Future Reflections                                                                                     Spring/Summer 2004

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Listening to the Script; A Blind Professor’s Passion for the Theater

by Patrick Healy

Reprinted from the Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31, 1998, Durham, N.H.

Blind people can write plays, direct them, and act in them.. Here, blind students from the Louisiana Center for the Blind perform before a sell-out crowd at an NFB national convention.
Blind people can write plays, direct them, and act in them. Above, blind students from the Louisiana Center for the Blind perform before a sell-out crowd at an NFB national convention.

Editor’s Note: Science, astronomy, visual arts, human services, teaching, engineering, music, cooking, recreation, exploring, travel—there seems to be no end to the careers and areas of interests to which blind people may aspire. Here is an engaging account of one blind man’s passion for theater:

Two decades ago, while learning how to succeed as a director of university theater in spite of his blindness, David Richman realized the importance of trusting his instincts.

At the time an assistant professor at the University of Rochester, Mr. Richman mounted a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull with the help of a colleague. Casting the role of Masha, a loser in love, Mr. Richman fancied an actress who hit the right notes of melancholy in her audition. But his collaborator insisted that the student was too plain, and pressed for a prettier Masha. Mr. Richman took the advice—yet he was not able to elicit the plaintive reading that he wanted to hear.

“I don’t think this girl ever had the experience of being rejected, which is basic to Masha,” he says.

In the future, he decided, he would not let the perspective of a collaborator overrule his gut. Speaking with feeling, with honesty, with clarity, is not only key to Chekhov, it is crucial to Mr. Richman. He has only vague memories of color and objects seen before his vision degenerated completely at age twelve. Around the same time, he began going to the theater, where the lively, witty exchanges in such plays as The Importance of Being Earnest enthralled him. Today he is still guided by the words of Shakespeare and Moliere, Yeats and Beckett, Ibsen and Strindberg.

Vision seems critical to directing the frolic between the fairies and the besotted lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or enlivening the two-character banter in Beckett’s Happy Days. But Mr. Richman has developed techniques that have made him a successful director and mentor for student actors.

“Some directors have to see the play on stage before they themselves can direct it,” Mr. Richman says. “I approach a play script the way Brahms approached a score—you imagine your ideal of the play taking shape in your head.”

An associate professor of theater at the University of New Hampshire since 1988, Mr. Richman draws inspiration from the Braille scripts that line the shelves of his spartan office here. A literary scholar with a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Stanford, both in English, Mr. Richman prefers verbally dense plays because the authors provide such rich language and thoughtful plotting.

In the first scene of Hamlet, for instance, tension builds as frightened castle guards encounter one another on a dark night, and then see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The scene unfolds, Mr. Richman says, largely through the rhythm, timing, pauses, emphasis of syllables, and tonal shifts that are woven through the dialogue. Like other directors, Mr. Richman tells the story through action, too. But he tackles the text more faithfully than an iconoclastic director would.

“The mode these days in theater artistry and in theater criticism and performance theory is to distrust the word,” Mr. Richman says. “Yeats has a line in one of his plays about being out of fashion and out of date. That works for me.”

Mr. Richman directs one play a year while teaching such courses as the history of theater. He has recruited colleagues and students to be “sighted collaborators” for his productions. While Mr. Richman trusts his collaborators, he also trusts that the image of the scene in his mind works on stage as well.

“If my collaborator says, ‘It’s boring David, you’ve got to do something, you’re going to lose your audience,’ I say, ‘No we’re not—if it’s spoken properly, we’re going to keep our audience.’”

Not that Mr. Richman isn’t experimental. With New Hampshire now in the throes of a debate over how the state should pay for public education, his next production will be Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, “set in a nameless contemporary town in a nameless New England state in which taxpaying is a problem.” He plans to depict the fiery group of tight-fisted citizens in the play as anti-tax advocates, a tinker that makes sense to anyone who, like Mr. Richman, has attended Town Meeting here, where advocates for community needs often smack up against people who want to limit government spending.

“It deals with rhetoric and discourse, which interest me, and which I feel should happen more in the theater,” he says. “Audiences are able to attend to the difficult expression of difficult ideas.”

Commercial theater, where difficult ideas have mixed success at selling tickets, has never seemed to Mr. Richman like a good fit with his talents. As a young director he lacked confidence, and, now, he is skeptical that professional actors would value his insight into the makings of a good performance.

“They want to know, ‘Where am I on the stage? Don’t tell me what the character’s thinking about.’”

Many drama majors, on the other hand, have learned from the challenges that Mr. Richman presents. His student assistants are often given responsibility to oversee rehearsals of scenes and develop the physical action, such as the best way to flesh out the comedy when a character crawls across stage. The director has also been heavily involved in university productions of Shakespeare that tour to New Hampshire high schools, where the company performs a truncated script and then fields questions about theater and the university.

“It did what the program should do— Shakespeare became real to the students, and the idea of university became real,” he says.

There are drawbacks to working with a blind director, Mr. Richman acknowledges. “I can’t tell you, ‘You’re looking good.’ Every performer wants to hear that, and it’s the one thing I can’t say.”

Even so, he is known here for his uncanny sense of what isn’t working right on stage, based on what he hears. The same is true of casting: No more upbeat Mashas.

“The verbal and visual passion can mesh,” Mr. Richman adds. But “if someone has the verbals and not the visuals, and it’s a show I’m directing, I’ll go with the verbals.”

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