Braille Monitor December 2006
by Gail Snider
From the Editor: Gail Snider is a longtime Federationist who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. As you will soon learn, she is an energetic amateur musician and actor. She is always eager to learn and to take up new challenges. She says that she knows that many other blind people are active in community theater, but I suspect many more of us would like to be but have never quite dared to try out. So here is Gail's story of her life in amateur theater. If you have always had a yen to tread the boards, maybe her experience will inspire you to give community theater a whirl. This is what she says:
When I was nine years old, I played the Queen of Hearts in a school production of Alice in Wonderland. I don't remember most of my lines, but I know I put lots of energy into the queen's signature line: "Off with his head!" Fast-forward to November 2006 when I will appear as Rebecca Nurse in a local theater production of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's historical drama about the Salem witch trials of 1692.
So what happened in between, and what have I learned from it? As a child in England, I attended schools for the blind until I was sixteen, when I was given the chance to attend my local public school. At elementary and high school level, I participated in a number of dramatic and musical productions because, well, we all did. As far as I can remember, no elite group of students were selected because of extraordinary talent: being in a play, like singing in a Christmas carol concert, was just part of a well-rounded education. Also the part you got didn't depend on whether you were totally or partially blind: in a production of Peter Pan in which I was one of Tinkerbell's fairy companions, I had to run across the stage as if I were flying. I had some sight then, but Peter and Tinkerbell did not, and they did even more flying about the stage than I did.
At university, as I recall, I was more active in choral groups but still took part in funny skits when they came my way. I never auditioned for the university's drama group, possibly because I wasn't an English major but also, probably, because I felt my blindness would disqualify me.
In 1977, two years after my family and I came to live in Washington, D.C., I was introduced to the British Embassy Players by an Englishwoman who was already a member and a volunteer with the local radio reading service. She told me that the B.E.P. was auditioning readers for the Bible reading that would be the climax of their upcoming "Christmas with the Players" show. I had always been a good Braille reader, so I auditioned with a Braille copy of St. Luke's Gospel and got the job. By this time I was completely blind and could not see even the footlights, never mind my fellow actors, but that didn't seem to matter; I sat in one spot for the entire show, except when standing to sing alto in the carols and other chorus numbers.
Since then I have taken part in other "Christmas with the Players" shows and done some humorous monologues and sung the occasional solo, both of which required me to do more than just stand in one place. Sighted performers convey a lot with body language--hand gestures, head movements, and facial expressions--which we as blind people often don't acquire or think to use in daily life. On the stage, however, we want to be as interesting to look at as we are to listen to, so I have made a point of learning what gestures, movements, and expressions are most likely to enhance my performance. I have found that a same-sex relative (such as my daughter) can be most helpful in giving useful tips in this situation.
After my marriage ended in 1994, I checked the Auditions column in the Washington Post and found that the Washington Revels' Christmas show that year would be about Victorian London and that performers with British accents would be welcome. When I arrived, the stage manager helped me fill out the application form, and an assistant director took me into a side room, where he taught me some lines from the show so I could perform them like everyone else. I hammed it up shamelessly for the selection panel and made them laugh, so I guess I wasn't too surprised to get a part. In addition to acting, everyone had to audition for singing (solo and group) and dancing. I had learned ballroom and country dancing at school in England, and although I am not a great dancer, I don't have two left feet; in fact, I'm willing to bet that most blind guys can dance if they get the chance to learn.
In the late nineties I started attending classes to improve myself as a stage performer. I attended seminars on voice production and care of the voice, as well as one on how to prepare for an audition. This seminar was especially helpful since it was given by two directors who explained that you never can tell exactly what a director wants from you or sees in you. For instance, you may fail simply because your height or build is not considered right for the part, or you may succeed because you alone have that indefinable quality that the director is looking for. When you understand this, all you can do--and all you have to do--is prepare and audition as well as you can. That doesn't mean that all my auditions have been successful: I have bombed disastrously a few times, either because I was ill-prepared or because I let my own anxieties get in the way. Now I just get myself together, show up, and don't worry about trying to second-guess the director.
In 1997 I joined the Paradigm Players, an integrated group of performers, some of whom had physical or developmental disabilities. The atmosphere was very nurturing as we all learned from each other and accommodated each other wherever necessary. We staged Godspell in 1997 and Working in 1998, two musicals that call for a fairly large ensemble, in which most performers are in the chorus except when they have a featured solo. In Working, for example, I had a monologue and a solo song as the schoolteacher, and elsewhere in the show I could be seen with mop and bucket as one of a group of housewives or dining in a restaurant with my boyfriend.
At about this time I somehow got on to the mailing list of the Theatre Lab, a nonprofit school of the dramatic arts that provides theater education for diverse populations, including youth, seniors, and prisoners, and attracts both professional and volunteer performers. Twice I have taken their twelve-week class, Creating A Musical Role, which results in several public performances of a full-length Broadway musical. My first was Ragtime, in which I was a very active member of the chorus and had to take on such diverse roles as a male juror, a female Jewish immigrant, a male baseball spectator, and a female upper-class neighbor. I had only one spoken line--as a bureaucrat--but there was so much singing and dancing that I was busy almost the whole time.
The second Creating-a-Musical-Role class I took was this year's production of Fiddler on the Roof in which I played Yente, the matchmaker. Again I did not know the part when I auditioned, but the directors taught me some lines and laughed when I performed them. This led me to think that I was supposed to just play for laughs, but our directors taught us that our characters had hearts, minds, lives, and concerns which deserved to be portrayed accurately and respectfully. Thus I was able to create a role that had real depth and still get some laughs.
In other years my theatrical endeavors have left me feeling drained and anxious to get back to less strenuous pursuits such as choral singing, but my Fiddler experience left me wanting more, so I went back to the Washington Post and learned that the Foundry Players, a sixty-year-old community theater group based three blocks from where I live, was presenting The Crucible this November. As luck would have it, I was able to get a WebBraille copy embossed in time for the audition. Luck was also on my side when it turned out that the director had already seen me in Fiddler, so I did not have to worry that he wouldn't give me a fair shot. When I showed up with my Braille copy of the script, it turned out to be a different edition from the one that everyone else was using, so one of the younger actors sat down with me during a break and read the changes into my tape recorder.
Now we are in the tedious process of blocking, in which the director moves us around the stage like chessmen on a chessboard until he decides where we should stand, sit, or go at any given moment during the play. This is tedious because directors try one thing and then another and then another before they make up their minds, so there is no point in trying to memorize one's own stage directions right away. This used to bother me, but now I just go with the flow, knowing that things will work out fine in the end.
I have had my doubts about being totally blind on stage, but I don't have such doubts anymore. One reason is that my directors have always been ready and willing to make accommodations such as ensuring that a fellow actor is nearby when I have to enter or leave by the steps leading on and offstage. Also providing me with an escort for certain key movements around the stage isn't nearly as obtrusive as it sounds: it can prevent a nasty accident and an unintended spectacle! One time when I did fall over a piece of furniture during a fast-moving sequence in Ragtime, I felt bad because my family members were watching, but my daughter told me afterwards that several people had fallen, including the music director.
Another concern at times has been getting the script in an accessible format, and here again I have been quite lucky. As an employee of Services for the Visually Impaired, I have had access, not only to Braille-embossing equipment, but also to colleagues who know how to use it. In this regard I am especially grateful to Judy and Lloyd Rasmussen and to Patty Droppers, without whose help and expertise I would not have accomplished what I have so far.
Finally in writing this article, I have felt awkward about writing about myself as if I were special or outstanding when I know I'm not. If I can claim credit for anything, it is that I have been bold enough (or crazy enough) to take opportunities that presented themselves to me. So, when I am tempted to ask: Why me?, maybe I should simply say: Why not me? And, come to think of it, why not you?