American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2019 PERFORMANCE
An Interview with Sammi Grant
From the Editor: As soon as I heard about a blind woman who has built a career as a dialect coach, I knew I wanted to connect with her. Her name is Sammi Grant, and she was more than happy to share her story with the readers of Future Reflections.
Deborah Kent Stein: Please tell me a bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up? Did you go through school as a blind student?
Sammi Grant: I grew up in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. As a child I had a whole series of problems with my eyes—cataracts, glaucoma, and a detached retina. By the time I was ten I was legally blind.
DKS: When did you become interested in theater?
SG: When I was a child I was always corralling people to watch me put on performances in the living room. My family was very supportive, and I went to acting camp the summer I was ten. From that point on, I knew I wanted to be in the theater. Nobody ever told me that because I'm blind I couldn't act on the stage. My family always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.
DKS: What blindness tools did you use in school?
SG: I went through school mostly using a CCTV. As a teenager I was very sad and angry about my blindness, and I wanted nothing to do with using a cane or learning Braille. But by my senior year I realized I had a choice. I could learn to use a cane and go to college, or I could refuse to use a cane and stay home. I buckled down and learned cane travel. Today I use a cane, I use a computer with JAWS, and I use VoiceOver and various apps on the iPhone. I've learned Braille, but I'm not fluent enough to use it for reading scripts.
DKS: Where did you do your undergraduate work? What was your major?
SG: I entered Illinois Wesleyan University in 2008 and majored in theater arts.
DKS: Was the college supportive toward you as a blind theater major?
SG: Not too surprisingly, the college had never had a blind student majoring in theater before. To their credit, they did their best to make it work for me. During my freshman year a blind actor, Marilee Talkington, came to our campus as a guest artist. My professors made sure I got the chance to meet her. We had dinner together, and we've stayed in touch ever since. Marilee has been a great resource for me.
DKS: Did your instructors work with you on things that might be challenging to learn nonvisually, such as gestures and movement?
SG: They certainly tried. People would tell me that I looked like a sighted person onstage. I thought that was a great compliment when I was in college, but now I realize it's pretty toxic. It's like saying that I'm okay because I don't look blind; I can pass for sighted. The reality is I'm a blind person, and that's okay. Is it necessary to appear sighted on stage? Should I seek to play sighted characters, or should I just be me? These are big questions to think about.
During my college years I became very self-conscious about the gestures I used on stage. My instructors worked with me a bit, and I really learned a lot from a couple of student directors. When I was a senior I did a one-woman show. The play was called The Syringa Tree. I had to portray twenty-one different characters, and they each had their own physicality. It was a tremendous challenge, and I really learned a lot.
DKS: What did you do after you graduated?
SG: I went to Chicago and started trying out for roles in plays.
DKS: How did you deal with the scripts at auditions?
SG: Handling the script really wasn't a problem. I'd sit down with a reader before the audition, and we'd go over the script together. I'd memorize the role I meant to audition for. I've developed a really good memory, and I learn lines very quickly.
DKS: How did directors react when they found out you're blind?
SG: It varied a lot. Some were very cool about it, and we worked together really well. Others were not at all open to me. The director at one small company told me, "If we don't cast you, it's not because you're blind." Now, why would they say that, unless blindness was on their mind? Eventually I learned that if a company wouldn't accommodate me, I was better off going somewhere else. It wasn't worth my time and energy to try to work with people who really didn't want me to be there. It was an unhealthy situation.
Today there is a big push for inclusivity in theater. Opportunities are opening up for actors who bring all kinds of life experiences to the stage. I think that the climate for blind actors and actors with other disabilities has improved a lot.
DKS: How did you shift away from acting and become a dialect coach?
SG: I took a couple of courses on speech and dialect when I was in college, but my formal training in that area was pretty minimal. In one dialects class we learned four or five common accents. Later I did an independent study class with another student and learned seven more. The Syringa Tree, my one-woman show, took place in South Africa, and I had to use ten different accents, some of them completely new to me.
Mostly I've been self-taught, and this seems to be true for most dialect coaches. As a blind person I've learned to listen very carefully to people's speech patterns.
One very interesting class I took in college focused on IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet. IPA symbols represent every sound in the world's languages. English contains twenty-six phonetic vowel sounds, and other languages have many, many more. The IPA really helps bridge the gaps between hearing and spelling. I can access the IPA using my CCTV, and also one of my teachers created a tactile phonetic alphabet for me to use.
By the time I got serious about coaching, I had lots of contacts in Chicago's theater world. I started working with individual actors who hired me, and after a while directors started asking me to help on a particular show. Looking back now on those first shows I think, "I should never have done it that way!" I learned a lot through trial and error. I taught what I knew, and the actors sounded better. Somehow it worked out.
Chicago has a very rich theater scene, so it was a great place for me to start my career. I worked on about sixty shows during a six-year period. I worked with some of the major theaters in the city and the suburbs, such as Drury Lane, Steppenwolf, Goodman, Gift Theater, and the Windy City Playhouse. I have the script sent to me electronically so I can get familiar with the lines. Usually I attend the first rehearsal just to listen, and then I work individually with the actors. I might work with an actor for an hour, or we might have a couple of short sessions together. One show I worked on, Southern Gothic, ran for three hundred performances. I went in several times during the run to work with understudies and new people who joined the cast. I worked on a production of Billy Elliott, where there were a lot of kids involved. The play takes place in County Durham, a poor area of northern England, and I did a lot of work with the kids so they could get the accent down. I would check in on them from time to time throughout the run. For the most part, though, my job is finished once the show opens.
I've also had some experience working on TV productions. I worked six days on the set of a drama called The Patriot, which aired on Amazon Prime. I also worked on a remake of The Exorcist for Fox. TV work pays much better than work with a theater. I earned as much in one day working on a TV set as I could working two full stage shows.
TV is hiring dialect coaches more and more now, but you might only get to work with the actor for about twenty minutes before they shoot the scene. I'm not always happy with the final outcome. They'll do a bunch of takes for one scene, and the editor gets to choose. They might do ten takes, and they need to choose the best. The best visual nearly always wins out over the best audio.
Right now the community of dialect and voice coaches is very small. Only about ten dialect coaches are working in Chicago, and we're always recommending one another. I remember one coach who said, "There's more work than any one of us can do, so there's no need for us to compete with each other." I belong to an international organization called VASTA, which stands for Voice and Speech Trainers Association. It includes anyone who does anything with voice, such as coaches, therapists, and voice teachers.
DKS: I understand you're doing further studies right now.
SG: About a year ago I started to feel that I had reached a plateau in my skills and my career. I'd been working full time for years, but since it was freelance work, I was always a little on edge about landing the next job. I decided to apply to graduate school. This year I'm at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, working toward a master's in fine arts in voice studies.
DKS: What do you plan to do when you finish your degree?
SG: I want to continue coaching, and I'd also like to teach at the undergraduate level. It would be nice to gain a more stable and prosperous life. Maybe I can find a way to work with some clients in the corporate world.
Meanwhile, I'm doing my best to stay connected with my Chicago contacts through social media. Liking other people's posts helps keep me on their radar. Several theater companies have already asked me when I plan to come back.
Chicago has been good to me, but I'd like to try my luck in New York. When I dreamed of Broadway as a child, I always imagined I'd act on the stage. I still dream of Broadway, and I think I'll get there someday—not as an actor, but as a coach.
DKS: Thank you so much! How can our readers learn more about your work?
SG: I invite you to visit my website at www.sammigrant.com. There's even a video where I teach the basics of several different accents. Check it out, and give it a try!