adviser, Pantalone, helps me with a plan to hire the funniest man in the kingdom, Truffaldino, to make the Prince laugh. Pantalone leads me back and forth as we work out the details, and with a “5-6-7-8,” we dance off singing, “The Prince is going to live forever, forever, forever, forever more!”

Truffaldino is successful in making Tartaglia laugh, but the bad witch, Fata Morgana, creates another obstacle. She puts a curse on Tartaglia which causes him to search across the world for three Oranges, which are seemingly impossible to gather up. It turns out that one of the Oranges is actually a Princess, Ninetta, who was previously turned into an Orange by that pesky Fata Morgana. I bring Smeraldina, Fata’s servant, and Clarice to trial, both implicated in attempting to prevent the Prince from ascending to the throne. In order to preside over the formalities, I must move alone from up stage right to a table down stage center. To avoid taking a nasty spill onto the lady in the first row, Princess Ninetta takes my hand and points it at the corner of the table as she explains to me her plight and her desire to marry the Prince. When she moves away from me, I orient myself to my hand and make the dramatic cross down to the table. After exposing the bad guys, I announce that it’s time to celebrate a Royal wedding and everybody dances a wild tarantella. I step with the cast in a line for the first part of the dance. Then Clarice turns and aims me at my Royal footstool and I skip down to it and continue stepping lively.

Blind or not, it’s good to be King.

My Minnie Vacation

Thank you Thespis! I closed Three Sisters after 30 performances and was hired straight away to play King Silvio in another fantastical iteration of The Love of Three Oranges, an updated 18th Century Italian fairy tale. The number “3” has been good to me lately. A little R&R was in order before beginning rehearsals for Oranges, so it was off to Disney.

Even worse than the broken desk chair, the broken refrigerator, and the broken shower door in my hotel room, was the one bar of soap on the little glass shelf along with the hand cream, shampoo and conditioner. (I’m reminded of the time when I washed my hair with hand cream!) Of course I forgot to ask for another bar of soap and the next morning I had to take the little piece of sink soap into the shower. Then later when I needed to wash the toothpaste off my hands, I had to hop back into the shower to retrieve it. Anyway, I got everything fixed and the maid loaded me up with extra bars of soap – compensation for my troubles. The good news is now I won’t have to buy any soap for my bathroom at home for about 6 months.

First off was Fantasyland. Part of the fantasy is not standing in line. However, I may have to drop that from my “Advantages of Being Blind” list. During this round of Disney, the traditional bump to the front of the line was met by the ADA police. I was informed that: “This ride is ADA compliant.” This was code for “all you disabled customers now have the same privilege to stand in line for 95 minutes to ride for five just like the rest of the schmoes.” Of course the stop-starting when you can’t see, the more than 27 toes you step on during that winding line maneuver, notwithstanding the burden for your companion who must diligently watch you and coach you to start and stop 197 times as you inch forward, isn’t considered an ‘undue hardship’ on the blind dude. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if most of the big round eared Crime Squad didn’t have a seemingly gleeful tone in their voice when delivering the news to join the rest of the sheep in line. It’s always a bit of a shocker when Disney employees behave like the normal rest of the world. Still I love the Mouse.

After visiting EPCOT and connecting with Figment, eating several chocolate covered frozen bananas, and riding through the Maelstrom and purchasing a new troll to add to my excellent collection of supernatural beings, I was off to Hollywood Studios. While at Guest Services there, I was offered a descriptive audio device which automagically described some of the action inside the rides. For example, during Pirates of the Caribbean, instead of just hearing a clunk on a table, a descriptive character voice told me that “Jack Sparrow raises his mug of rum, drinks it, and puts it down on the table.” Nice! Years ago I only heard a machine gun rattle, roaring propellers and felt the heat from a sudden burst of a fireball during the finale of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. This time through my little device with headphones, I learned that “Indiana Jones was trying to rescue his partner Marion, who was shooting at the bad guys with a machine gun from the cockpit of a plane that was spinning out of control, while flames were racing toward the plane from an ignited gasoline tanker which exploded just as Jones and Marion leap to safety.” Über-cool.

Now we just have to train all the employees at The World to offer these handy-dandy devices. No one offered me the audio description machines at The Magic Kingdom nor at EPCOT. (Perhaps the very thorough ADA Crime Squad trainers need to be recruited to train the customer service reps at all the parks.) These nifty headsets will be on my list for Santa next go-round.

Now off to another magical land – Lugubria – and the search for three oranges.

We're Open!

After a couple of dress rehearsals and a preview, we’re open! The three sisters are all in various stages of their young lives, somewhat unhappily, and for different reasons, feel that moving out of their small town to Moscow will better their conditions. The town Chairman (who is never seen) conducts some of his business through the visually impaired messenger Ferapont.

For Ferapont’s first entrance, I enter carrying a cake from the Chairman to the Prozorovs. The housekeeper (Linda) leads me to the kitchen door and places my hand on it so I can go through without banging my nose to get my slice of cake. In the next act, I enter to deliver a book and some documents from the Chairman to Andrei (Theo), the sister’s brother. Here I’ve worked with the maid (Ana) for the smooth stage moves, like her placing my hand on the back of my chair which gives me my orientation where to sit and begin my dialogue with Andrei.

I’m reminded that some ‘sightlings’ are naturally in tune with blind folks. When Ana approaches me to exit the scene with Andrei, she silently and gently takes both my arms so I immediately orient and then leads me off stage right. Ah, were my world as graceful as Ana!

Another trick of the blind guy trade is the hand squeeze. I later enter a scene to ask Andrei if the fireman can go through his garden to get to the river to help fight the blaze which is consuming the town. I enter with Ana holding my arm as I chase Andrei, Ana squeezes my hand at the right time and I speak on cue.

Connect and Disconnect

Throughout the play, different characters step out of their scene and approach the audience to deliver a few poignant lines. Director Stephanie calls this a “connect” and when moving back into the action, a “disconnect,” complete with special lighting and sound cues to highlight the actor addressing the audience. On my connect, I employ another trick – counting steps. I’m sitting at a table with Andrei and after he asks me, “Have you ever been to Moscow?”, I stand and take 3 steps to the audience from my chair and tell them, “I’ve never been to Moscow. It’s not in God’s will.” At this point I’m  about 2 feet away from the onlookers.  Another step and I’m in the lap of the lady in the first row with the nice pearls.

On Stage with the Audience

How do actors react to the audience being on stage with them? Emily, who plays the middle sister Masha, said, “I like it. Let’s me know if the audience is taking the ride with me. It helps me expand my energy. When I’m not facing them, it energizes the back and side of my body.”

Different Audiences

You never know what kind of audience you will have for any given performance: some are lively, some pensive, some inebriated. If I get a laugh, I hold a beat before delivering my next line. If no laugh, full steam ahead.

Live Theatre

Every performance is different. Actors can be “on” one night and “off” another night. A bad tuna sandwich at lunch can make for an uneasy evening performance. Props and set pieces can malfunction – the smashing clock doesn’t smash (veteran character actor Howard picks it up and tries it again!), or the door knock doesn’t knock, or when I’m making a point to Andrei, I hit the table and it starts to collapse. That’s actually part of the fun of live theatre – you can’t stop the camera and do it again. All you can do is carry on. Like life.

Great Cast

All 16 of my fellow actors are first rate. Working with a bunch of pros doesn’t always happen, and when it does, it’s a blessing. We move this classic play along in 2 hours’ time without a lull.

Reviews Favorable

Critics Dolen and Hirschman said this Three Sisters “is an enchanting, unique South Florida experience…” and “a celebration of theatrical imagination.” Elaiza (Executive Director), Stephanie, Fernando, Octi, Luciano (sound design), the entire cast and crew, and the audience, all came together to create this enjoyable time on stage.

And “in a comic turn as the befuddled messenger” I have another line on my resume and another notch in the boards.

Rehearsal and Opening

Our director Stephanie “blocks” the show, positioning the players to fit the action of the dialogue. In my case with “Three Sisters,” I’m playing Ferapont, an 80 year old messenger who is hard of hearing (according to the script) and whom we made visually impaired to boot. So in my case, my blocking was for 2 characters – me and the maid, the faithful Ana, who leads me wherever I need to go.

 

Usually I play sighted characters, keying off set pieces, changes in flooring, other actors, to get my bearings, but when I have the opportunity to play a blind character, I’ll have a timely cane or a sighted guide. (I’ve never used my guide dog on stage, though once I forgot to tie him down backstage and while dancing in the streets of Paris in “Hunchback of Notre Dame” came the familiar jingle of a dog collar and suddenly, there was my guide, bouncing in the streets of Paris with the ensemble. The audience loved it. After the show, the director said, “Let’s keep it in!”

Stephanie, an attractive brunette with piercing eyes behind rectangular glasses, sees and conveys a clear image of the “where, when and why” of each action for each player, choreographer Octi often assisting on the “how to get there.” With 16 actors, set pieces, flower arrangements, books, a smashing clock, toys, bottles, glasses, and dishes, which all move, there is a lot of constant traffic during the 4 acts of this show, both on and off stage. Everything is blocked precisely by Stephanie so the show runs like a well-oiled machine with no interruption in the action, and with no actors bumping into each other or the set. For this special show, the audience is also on stage on a movable riser which is repositioned 3 times during the play for different views in and around the Prozorov house.

The Candy Set

In order to get a sense of the surroundings on stage, Ana grabs some of my leftover Halloween candy and creates a model set, a colorful array of Jolly Ranchers, Twizzlers, and Sweet Tarts. She puts my hands on it so I can feel the set pieces, giving me a real sense of the space. My cell phone plays the part of the audience riser.

Miami Shores isn’t Flat

I have to remember that the 3 different staircases in the theatre I use during the show all have a different number of steps leading up and down from the stage – stage left has five, stage right has four, and the steps at the back of the house have six. As I go up and down these suckers, sometimes quickly, I gotta concentrate. I’m happy to report so far so good.

Costumes

The costumes, designed by multi-tasking Fernando (who is also the set and lighting designer), are quite elegant, the ladies in corsets, beautiful floor length dresses, boots with heels, the men bedecked in military garb, the maids in formal servant dress, and that messenger for the chairman (yours truly) looking a bit disheveled.

Lights and Sound

Once the entire play is blocked, we start back at the top and do a “cue-to-cue” where each action starts and stops so the lights and sound effects can be added to the action on stage. With doorbells ringing, a violin playing offstage, fire truck bells sounding, birds chirping, barking dogs and over 170 different light cues, this process alone takes 2 weeks to conclude.

All Hands on Deck

Once the show is blocked, lit and sound-synched, it’s time to work the transitions from act to act. The 5 Stage hands, including the lovely Tammy who does double duty as a maid on stage, strike and add the massive amount of set pieces and props during the transitions between the acts,and pivot the 49 members of the audience on the movable riser, smoothly and efficiently.

Downtime

You become a family when you work on a show. You nap backstage when you’re not working, eat together at the local bistro, and play with Billy the Dog whenever possible.

Opening

Once we open, Stephanie turns the show over to the stage manager Naomi, and the assistant stage manager Amanda, who “call” the show from top to bottom, making sure that the actors are in place and the almost 300 cues for lights, sound,set changes and actors goes off without a hitch.

It’s show time!

Flying Actor

Actors need to condition themselves, like an athlete, exercising and training to prep their mind and body for the work.

My day starts out at 9 a.m. with a series of exercises that loosen the limbs and voice, employing old school and new school techniques.

Being a blind guy, it becomes challenging to keep up with the various moves and positions being demonstrated by the leader. Thank Thespis for Ana! She is a petite, fit dancer who spots me and corrects my movements. We’ve gotten so good working together that our exercises resemble a choreographed dance.

Octavio, Resident Artist at Miami Theater Center, is the choreographer, movement and voice trainer for “Three Sisters.” With a larger than life presence and a smile to match, the salt and peppered Octi keeps us, the army of actors, in constant motion for 90 minutes, applying the “Sausage” – a mixture of movement, voice, theater and dance methods – yoga, GaGa (not Lady), Meyerhold's Bio Mechanics, FloorBarre, myriad voice techniques from Linklater and Grotowski, and basic composition tools developed by Anne Bogart.

So here I am lying on my back on my yoga mat attempting to strengthen my core and straighten my spine, a real good thing as I always have a tendency to lean a bit forward when I walk. I’m inclined to think this is a blind guy tendency, but my father who could see perfectly well had the same posture. Apparently, so did Abraham Lincoln.

We go from twisting every limb of our body, to crunches, to moving torso, head and  legs like a toy, and then suddenly lying still and moving only one index finger to gather whatever information we can. (It is remarkable how much information you can receive through a finger.) We imagine our hands like feet, breathe in through one nostril and out the other, at times taking dragon breaths (short puffs of air in and out), float through “the lake” and climb up and down “the mountain,” all designed to distract us from our normal frame of consciousness and put us in touch with new feelings and perspectives. At one point I was actually flying, with of course, a little help from my friends.

The music of Tommy Dorsey, Bob Dylan, Petula Clark, Stevie Nicks, Mary Poppins and Madonna provide the soundtrack underscoring the drill. (When Madonna roars “Die b**ch!”, I’m crunching with a vengeance!)

Occasionally in the mix we lie quietly on our backs while Octi takes us on a guided meditation. This is my personal favorite.

Once our bodies are tuned up, we condition the brain with improv. The improvs, led by artistic director Stephanie and Octi, are situations that are set up to inform and help us discover useful things about our characters – it’s putting wood into the fireplace.

Speak and Repeat

One actor faces a second actor, the second speaking with the first actor’s character voice while making a specific movement, the first repeating and copying, and then they switch. I didn’t do so well copying the movements but kicked butt with the voice.

The Ghost

We might create an internal emotion and turn it into an emotionally charged action, then repeat the action without any vocal sounds, then without any facial expressions, finally moving the action into an empty gesture, becoming a ghost, rotating from full out action to ghost and back to action. This helped put us all at once on opposite ends of our characters being.

Swarming

One character sits in the hot seat while all the other dozen actors slowly approach them, speaking lines or thoughts from the play, saying something nice about them and then turning combative, elevating the noise to a fevered pitch until the actor in the hot seat stands and shouts: “Moscow!” which silences the chaos. This helps the actor in the seat to experience a wide range of emotions. (It probably was a bit curious to the UPS guy who showed up at the door during my turn.)

Shared Objects

We each brought in a favorite object and shared a story about it with another actor. Later that actor repeated your story – an excellent listening exercise. Ah, listening! The actors best tool in the toolkit.

Walk and Talk

Before we took the stage to rehearse the play, we all moved around the rehearsal room together, exploring the mock set and prop pieces while speaking our lines out loud. This helped break vocal and body patterns that might be forming prematurely as well as amplify the silence between the lines. Pauses during the play are essential, especially with Chekhov – it’s often what’s not being said that has real impact.

Shoe Training

With a period play, boots are abundant, and loud. We put on our footwear, and walked the stage like cat burglars, our legs absorbing the energy, the women running on the balls of their feet in their heels. This was to reduce any distracting noise we might make as we tripped the boards.

On to the rehearsal and opening night!

Getting the Play on Its Feet

Folks rarely think about the dynamics that produce creative results. We may read a novel in a few hours but don’t ponder the years it took the author to research and craft their book. An audience likewise doesn’t think about the weeks of preparation it takes to produce the show they watch for 2 hours. We won’t examine the year Chekhov took to write Three Sisters, but instead take a peek at the process of mounting his play.

A theatrical production has body parts that include feet and legs. “Getting a play on its feet” refers to the rehearsal process and the show “gets its legs” after it opens. Other important body parts include hands, head and soul but this is a blog and not a primer on acting or an anatomy text. I’ll leave that to Mamet, Stanislavski and Dr. Grey.

Now back to the feet.

No surprise that there are 2 feet in the rehearsal process: training and blocking. Training includes table work, improv and exercise to help understand the text and build the character. Blocking is where the director moves the players to their actual positions on the stage. Both feet steadily keep walking (Yikes! Here come the analogy police!) toward opening night.

The rehearsal process gives the actor the opportunity to bond with fellow actors, create a deeper family connection, mine their character more thoroughly, And of course, get their actions and words deep into their bones so they appear natural and truthful.

Table Work

Table work explores what is on and off the page: the backstory, the actual lines, and what lies underneath or between the lines. (Chekhov was famous for “subtext” – the important stuff that isn’t actually spoken.)

Table work begins with a “read through” of the play from top to bottom so that the cast can hear it with the actual voices. As with every play I'm in, I get my script in advance and memorize my lines so I can participate in the first table read. (I use my talking computer which speaks the text aloud so I can memorize it. It’s also handy to run my sides against the machine as it reads my cue lines.) After the first read through, we start at the top of the script again and go line by line to clarify what is being said. It is during the table work that the actor gains understanding of context and intention.

Since “Three Sisters” takes place over the first few years at the turn of 20th century Russia, some understanding of Russian life at that time was needed. Fernando, our dramaturge (specialist in dramatic composition) gave us some insight into the essentially Russian feudal system prevalent during Chekhov's lifetime. Let’s see if I can give it to you in one sentence: If you were a fellow and owned land you were at the top of the food chain and could vote in the local government, one moved up in Russian society via military or heredity, and a woman’s career goal was to marry — hopefully a military bigwig.

The “backstory” is the family history that leads up to the first words spoken in the play. We uncovered the ages of the characters (Ferapont, my character, is 80) and explored the family events from 1880 to 1901, when the play begins. Daddy Prozorov, having moved his family, 11 years earlier, to a small provincial town from urban Moscow, dies one year before the first lines are spoken. His daughters, the three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, muse about returning to Moscow throughout the show.

I’ve included a few sample pictures of some of the actors (not in costume) portraying some of the characters in the backstory. (This was an exercise to flesh out some of the family history and is not indicative of the aesthetic of the production.)

My next post will eyeball some of the exercises and improvs we do to help tease out the useful stuff which informs and builds our characters, even as our feet keep on truckin’.

Stay tuned.

 

New Gig!

Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters", Miami Theater Center There’s a professional live theatre located in convenient Miami Shores, originally a single screen movie house built in 1946. I remember going there as a kid to see The Beatles travel with Captain Fred in his Yellow Submarine to defeat the music-hating Blue Meanies. That was 1968. The movie theatre eventually closed in the late 1980s, remaining dormant until a group of investors transformed it into a live theatre in the early 90s, and The Shores Performing Arts Theatre (SPAT) was born. Chita Rivera was the principal headliner for the first SPAT fund raiser and soon after, the musical “Chicago” was the first show to trip her boards.

Over the next dozen years, SPAT went through a series of iterations and artistic directors. It was here where I first returned to the stage after leaving it for the previous 20 years to work the “real job” and raise a family. The only difference was that, in the late 70s, I could see and I didn’t know if anyone would hire me now as a blind performer. I decided to give it a shot and find out. After all, blindness didn’t bother me, I just wanted to work as an actor.

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend. The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage…” I was hired by artistic director Christopher Bishop and performed in some classic theatre, playing Commander Harbison in “South Pacific,” Fleet Foot, a 105 year old Indian guide in “Little Mary Sunshine,” and the Narrator in Rich Simone's production of “The Rocky Horror Show.” In all of these roles, I played sighted characters. Most memorable was having to light 5 different cigarettes at different times each night while narrating the plight of Brad and Janet during the run of "Rocky Horror." I had an antique cigarette case and a classic flint-wheel Zippo lighter, but it didn’t always light, so we replaced it with the less attractive but reliable Bic, which worked like a charm. Manipulating the cigarette was another issue. I would slide my index finger to the end of the ciggy and then ease back about a half inch so when I brought the flame toward me, I could feel the heat at my finger tip, close enough to light the ciggy and far enough not to char my finger. I got pretty good at it until I lit up a couple of filters. At that point, the stage manager started loading the filter side opposite the case latch so I knew which side to place in my mouth. Every night I challenged myself to see if I could have a perfect ciggy night, lighting up all 5 cigs correctly. I had 6 flawless ciggy nights out of 21 shows. I made up for any imperfect choreography with the cigarettes by dancing a mean “Time Warp.”

The theatre was in serious need of an internal and external face lift, but funding was tricky. Then, in 2005, Stephanie Ansin, a keen,  forward-thinking grad fresh from Columbia University, put her arms around the theatre, became its artistic director and  began to helm it’s transformation. She combined her business instincts with her MFA in Directing and through renovation and expansion, Stephanie has turned The Shores into a vibrant theatrical hub of activity, launching The PlayGround Theatre, offering contemporary and classical plays for young audiences, morphing into the Miami Theater Center this year, serving up contemporary and classical fare for adults as well.

Stephanie cast me on the early stages of The PlayGround as John, a wheel-chair spinning old coot in “Brooklyn Bridge” and the befuddled blind King Silvio in “The Love of Three Oranges,” a delightful show that is now part of the rotating PGT repertory.

Currently I’m playing the character Ferapont, the messenger in Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” the first show under the MTC mantle.

"Three Sisters" will open on November 17. I’ll be blogging on the rehearsal process and theatrical run, so stay tuned. And, oh yeah, my character is visually impaired and hard of hearing!

Summer Camp

Living half your life as a sighted person and half as a blind man, the contrast makes for strange bedfellows — memories and present experiences crashing powerfully together in an unparalleled way.

Before going totally blind I was a drama coach for several summers at Camp Coleman in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia. The last weekend of this past August was a celebration marking the 50th birthday of this profound place. All folks who worked on the staff as well as any campers who attended over the years were invited up for the weekend fete.

When you see a fine film that resonates with you, you may tend to replay it in your head, maybe even watching it again from time to time. Vivid images take up residence in your brain and over time, something triggers them, like an old song that catches your ear in a mall, filling the screen in your mind with pictures of an old friend, lover or special place with remarkable precision. The actors in a favorite film continue to inhabit your brain, never aging, never changing, and forever vibrant.  Being sighted those many summers ago and now being blind, those campers and staffers that filled my summertime landscape remain in my headlike rare movies.

When the tires of the rental car started popping the pebbles of the gravel road on the long path leading up to the campground a few days ago, the images and memories were triggered straightaway, emotionally charged sounds and smells soon to follow; chirping crickets, the clean scent of mountain air warming my nose, the sun pure and free of humidity, all hit simultaneously and was intoxicating.  It’s probably true that “you can’t go home again,” but you can certainly visit with enormous passion.

To attempt to capture the enormity of these moments in the mountains with words would be folly. I can tell you that music was the connective tissue both then and now; to be with neural psychologists, doctors, lawyers, performers, TV producers, captains of industry, financial brokers, artists, all stomping their feet, grinning, holding hands and singing camp tunes with abandon converged to this single point: what we all had accomplished with our lives was no more monumental than what we accomplished as campers, the environs and the people shaping our hearts and filling our souls with all the emotional tools to embrace what was just up ahead.  This was indeed the stuff of Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream for “content of character.”

The stones crunching under my sneakers as I walked these unmatched grounds as a blind man, I visited the open air theater where I directed the big shows. Thumping my feet and hearing the hollowness of the boards brought images of the colored gels, the wooden platforms, the piano that served as an entire orchestra, and of course the kids. I was charged with producing the camp musical presented on the final night before we all dispersed back to our individual homes. I had to choose shows that I could populate with a gaggle of campers – a swarm of townspeople in “The Music Man,” super sized gangs of Jets and Sharks in “West Side Story,” 11 thousand gold miners in “Paint Your Wagon.” So many on this weekend reunion were players in these shows (one talented young lady has now been living in L. A. for almost 40 years as a successful actor!), and as I spoke to several of them, there was a little kid’s curious and hopeful face superimposed on top of the voices of these very grown up people –an uncanny and profound image I could not have if I was sighted.

I felt the wooden rail along the brief bridge to the admin building and while I was dodging the splinters, I recalled a conversation with my wonderful camp director, Alan. I was conflicted about whether to return to camp the next year as drama coach or pursue summer stock. After a moment of reflection, I said to Alan, “Maybe I should do summer stock so I can get this acting thing out of my system.” His reply: “Or get it into your system.” That was my last summer at camp; I’ve been acting ever since.

I walked up the great steps to the old dining hall (now an art center) and once inside, I went to the center of the hall and placed my hand on the stone chimney where I played Puff the magic dragon. No, I didn’t sing the Peter, Paul and Mary tune – that was the job of the song leader. I played Puff himself. Whenever it was sung after a meal, I would spontaneously combust, twisting my face and tongue, stretching my arms to the ceiling, and would hop from table top to table top as 300 kids screamed with delight at my silly antics. During the final verse on the line, “So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave!” I climbed up into the chimney and perched myself onto a ledge that was about a foot above the chimney’s opening. During the final chorus, I lowered myself to where only my up-side-down head could be seen to the camper's sheer joy.

What amazed me was when camper after camper came up to me this weekend and expressed their fond memory of Puff and “how it changed them.” Changed them? How could a silly little creature have this effect? It struck me that the dragon inspired so many little kids to be what they wanted to be, perhaps many of them not receiving this encouraging message at home.

One of my campers, now a prominent rabbi on the international stage, said, “the wackiness of a man disguised as a dragon jumping out of a chimney enabled us to embrace our own wackiness and not give a damn about conformity. Puff taught us to embrace our uniqueness rather than mute it or tune it out.”

Another of my favorite campers, now a top shelf Hollywood Producer, mused, “Puff made it seem like all was possible and that helped me push the envelope and not give up in my pursuit of the silly!”

If the truth be known, it was all reciprocal. Jerry Seinfeld once said, “The audience will tell you where you are funny.”  The campers did that for me and showed me how best to offer myself up to my world.

The good rabbi mentioned, “What grows never grows old.” What grows starts with seeds. And these were some good seeds.

Our memories shape and define us. In my case it also gave me sight (in Technicolor!). Shared experiences are one thing; shared experiences dusted with a patina of magic are quite something else. It’s good to be a dragon.

Lessons From Dog School

I recently returned from my third tour of Southeastern Guide Dogs with my new guide Billy, refreshed on some major lessons I first learned at dog school 20 years ago. While navigating a 26 day course living and training on the school campus, at first you think you are going to learn how to work with a guide dog, and you do this. However, some unexpected lessons also alter your habitual brain.

Quick to Criticize, Slow to Praise

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned at school is that we humans are quick to criticize and slow to praise. As a manager of an electronics retail store for several years, I ran a tight ship, swift to point out to my sales team the dirt on the floor or a customer not being greeted properly or shelves that were not well merchandised. When things were running smoothly, compliments to my team were rare. The way my salespeople knew they were doing a good job was when they were not being criticized by me.

You soon learn day one at dog school that obedience is critical to your safety. If your dog disobeys a command or runs you off a curb, you're toast. When your dog gets it wrong, you must quickly “correct” them with a strong verbal NO! and a hefty zing to their collar. They need to know they blew it. You also learn on day one that you need to praise your dog when they get it right. Praise is their paycheck. No surprise here that my school chums and I were natural zingers, but had to be constantly reminded by the trainers to “praise your dog.” For the first 3 or 4 days the hardest part of training was catching your dog doing things right. After a week or so, I was bellowing “Good boyeeee!”, almost songlike.

Here’s the ratio: for every 1 correction you make, you need to deliver 3 praises. You soon find out that if you constantly correct your dog without praising enough, your dog begins to shut down on you. Their mistakes increase and they may stop working altogether. When this occurs, job one is to build up your dog – go back to maneuvers they do well, praise and love them up. It doesn’t take long for them to start working effectively again. Bottom line, the dog wants to please you and needs to know that he is doing just that.

After about 2 weeks, I became a formidable praise-giver. The zings continued but so did the admiration. Over time, the corrections decreased and the praises increased and the overall performance became first rate. Praise built confidence, confidence improved performance. Major “duh” factor at play here.

Consistency was part of this lesson. If your dog blows it, you gotta correct them every time. Otherwise they learn that sometimes it’s o-k to blow it. Consistent praise, no brainer. Mixed signals don’t work well with pups and people.

Yep. I realized after returning home, I was long on criticism and short on praise with my kids too. My kids screwed up and I honed in on their faults like a tractor beam from a distant galaxy. They had to pick up their stuff, chew with their mouth closed and straighten their room. But the moment they started to do it unprompted, I didn’t notice. The “thanks for picking up your chicken bones and video games” didn’t sing from my lips. I thought, “Oh, they got it.” But I didn’t get it. Got to let them know! Playing armchair psychologist, I can’t help but think about all the adults I know who still feel that they could never please their parents. How could they? Their parents never let them know they were pleased.

Now I don’t assume a server at a restaurant is just doing their job when I get good service. Sure I tip 20% (up from my customary 15%) but I also give them the “at-a-boys!”

Down Time

A business friend once told me that “the day after I die, my inbox will still be full.” After working a route with Billy, I give him a chance to chill with a slurp from his water bowl or play with his ball or just take a nap. There are endless places to go and time to crunch. Gotta remember to rest. If the dog gets tired, he doesn’t perform well. Now I just have to also remember to give myself some downtime. I’m often too busy cutting the grass to sharpen the blades. I can get real dull real fast.

Trust

Whenever I’m on strange turf I have a tendency to tighten up and anticipate obstacles. Billy can sense that I don’t trust him and doesn’t perform well. Lack of trust kills performance. (Another duh factor.) As soon as I remember to trust him, he navigates beautifully. My job is to stop trying to control what I can’t control and read my dog. I have to remember that he can do things that I can’t do – like see.

Relaxed

When a trainer muses how “relaxed” your dog looks, you know your hitting your stride. Relaxing while working brings out the best in athletes and actors and dogs. The result of praise, trust and some well deserved downtime brings good things to your pup. Seems to bring good things to people as well.

Lessons are good wherever we learn them.

An epiphany.

I want to share a story that my father recently shared with me, and his colleagues at work. He is a volunteer narrator at Insight, an amazing actor, and the creative services director at 101.5. He is also MY role model. -Matt Corey This week it all came back to me . . . like a flood. What? Why I'm here at LFM, and why I'm . . .here, a humble citizen of planet Earth. See, this week I met Steven Pena. Steven is the brother of young lady with whom I serve on the Miami Local Board of SAG-AFTRA, the performers' union. She told me that Steven is a huge fan of our stations, so I invited her to bring him one day, and I'd give him the tour. "Well", she said, "Steven is blind and wheelchair-bound". I told her it would be no problem as my best friend - another Steve - is also blind, plus, the building is wheelchair friendly.

This week Steven rolled his way into our building . . . and into my heart. He was FULL of questions and hardly let me answer before he was on to the next one. Some of them were fairly deep, but I managed to hold my own! His grasp of what goes on in a radio station was solid if not a little behind in the technology. For example, he wanted to know how many CDs we had in our library. I told him that we no longer played CDs as all our music was stored in a "monster" computer. To demonstrate, I asked him to name a couple of favorite songs or artists. Top of the list? Jimmy Buffett. So, in a flash I had "Margaritaville" up and running on NexGen. Next? "Thriller" by Michael Jackson. Steven's eyes lit up when he heard the songs booming from the Studio Z speakers. And the questions just came pouring out. It was a challenge figuring out how to "show" Steven how things worked. But then I got a great idea. With ProTools - my digital audio workstation - I have each element of sound on an individual fader, and I set each to "touch". That means each track "remembers" where I set the levels when I mix the commercial. When playing it back, the faders move as if ghosts were controlling them, sliding up and down as I had programmed them. I opened a session for Steven, and told him to put his hands lightly over the faders. When I played back the audio, he could feel them move under his fingers. He was fascinated as you can see in picture #5. Then, I sat him down in front of a microphone (picture #2) to record him intro-ing Margaritaville. I edited it all together and sent it to him as an mp3. I truly wish I had a picture of his face when he listened back, or when I processed his voice so it sounded like he was announcing at Miami Marlins Stadium. The tour culminated in meeting some of his favorite personalities, and I sent him on his way with a bag of LITE FM goodies provided by Eric (picture #4).

I've heard back from Lauren, and she tells me " . . . "DJ Steven" had the best time, I know he will never forget this and will be telling everyone he meets from now on! The tour was everything we could have dreamed for him and more". She also tells me that "DJ Steven" (a moniker I gave him) insists that all his drinks be served in his LITE FM mug and that he can't stop talking about radio and music . . . and his visit to LFM.

Something wonderful happens to me when I'm on the set of a film or acting onstage in a theatrical play. It's hard to explain, but it feels as though I have an out-of-body experience where I can see myself performing, and I feel like a kid again - the young Dave Corey who can actually see his childhood dreams coming true. Well, this past Friday - for the first time ever - it happened to me at the radio station. I looked around me in awe and said to myself, "this is one spectacular gig you've got here, Mr. Corey"! This weekend I figured out what happened. It was Steven who made it so. I was so infected by his own childish sense of wonder that it beckoned my inner-child to come out and look around and appreciate my blessings. Sure, it's not always a romp in the park here, but all things considered . . . it's a pretty spectacular way to make a living. And, wow, this epiphany I owe to a blind, wheelchair-bound young man - my son's age - afflicted with Cerebral Palsy. Funny where you find angels.

Dave Corey