Future Reflections Fall 1992, Vol. 11 No. 4



by Jerry Whittle

[PICTURE] Blind Students at the NFB Louisiana Center for the Blind gain confidence and poise through staging plays. The performance pictured about was given at the 1992 National NFB Convention.

From the Editor: As soon as I read the following article in the May, 1992, issue of the Braille Monitor, I immediately thought of Gunot Bunot. I never met Ms. Bunot, and all I know of her came from a letter she wrote me about ten years ago. (Her letter was coincidentally written the same year Jerry Whittle begins his narrative in this article.) Something she had read in a Future Reflections article had triggered memories of stifled childhood dreams. She wrote to me to share some of these memories and dreams in the hopes of helping others.

Here is some of what she had to say:

We blind people are not expected to be good at doing house repairs, advanced cooking, or making things aesthetically appealing to the eye....In Sweden, where I lived until two years ago, things are no better and no worse as far as attitudes [about blindness] go. As a child I was told, "You can do almost anything you want. You can become a secretary, a translator, or a teacher even." (I was considered good in languages). "Yes," I thought to myself, "but what if I want to become an actress or a hairdresser?" I always felt drawn to professions involving manual skills, or things that were beauty-oriented, artistically or gastronomically creative. But I was told, "You are so intelligent, you would be bored." The real message was: you'll only waste your time and cause trouble. Why would anybody want to hire you in a position like that if they can get a sighted person that can do it twice as fast?...So I stayed within the accepted boundaries, and so do (unfortunately) the students where I work (Disabled Student Services, San Francisco State University). You will find most of them in special education and social sciences. Where are the drama, P.E., and home economics majors? All following common prudent sense....Can we do anything for them?

My answer to Ms. Bunot was to put her in touch with the National Federation of the Blind in her state. I do not know if she ever did anything about her dreams for herself or for others, but Jerry Whittle did. Here is his story.

It all started in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina back in 1983. Perhaps the love of acting had started before that year for some of us who had performed in plays in high school or college before we lost our sight. A small band of Federationists from South Carolina decided to produce a play at a mountain camp near Clemson University. The camp had a very large assembly hall that could seat well over two hundred persons, and it also had a small stage with two tiny rooms on each end that could serve as dressing rooms. We did not have any lighting; however, a mechanical friend, Jerry Darnell, said he could build a lighting panel, install some lights, and use a remote control to switch on and off the stage lights as needed. We were set.

With the full cooperation of Donald C. Capps, President of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, we chose the popular Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie. After the four blind actors met together, we decided to do three performances as a fund raiser for the state affiliate. None of us had any experience as blind actors. We had heard about blind actors in New York who did readings (no stage movement), but we wanted to act it with blocked movements on stage and without our canes so that we could play sighted characters convincingly. It was much easier than we anticipated. Each of the actors simply learned his or her way around the sets as if walking around a familiar room. One of the actresses, who had some residual sight, requested that a white line be painted across the front edge of the stage so that she could see it and not wander too near the edge. No other special aids were needed in the performance of this play; however, some very memorable moments related to blindness occurred during the three performances.

One came when Suzanne Bridges Mitchell, who played the crippled girl Laura, was supposed to trip and fall on some steps. When Suzanne did this scene, some members of the audience almost ran forward to pick her up, thinking she had fallen because she was blind. All in all, the play was great fun. The South Carolina Commission for the Blind radio station recorded the performance and played it to the statewide blind radio network. Also the South Carolina Education Television Network videotaped it and broadcast it over its television network. We proved to ourselves and to many others that we could move about a stage and perform with very little difficulty, and some members of the cast got hooked on the theater.

When I came to work at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in October, 1985, I set myself a goal of getting some of the students and staff at the center involved in doing a play. After I convinced some of them to give acting a try, we started learning lines for Look Homeward, Angel, at a local community theater in Ruston as a fund raiser for the Louisiana Center for the Blind, but more important, we wanted to do it to build confidence and poise in our students and to show the local community that we could produce and act in a legitimate play. Having no one on staff with experience in directing, we enlisted the help of some graduate students in the Theater Department at Louisiana Tech University. We borrowed some costumes from the Theater Department of Centenary University in Shreveport, and we did three performances with little difficulty.

The acting space we used was divided into three levels. We entered at the ground level, where the audience sat, and at the stage level. To get the third, a local building contractor constructed a porch for us across the entire front edge of the stage. To assure that the actors could find the different steps, doormats were placed in front of each set. That was the only special accommodation needed to assist mobility. At one point in the performance, my wife Merilynn had to make an entrance into a puddle where some water was standing on the ground level from the previous night's downpour. Before the performance, we discovered that one of the electrical cords was also lying in this puddle. Merilynn crossed her fingers, stepped before the audience, and began sloshing through the water while I mentally went over all the insurance policies I had on her, searching for electrocution clauses; but fortunately, nothing happened. The rest of the actors in the scene entered behind her, making what was potentially the most electrifying entrance of their lives. Over eighteen actors appeared in the play—fifteen of whom were blind—and several more blind people got hooked on the theater.

Perhaps the most personally rewarding time of my life as a would-be actor came as the result of an accident. One of the instructors at the center, who had performed in Look Homeward, Angel, decided that he wanted to audition for a play being produced by the Louisiana Tech University Players. He persuaded Merilynn and me to go with him to audition so that he would not feel so uncomfortable trying out for a play with a predominantly sighted troupe. The play was William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, a play that I had seen at the Warehouse Theater in Greenville, South Carolina, many years before and one that had impressed me greatly. So Merilynn and I acquiesced and ventured to the theater with our friend. We had obtained a copy of the script about a week before, and I had spent much time memorizing the lines the director wanted us to recite.

When we arrived at the audition, the director seemed very nervous in our company. He did not expect to see two blind men walk in to audition for his play, but he asked us to come up on stage to read our lines. Merilynn was also asked to do some lines in (of all things) an Italian accent. All three of us gave it our best. Since I had memorized my lines, I was able to give them added emphasis. The director thanked us for coming and told us that he would post the list of those who would be in the play outside the auditorium the following day.

We left the audition feeling that there was no way that any of us would be chosen. The next day we went by the auditorium after work and discovered to our delight and surprise that Merilynn and I were on the list. I was to play an Arab and Merilynn was to be an Italian mama. Our friend was not selected, but he took the disappointing news good-naturedly.

What we didn't realize was that this particular play would be in the American College Theater Festival competition. In addition to the five performances in Ruston, we would act in Hammond, Louisiana, as part of a statewide competition. We did the play before sellout crowds in Ruston and in Hammond, and it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. We won the competition in Hammond and did one performance in Lubbock, Texas, competing against universities from New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. We did not win the competition there, but we did perform before an audience of more than four hundred. Needless to say, I was the only blind actor there, but everybody saw my long white cane and knew that I was blind.

The next year I got to play old Adam in William Shakespeare's As You Like It for the Louisiana Tech Theater by merely making a phone call to the director. I did not have to audition for it.

Recently a director from the Ruston Community Theater came to the Louisiana Center for the Blind and asked some of our students to audition for a play he was producing. Jennifer Dunnam, President of the Student Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana and a former student at the center, auditioned and got the part in Wait Until Dark. She did a superb job and plans to be in other plays in the future. She has already performed in four of our plays.

Since that time the staff and students at the Louisiana Center for the Blind have produced at least one play per year. We did one production for an outdoor theater, and we have done three at state conventions and one at a national convention. Many blind people have gained confidence and much stage presence from these performances.

What started in South Carolina has certainly grown into a success story, one greater then we could ever have imagined when we began doing plays at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Since the center opened in 1985, we have had over sixty students participating in plays and gaining confidence and poise as a result. Blind people can act and do it with enough grace and ease to be invited to do other plays by local community theaters. If any blind person has an interest in trying out for a play in his or her local community theater, I would strongly recommend that he or she obtain the lines ahead of time and memorize them so that greater expression can be used. Most important, have the confidence to audition; you may gain a whole new experience from such a venture, and a whole new segment of the sighted community may be better educated about the talents and abilities of blind persons.