“She Doesn’t Look Blind to Me” The Blind Actor Phenomenon, Essay 23 of #52essays2017

In my last essay inspired by attending the NYC Disability Pride Parade, I presented a small rant on the dearth of actors with disabilities representing themselves on television. And I got to thinking about how, in a troubling landscape, I can say with as few sour grapes as possible, that the blind actor is pretty much non-existent, excepting of course in a certain Vanda commercial starring me!

Blindness is a very weird disability since, without the accoutrements of white cane or guide dog, it doesn’t look like much, which is why, I suppose, I receive comments on the Vanda iSpot page doubting my authenticity. Here’s an example from George:

“Doesn’t look blind to me. Her eyes are following the action. She at least has some vision.”

And another from Rhonda:

“This is an actor!!! They need real blind people. They stopped this one with the actor woman. Now they have an Afganastan [sic] vet.”

For some reason, Ronda believes in the vet, but not me, the assumption is that the vet is a real blind person, which in fact he is. Mike and I shot our commercials at the same time and chatted during lunch once. But why getting blinded in war is more credible than having an eye disease remains a mystery.

I am not alone in being denied authenticity. On Molly’s Dove Shower Foam iSpot page, I read a comment from Roseanne:

“don’t think she’s blind”

And another from Carol:

“Same she doesn’t look hummm noract like any actual blind person I know and I have friends and family blind from infancy to loss of sight from wound in war to elderly! And lost sight even to being diabedic [sic]. She doesn’t appear to act in any way as they do”

Spelling mistakes and typos aside, I accept these comments as representative of a certain percentage of the American sighted population. Happily for Molly (and human kind), there are others who believe. Someone took the time to Google her and discovered her authenticity. From Shelley:

“I googled it and I think her name is Molly Burke and she has retinitis pigmentosis [pigmentosa]. You gradually lose your eye sight when you have that. My grandma had it along with two of her sisters. She was declared blind in 1967 but didn’t completely lose all her sight until 10 or so years later.”

Indeed Molly Burke is authentic and has a popular YouTube channel in which she talks about life with blindness.

I wonder if others in the disabled world get victimized by such able-bodied scrutiny. Probably. And yet there are disabilities that are hard to fake. No one doubts that Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, is the real deal.

Part of the problem is that able-bodied actors have been portraying and often winning Academy Awards for their performances of disabilities for so long that seeing someone who is actually disabled defying stereotypes–not looking blind, for example–that when they see the real thing, they doubt the authenticity and somehow feel duped. It’s odd that people cannot imagine a real blind actor, but only real blind people, as if actors were not also people.

For my Celebrating People With Disabilities in Film and Television article I wrote for NYFA earlier this month, I was delighted to find enough actors with disabilities that I could not fit them all into my space limitations. However, beyond the TV ads, I had to stretch for a blind actor.

 

Kitty McGeever starred in the long-running “Emmerdale,” but sadly died age 48 as a result of many health issues. McGeever was the first blind actor to star in a British soap. Having trained at RADA, she lost her sight at the age of 33, shortly before winning her role on “Emmerdale.” She described her character as “naughty” and “manipulative in the extreme” to the BBC, and added, Lizzy “uses her disability to her advantage and then disregards it to her advantage whenever and whichever way she chooses.

 

There’s also a young French actor Melchior Derouet, who starred opposite Natalie Portman in Paris Je T’aime. Here’s a fun Hollywood Reporter article about him navigating Cannes.

When I was called to audition for the part of Reba on NBC’s Hannibal, I dreamed of not just the stardom and money, but the idea of doing talk shows and the like, speaking as myself to a mass audience of sighted people about my particular flavor of blindness. How delicious, I thought, and important, to offer a perspective that might not square with the usual perceptions! I also imagined insisting on the importance of having people represent themselves on TV, providing more nuanced and authentic representations, representations that have behind them, at least to some extent, experience that reaches beyond stereotypes. This is important not only regards viewers but also the immense cast and crews on a television or film set.

The director of the Vanda ads, Malcolm Venville, told me on our first day of shooting that how I moved was so interesting. That it was so different from how a sighted person moved, and yet subtle and not what you see in the media–not superhuman and not slapstick. The cast and crew’s experience of a blind actor can only help to explode stigmatic portrayals. There is hardly a mainstream blind actor working today, and yet the portrayal of blindness is practically a staple on the TV series, where main characters are struck blind at alarming rates, usually just before jumping the shark–yes, I’ve got Fonzie’s Blindness in mind.

But things they are a changing, and I’m excited for the blind kids coming up. Soon, I hope, it will be as frowned upon to have a blind character played by a sighted as to run around in blackface. But for now, we must be satisfied with pharmaceutical ads and training videos… Below you can watch my friend George Ashiotis and I tell poll workers how to treat people who are blind!

 

*This is #23 of #52essays2017. Check out #22 Disability Pride Parades Matter 2, about my happy march up Broadway flying my freak flag with thousands of others!*

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Disability Pride Parades Matter II: people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood, #22 of #52essays2017

Last year I wrote about why Disability Pride Parades Matter, from a bookish perspective since I unfortunately did not make it to the parade. This year, I did make it and was very pleased to run into friends including my old pals from Lighthouse Guild Music School! They may never forgive me for flubbing my chance to distinguish the Lighthouse from amongst the hundreds of other disabilities organizations in my impromptu loudspeaker announcement, but perhaps this video mitigates somewhat. Anyway, please excuse my excitable camera guy, who got a little nervous when I took the mic–he’s a much better singer composer!)

As an actor and writer for New York Film Academy, I’m acutely aware of the challenges actors with disabilities face. So it was exciting for me and many others to have Micah Fowler of the current hit TV show “Speechless” grand marshal this year’s Disability Pride Parade.

Born with cerebral palsy, Fowler started acting when he was five. In a Vulture interview Fowler said, “I think it is sad that less than 2 percent of actors on screen are themselves actually disabled. Growing up a huge television and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of both disabled actors and disabled characters being portrayed on television. So I am so very excited that “Speechless,” a prime-time network-television show, conquers both of those missing links by having both an actor actually living with cerebral palsy as a main character and by having a “character” in the story line living with a disability.”

Although Fowler and other young actors with disabilities such as Lauren Potter who played Becky Jackson on Fox’s hit show “Glee” and Jamie Brewer who played several recurring roles on “American Horror Story,” including Nan in “Coven,” who both have Down Syndrome, offer viewers the glimmer of a new trend of hiring actors with disabilities, things are still pretty dismal.

According to a Variety article informed by a 2016 study released by Ruderman White Paper, “95% of characters with disabilities in top 10 TV shows are played by able-bodied actors,”

The study was commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation and took a comprehensive look at employment of actors with disabilities in television, and reveals that “people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood.”

In all of this, there is a need for activism and a push for hiring practices to shift, but there are also things disabled people can do for themselves by themselves. A good example is marching in disability pride parades, because they bring bunches of disabilities into the public eye.

I could have wished that there were a few more people along the parade route yesterday, but there were a whole lot of people marching, and it felt good, though, I believe it was a little lacking in spectacle–a few too many matching t-shirts, if you ask me. I think we need to rip a page off the gay pride parade handbook. We need costumes and we need floats! I have big plans for a braille dress next year! But of course, Gay Pride has got a few decades on us.

Daryl Mitchell, who stars in NCIS New Orleans, was an established actor before a 2001 motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. With support from friends, including Denzel Washington and Chris Tucker, he has continued his career and now stars in “NCIS: New Orleans.” He is an advocate for employing actors with disabilities. In an Ability Magazine interview Mitchell says, “You meet with these Labor Department guys, and you can tell everybody is enthused and ready to go. That’s the main thing, really. Their willingness to fly out from Washington and see us in Los Angeles and speak with us says a lot about them. But it’s really a matter of what we need to do, what we’re willing to do as people with disabilities. We need to be more boisterous. We need to let the world know that we’re here.”

So here’s to boisterous disabled people, costumed and bejeweled, marching in the Disability Pride Parade 2018!

*This is #22 of #52essays2017. Read #21 Bobst Library, the Education of the Blind, and the Buffoon of Saint-Ovide in which I wax nostalgic about my NYU library adventures and another kind of spectacle!*

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Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics, essay 4 of #52essays2017

Two winters ago, I got a call from my agent in LA to tape an audition for
Hannibal, and it led me on a journey from stars in my eyes to a brand-new appreciation of smell.

I was, as an actor, thoroughly green. I did not even know that for TV/film auditions you sit or stand still with the camera in your face and speak the lines with all the emotions your head can muster. You must have your lines memorized or virtually memorized. If you can see, you can bring in your sides and glance at them if necessary, but if you are blind, like me, you cannot rely on this visual blankie.

Speaking of blankies, I did not know that props are generally pooh-poohed, because I’d not yet read Marci Phillips helpful book The Present Actor until after the fact and learned that:

“Whatever people normally carry around with them is usually regarded as acceptable. A cellphone, iPod, blackberry, bottle of water, briefcase, bag, magazine, pad, pen, jacket, etc. are all fair game…. If you’re eating in a scene and you choose to bring actual food into your audition, make sure that you’ve given this a few trial runs at home first.”

I did not bring actual food into my audition coaching session but rather an eraser on a plate, which I mimicked eating like it, were pie with an actual fork.

It is difficult to say how terrible my self-tape audition would have been if my agent had not found me a professional coach with whom I could work for an hour (and film the self-tape) on the Sunday before the Monday when the tape was due. For those non-actors out there, I was lucky to get a couple extra days to memorize and rehearse because the call came on a Thursday night. As gently as possible the coach, Jonathan Hammond, took my eraser-plate away from me and told me that props came across as a little bit amateur.

I had received two scenes and both were familiar because I’d seen/heard the film Red Dragon many times, and read the novel at least twice when I received the call to audition. Reba McClane is one of the best blind characters ever to grace a novel, let alone a screen. Reba was created as a round and nuanced blind character–a rare and precious thing–by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, the first of the Hannibal series, from which the films and then the TV series developed. Hence, I admit I was pretty excited and honored to be asked to audition. I tried not to think about how awesome a job Emily Watson did in the role.

The first scene I’d been given was the scene where Reba invites Francis Dolarhyde into her home, offers him pie, and tries to draw him out. It was different from the film. Reba’s memory of a cougar at the zoo reverted back to the original llama of the novel, but in each incarnation, the scene has a quirky charm driven by Reba’s rambling.

The second scene for my audition was totally different, scary. Dolarhyde has Reba tied up and she tries to understand his anger. Having done a little bit of theatre, I embarked on my home rehearsals by clinging and pleading melodramatically. Thankfully, Alabaster–who was helping me memorize my lines–told me to sit down and act tied up.

With rehearsals through the weekend about every couple hours, I had gotten it pretty good, but my real nervousness combined with the fact that Jonathan was a pro, took this scene to a level that gave me great insight into acting, and made me realize (once again) that I do not have the stomach for it.

Jonathan told me that the one who got the part would be the one who breaks the casting director’s heart. That was a revelation. I did it with him the second time to such an extent that I had to keep myself from crying after we were done. Alabaster had walked in and was like “wow.” It was so intense; I still remember the feeling of my heart pounding and the need to sob with wonder and amazement. I get why actors are fucked up. Feeling that intense for no reason does not feel any different than feeling that intense for personal reasons–the heartrate still skyrockets, and the body says fear or love or whatever. When it was over, I was confused. I’d never felt that intensely for something that was not a product of my own rumpled psyche. I suppose one taps into one’s own psyche to get there, but still, it was strange to feel that intensity while “acting”.

I can’t say that the taped third try was as good as that second one of memory, but for an untrained actor, I was proud to have pulled it off. In my own mind, I was working very hard to send a tape to my agent that was good enough for her to pass on to the casting director and not dump me. Just good enough to impress her. the idea of actually getting a part in one of NBC’s hottest dramas was impossible, though it’s hard after it’s all done to not have some stars in your eyes, and since I sent off my two scenes in the week before Christmas, I had three weeks to contemplate how the experience would change my life.

Poor Alabaster had to watch (and describe) the entire first season and part of the second of the horrifically graphic Hannibal. (The mushroom-feeding episode is one neither of us will ever forget.)

Also in those three weeks, I started thinking about and researching on-camera classes and found a super little school called MN Acting Studio. I read Matt Newton’s book and signed up for an on-camera class with Joseph starting the end of January.

And, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but this was also the time that started me Googling DIY beauty. I think it was that I thought if I had another audition, I should probably do a little more with the way I looked. My outfit choice for my first big audition was more about the character I knew from the books than what they were probably looking for in a supporting role–the love-interest of a starring serial killer. I don’t think I gave my makeup or hair much thought.

Cheap beauty tricks led me to DIY facials, which led me to discover essential oils. I started buying essential oils and was amazed how smells that I’d smelled before now suddenly had names.

I read the monographs–part historical, part botanical–with wonder and excitement. I calmed my heart with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and my allergies with German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). There is something quite powerful in discovering chemical constituents for fun light self-medication. The new-discovered enjoyment of naming ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) and putting a smell to the laurel (Laurus nobilis) of Apollo’s poets and prophetesses cannot be over-estimated.

It may be that reading through all the Hannibal books for the third time primed me for my smell explorations, as Hannibal Lecter is of course a olfactory -aesthete, but whatever the reason, reading about essential oils struck a nerve. Although two years is probably not enough time to gauge such things, I feel like this exploration has changed the course of my life.

I’m not saying that I plan on setting up shop as a serial killer, but I do appreciate the fact that Hannibal recognizes the beauty and importance of the oft-neglected sense–the fallen angel, as Helen Keller puts it.

Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella fragrance bar

In Harris’s novel Hannibal, we follow our favorite serial killer into the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, and relish with him the olfactory symphony:

“The air was music. Here were pale tears of frankincense awaiting extraction, yellow bergamot, sandalwood, cinnamon and mimosa in concert, over the sustaining ground notes of genuine ambergris, civet, castor from the beaver, and essence of the musk deer. Dr. Lecter sometimes entertained the illusion that he could smell with his hands, his arms and cheeks, that odor suffused him. That he could smell with his face and his heart.”

I did not get the part; they decided to go with Rutina Wesley (not blind) of True Blood fame. I can’t say I was not disappointed, but I’m happy to have been asked to audition, to be a part of a new and important entertainment revolution, to have people with disabilities represent themselves onscreen.

One of the dreams I nurtured during my three weeks of waiting was to go on talk shows and educate the public about the important but still nascent trend that will shape the face of entertainment as surely as it has been changed before. Soon having anything less than a deaf actor cast in a deaf role, or a blind person cast in a blind role or a wheelchair person cast in a wheelchair part will perhaps reveal itself to be as shameful and insulting as blackface. Until then, I open my nostrils to the tears of frankincense and the shy flowers of mimosa and imagine how sweet will be the revenge!

 

*This is #4 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Check out my previous essay The Voice of the Turtle here*

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Helen Keller Quotes Explosion

Star of Happiness promotional shot. Godin kneeling in silver and black with loop pedals. Cathryn Lynne Photographer.You kneel on the floor with two loop pedals in front of you. Above you hangs a projected red curtain and an empty spotlight. you say, “Oh, fuck it,” and hit one of the pedals, which causes The Star of Happiness theme song instrumental interlude to play.

“I was born with a degenerative eye disease called…” you hit the loop pedal twice quickly in order to catch “cone-rod dystrophy.”

“This means that, since I was ten years old, I’ve been going very slowly blind. I’ve occupied many positions on the sight/blindness continuum. I’m more blind than sighted now, but it’s not always been like this. Perhaps for you, going blind is the scariest, or at least one of the scariest, things imaginable. For me, thinking about losing another sense, especially hearing, is really scary.

“When I started reading books by and about Helen Keller, I suddenly developed a ringing in my ear. It was likely psychosomatic. (Wouldn’t have been the first psycho symptom I’ve exhibited.) Around that time, I had a dream: I was Helen, in the last years of her life when she was confined to bed by old age illness. We were insensible to sights and sounds As she had almost always been, but now, unable to move, we were deprived of the incessant, impulsive force that had launched her, a crazy deaf blind caterpillar, feelers electrified and electrifying, meteorically into a world that could not get enough of her, and of which she also could not get enough.”

Behind you on the screen, images of Helen from earlier in the show slowly spin around the projected spotlight, then break away.

“Now, after living nearly ninety years of a life that included such varied occupations as…” you pick up “political activist” and “vaudeville performer” into the loop and continue, “and ” after World War II, after America dropped bombs etc., she became an officially sanctioned, unofficial…” you catch up the following into the loop, “ambassador of American peace and good will,” and continue. “Two million Japanese welcomed her when she visited decimated Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They loved her that much!

“but my dream was set in a time past all that, so that I experienced what it would be like to have a sensory existence that extended no farther than the cocoon like bedding in which we were wrapped. Excepting slight tremors and vibrations through the floor, And the occasional touch of an attending hand…” you hit the loop pedal, “THERE WAS NOTHING.”

“However, in the double visioned way dreams sometimes unfold, I was trapped in her immobility with her and seeing her inert body as if it were an out of body experience, without much height or distance. The perspective was split: both inside feeling out and outside looking in.

“The in-body perspective was that of the cornered small animal trembling with the desire to escape, that of the suddenly quadriplegic wishing impotently to die, that of the tongueless victim left alone to tell her tale.

“While the out of body perspective was that of the achingly detached observer, that of the nonsensical buzzing fly, that of the sole audience at a wake. From here, the bed on which we lie, appears, in my mind’s eye, to be a tabula rasa, our body a lumpy virgin landscape.

“But this is my nightmare, not Helen’s. Helen believed that there was an eternal, heavenly, fully sensing body waiting for her to step into after death.”

You hit the pedal and pick up what Helen says, “It gives me a deep, comforting sense that things seen are temporal and things unseen are eternal.”

You say, “Now she is the star of happiness to all struggling humanity.”

Helen says, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

You say, “If Helen Keller fell down in the woods would she make a sound?”

Helen says, “I was strong, stubborn, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.”

Helen says, “I am not dumb now.”

You put down the mic and hunch over your workstation on the floor. You feed Helen Keller quotes from one pedal into the other, adding to the increasingly chaotic mix. Above and behind you in the projected visionscape, images likewise become disjointed and frantic.

Helen says, “Every one of us is blind and deaf until our eyes are opened to our fellow men, until our ears hear the voices of humanity.”

Helen says, “It is not required of every man and woman to do or be something great. Most of us have to be content to take small parts in the drama of life.”

Helen says, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”

Helen says, “I really care for nothing in the world but liberty, liberty to grow mentally and spiritually, untrampled by tradition and arbitrary standards.”

Helen says, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”

You hit the loop pedal one final time and the theme song plays its refrain, “Wonderful star of light wonderful star of light wonderful star of light…”

You are done. you look up into the audience, then crawl stage left as if you will exit, but stop at the edge to sit and apparently observe the strangely calm cycling of looping fragments. The soundscape grows louder while the lights, almost imperceptibly, grow brighter, until the stage and the audience are drenched in artificial light.

Crescendo.

Whiteout.

THE END

Star of Happiness promo shot. Godin in silver and black bent over loop pedals on the floor. Cathryn Lynne Photographer.

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Helen Keller Plays Vaudeville With You

Star of Happiness promotional shot of Godin in sequins on floor like a mermaid. Cathryn Lynne Photographer.
Out of the dark, a jewel box scene materializes; Helen Keller plays vaudeville on this top-billed set. The handsomely appointed drawing room, brilliant and color-saturated, projects hugely: French windows overlook rolling hills and a sky that will shift from day to night; drapes puddle on the floor; The Apotheosis of Homer hangs on one of the brocade-papered walls, and a lion-footed grand piano, atop which sits a vase of American Beauty roses, dominates the pretend room.

In your best announcer voice you say, “All the world knows and loves Helen Keller, the girl with the unconquerable spirit. She had fought her way uncomplaining against the greatest obstacles that ever confronted a human being. Today she is “The Star of Happiness” to all struggling humanity.

“The Star of Happiness” theme song plays and Helen, in a fantastically sequined gown that hugs her curves steps in with a huge smile. She theatrically sweeps her hand around, reaching for the piano, and runs her gloved fingers along its keys of light.

You continue, “Helen can feel the music not only with her finger tips but with her whole body.

Helen says, “It is very beautiful.”

“Miss Keller,” you ask leadingly, “can you tell when the audience applauds?”

She says, “Oh yes, I hear it through my feet.” Then, “Only…”

“Yes?” you ask, as if you didn’t know what was about to happen.

“They are not applauding?”

Your giant MC voice booms through the theater as you command, “Will you please applaud?”

The audience, putty in your hands, applauds enthusiastically, even more so and with little chuckles as Helen does her lying on the ground soaking in the vibes bit. “Ah, that feels good,” she says languorously. She likes to be a little bit naughty; it is not what those poor saps expect. “More!” she cajoles, and the suckers comply.

It’s time for you to play the straight guy. “Er, Miss Keller?”

“Yes?” she says, her eyes half closed. She looks quite ravishing down there.

“You feel the applause through your feet.”

Helen sighs, “Oh, all right,” and pulls her upper body up to rest on one hand, mermaid style. She looks left and dramatically sniffs the air, then crawls in the direction of the vase of flowers which sit on a block made up like a table with a lacey cloth covering. She picks up the vase of fake flowers, the analogue of that which sits atop the projected piano, and sniffs elaborately.

“Miss Keller finds her way from her second floor dressing room to the stage by following the scent of these roses.”

“I do love the scent of American Beauties!” She puts down the flowers and looks thoughtful. “So… Are you really going to make me say this next bit? I mean, who wrote this stuff?

She always balks here and you are not sure why. It’s a bit sappy, but you have to give them a little of what they want. “You did,” you remind her.

“I guess I did, but I believe Mr. Albee‘s man urged me in this direction.”

You say nothing, and she falls in.

“What I have to say is very simple. My teacher has told you how a word from her hand touched the darkness of my mind and I awoke to the gladness of life. I was dumb, now I speak. I owe this to the hands and hearts of others. Through their love I found my soul and happiness. Don’t you see what it means? We live by each other and for each other. Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Love can break down the walls that stand between us and happiness. I lift up my voice and thank the Lord for love and joy and the promise of life to come.” Helen gives a big woe-is-me sigh as the theme song comes up.

You recite for the audience the lyrics to drive home the point:

“Wonderful star of light

Out from the darkness of night

Sending down a silver ray

Turning nighttime into day

Wonderful star–”

Helen throws her arms up like an air traffic controller, “Enough!” The sound of a needle ripping off a record is used to cut the song. “I’m not so sure about those lyrics.”

“What’s wrong with them?” you ask. You know the next line as well as she does, but it seems unnecessarily pedantic. She has insisted you let her keep it.

I’m just so sick of these quasi-religious, light dark metaphorics that pretend to give credence to the idea of compensation.”

A small smart titter is about all that line gets her, but you play along. What can you do? This is her show after all. “Compensation?”

“You know, metaphorical sight for physical sight. Spiritual light for the real thing. I just don’t buy it. I mean really, “The star of happiness”? It’s just so saccharin and Pollyannaish. It panders to the sap and sentimentality in people.”

“Aw, but the song was written for you.”

She gives an unbecoming smirk. “By the gentleman who wrote Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

You hate having to play dumb, but there’s no getting around it, “What’s that?” you ask naively. It’s time for the dance number.

“Hit it boys!” Helen pulls her white cane from a black sequin quiver.

The tiny Twenties trumpets blare as the song starts up, “Yes, we have no bananas–” Helen, right hand on cane, left hand up waving, makes a circle around her white cane. “We have no bananas today.” She makes her circle backwards, bum first, then lifts her cane, holding it horizontally with both hands. “We’ve got string beans and onions–” Helen kicks to the left and the right under the cane. “Cabbages and scallions–” she kicks a little higher to the left and the right. “And all sorts of fruits and say–” Helen shimmies the cane from waist-height to over her head. “We have an old fashioned tomato–” She lets go the cane with her left hand, which she places on her left hip, and twirls the cane above her head like a baton, making a funny proud face, which always cracks you and the audience up. Then she brings it down and stands with it in her right hand, at attention like a soldier. “And Long Island potato,” Helen puts the cane under her arm, as if it were a bayoneted musket, and marches loudly stomping in her heels in time to the music three times. STOMP STOMP STOMP “But yes, we have no bananas.” Helen puts both hands on her cane like Charlie Chaplin. “We have no bananas todaaaay.” Helen holds both arms out in a big-finish gesture and the audience erupts in applause.

“That was fun,” you say.

“You know,” she says, suddenly candid, “I’m rather tired of uplifting your spirits and being an inspiration.”

“What would you prefer?”

She walks determinately upstage and clears her throat. “Through a performative reading of disparate texts, I’d like to make some bold suggestions that force my audience to confront their deeply held, if often unconscious, attitudes towards the disabled body.” She smiles and lifts her head like a self-satisfied peacock, which earns her a chuckle or two.

You pull her back on track, “I think it is time Miss Keller answered some questions from the audience.”

“All right,” she says, and steps to the pretend table with its lacey tablecloth and moves the vase of roses so she can sit and cross her legs–rather shapely legs. She takes up her little toy drum and the prerecorded audience questions begin.

“Miss Keller, Do you ever tire of talking?”

Helen Keller:

“Have you ever heard of a woman who tired of talking?”

“Do you think women should hold office?”

“Yes, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens to vote for them.”

“Who are your best pals?”

Books.”

“Miss Keller, do you really perceive colors?”

“Well, sometimes I feel blue and sometimes I see red.” Helen makes her own BADUM BUM with her toy drum. This gets a good laugh.

“What do you think of capitalism?”

“I think it has outgrown its usefulness.”

“What is your conception of light?”

“It is like thought in the mind, a bright, amazing thing.”

“Miss Keller, Do you close your eyes when you sleep?”

“I guess I do, but I never stayed awake to see.” BADUM BUM.

“What do you think of Soviet Russia?”

“Soviet Russia is the first organized attempt of the workers to establish an order of society in which human life and happiness shall be of first importance, and not the conservation of property for a privileged class.” Helen pauses, then BADUM BUM. People laugh, relieved.

“Miss Keller, what is your idea of unhappiness?”

“Having nothing to do.”

Who are the three greatest men of our time?”

“Lenin, Edison, and Chaplin.”

“Does Miss Keller think of marriage?”

“Yes, are you proposing to me?”

“What is miss Keller’s age?”

“There is no age on the vaudeville stage.”

“Why did Helen Keller cross the road?” asks a familiarly juvenile voice.

Helen pauses to consider, then, “To feel the other side?”

“Freak,” mumbles that voice.

She puts down her drum and walks towards center stage. She stops, slightly askew, as if a bit disorientated. “Well, yes, at first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same bill with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.”

You try to lighten the mood with a little historical perspective. “Helen’s act was, according to Hammerstein and other vaudeville producers, called an odd act. This was not strictly entertainment, but rather topical, newsworthy or of human interest.”

Helen grows wistful. She is remembering her time in The Play World, tipping her hat to the fact that this performance is pretend, and not so much like the original as all that. “I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage, I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me.

“The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.

“I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotions, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.”

“That must be the hardest thing about being deaf and blind.”

What?”

“Not having a lot of opportunities to study life.”

“Oh yes, it can be complicated. . Having conversations with people who do not know the manual alphabet must be done through an interpreter or …

Virtually sitting in my interlocutor’s lap.”

“That sounds exciting.”

“Perhaps… In order to have direct conversation with someone who does not know the manual alphabet, one must put one’s hand on the other’s face, the middle finger lies alongside their nose, the index rests gently along their lips, and the thumb feels the vibrations of the throat. It is rather intimate. Not everyone feels comfortable with such a position. The men in particular seem to get a bit… flustered.” She looks down, as if to acknowledge her large breasts and how they may have contributed to men’s discomfort in her proximity. She looks back up, then, “Could you please excuse me?”

she exits and the pastoral scene beyond the projected French windows transforms into a shadow box–Helen’s dressing room–into which her silhouette magically steps.

Soft music plays–Me and My Shadow–while your conversation with Helen continues as if through the intimacy of airwaves. The audience is immediately hushed and expectant.

“I suppose my figure does not fit the angelic ideal people have of me. I understand my friends and publicists do much to downplay the fact that I am a woman and have breasts.” Her silhouette pulls off one glove and then another, dropping them into the dark.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“I had one once… His name was Peter… His love was a bright sun that shone upon my helplessness and isolation. The sweetness of being loved enchanted me, and I yielded to an imperious longing to be a part of a man’s life. For a brief space I danced in and out of the gates of Heaven, wrapped up in a web of bright imaginings.” The silhouette reaches behind to unbutton the gown. As she continues, she finishes and it slips to the ground. “We planned to elope but my family learned of our elicit plans and Mother sent my two elder brothers to rescue me from my silly adventure. They were right to do so… I cannot account for my behavior. As I look back and try to understand, I am completely bewildered. I seem to have acted exactly opposite to my nature. It can be explained only in the old way-that love makes us blind and leaves the mind confused and deprives it of the use of judgment. I corresponded with the young man for several months; but my lovedream was shattered. It had flowered under an inauspicious star. The unhappiness I had caused my dear ones produced a state of mind unfavorable to the continuance of my relations with the young man.”

“And has love never disturbed you again?”

She seems to wrap herself in a dressing gown hanging on the wall, but you can’t be sure. You’ve never been allowed back there. Sighing she says, “Recently the idea has slipped into my consciousness, by way of a letter from a gentleman. It is in fact a proposal. I am flattered, but I am no longer the young and thoughtless creature I once was. I am too practical now, in my middle life to seriously consider it. As recompense, I am granted the mature sentiments and talents to write a letter worthy of such an impetuously magnanimous offer. I have spent no little time composing my letter of response, will you hear it?”

“I would be honored, Miss Keller.”

Helen’s silhouette moves to a chair and sits, crossing its legs. It reaches into the pocket of its dressing gown, pulls out folded pieces of paper which it smooths on its lap. The shadow hands move gracefully across the page as the silhouette reads. “All the primitive instincts and desires of the heart, which neither physical disabilities nor suppression can subdue, leap up within me to meet your wishes. Since my youth I have desired the love of a man. Sometimes I have wondered rebelliously why fate has trifled with me so strangely, why I was tantalized with bodily capabilities I could not fulfill. But time, the great discipliner, has done his work well, so that I have learned not to reach out for the moon, and not to cry aloud for the spilled treasures of womanhood. I have come to feel that it was intended for me to live as an unmated, and I have become reconciled to my fate.”

Outside the shadow box dressing room, the piano fades, leaving behind the Victorian textured walls, which in turn fade to black, leaving only the silhouette in its box of creamy light.

“You have read my books. Perhaps you have received the wrong impression from them. One does not grumble in print, or hold up one’s broken wings for the thoughtless and indifferent to gaze at. One hides as much as possible one’s awkwardness and helplessness under a fine philosophy and a smiling face. What I have printed gives no knowledge of my actual life. You see and hear, therefore cannot easily imagine how complicated life is when one has to be led everywhere and assisted to do the simplest things.”

Now the shadowbox itself begins to fade into the blackness, leaving the audience, and you, in inky and disorienting dark. If not for the illuminated EXIT sign, one might worry one did not exist either.to

“Somehow your letter has made me acutely aware of my situation and the discomforts of it. I realize, as perhaps you cannot, the almost unthinkable difference between your life and mine. You seem to have lived a full, normal man’s life. I have lived inwardly. They say that all women partake of the nature of children. I am absurdly childish in many ways. My nearest friends tell me I know nothing of the real world. in some ways my life has been a very lonely one. Books have been my most intimate companions. My part in domestic affairs is usually that of a wistful looker on. Your willingness to marry me under the circumstances fills me with amazement. I tremble to think what an inescapable burden I should be to a husband.”

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Helen Keller Tries To Tell You Her Story (Despite Your Helen Keller Jokes)

Star of happiness promotional shot: Godin with lamp on head and braille paper and Igor GuideDog, and three little girls in projected background.On to the black stage she steps. You believe you hear her cane tap tapping, then stop. Papers rustle. Suddenly you are blinded by a brilliant light. The light, emanating from a lamp on her head like that of a miner, creates dark smudges of her facial features. Under the brilliant light and shadow face, you see what appears to be an oversized pamphlet. Its pages glow eerily with the angel-sleeves of her pale robe or jacket. At first you think the pages are blank, then you recognize them as braille-dappled.

She begins reading, “I was not born blind. I was not born deaf. I was not born a joke.”

Something childish sparks in you. “If Helen Keller fell down in the woods, would she make a sound?”

“What?” she asks. She seems disconcerted, not angry, and this titillates you.

“How did Helen Keller burn the side of her face?”

Helen Keller answers, “I answered the iron.”

“How’d she burn the other side?”

“It rang again.”

“Hahaha!” You are having fun. “What’s Helen Keller’s favorite color?”

“Purple,” she says.

“No,” you tell her, “Corduroy! “You laugh. These jokes are hilarious! Isn’t she a sport playing this funny game with you.

It is impossible to say if that is a scowl on her face with the light in your eyes. You decide it’s a smile. She seems to wait to see if you’ve finished and, having temporarily run out of jokes, you let her continue. “I was born in 18 80 in Tuscumbia Alabama on a postbellum plantation called Ivy Green. The fair daughter of a southern belle and a confederate soldier, I had–”

“How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

It’s like the itch of a phantom limb. It must be scratched somehow, but she ignores you. “I had, they tell me, keen eyes. They were blue.”

On a screen behind her, the opening sickbed scene of the 1962 film The Miracle Worker projects silently. Your eyes drift to the moving black and white image, while   Helen continues her story.

“In the winter of 1882 when I was nineteen months old, just learning how to talk, I was struck by a fever. Some say it was meningitis. Others say scarlet fever. It raged through my little body for two weeks and when it broke my family rejoiced.”

Talk of her family reminds you of your unrequited joke, and, you can’t help it, there is a little meanness in your voice when you repeat, “How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

“Then the doctor told them the fever had left me deaf and blind, and they mourned.”

It’s like you’re not even there, like she’s forgotten you, sitting in the bright illumination of your personal, if somewhat erratic, spotlight. You raise your voice. “Come on, how did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

“They washed my hands out with soap,” she says, letting out an exasperated sigh, the sigh of a mother fed up with her little trickster.

“Nice,” you say, for this new attitude of hers does not bother you. You’re playing a part too. Besides, there are many punchlines to this joke. You ask again, “How did Helen Keller’s parents punish her?”

This time Helen answers with conviction, “They moved the furniture around.”

“Let’s have another!” you say.

“No,” she says, “they really did move the furniture around.”

“What?” You’re confused.

Helen continues, “Two inlets of perception cut off from the world. Taste touch and smell were all I had to connect with others. So I invented signs, little imitations of the world in which I lived. I mimed the act of buttering bread if that was what I wanted, or crawled on the ground, hands doubled in a fist, to show my little black friend–this was after the emancipation proclamation, that it was time to go hunting for guinea fowl eggs in the grass.

As I wrote in my youthful autobiography, The Story of My Life, In those days, a little colored girl, Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old Setter, and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter.”

The projection on the wall shifts abruptly to the famous food fight scene of the Miracle Worker–eight minutes of struggle between Helen and Teacher–foot-stomping, hand-slapping, grappling, utensils clattering, inarticulate cries, and non-verbal reprimands.

“I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and     always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.

“They called me the Tyrant of Ivy Green. I snatched food off the plates of others at table and flew into violent tantrums when corrected or deterred.” She pauses, thoughtful. “They tell me it was suggested I be put in an asylum.”

“What a home for retards? Hey, I got one for yuh …What did Helen Keller name her dog?” You are dying. This is so funny. “Nymphdrumpherlmf! Hahaha!”

Silence greets your hilarity.

“Ok you didn’t like that one.”

She shakes her head emphatically, raking the light across your visionscape.

“You’re gonna love this one… Why can’t Helen Keller drive?”

She has her hand on her hip. She is not amused. You wait until you can’t wait any longer. You explode, “Because she’s a woman! Hahaha!”

You laugh uproariously. She remains looking at you, you think, with those eye pits under the light. You cover your mouth and sigh. What can you do with a person so totally devoid of a sense of humor?

“As a matter of fact,” says Helen, “I was a feminist, a suffragette.”

“A what?” Your jokes have made you dumb. Is she rolling her eyes at you?

I fought for a woman’s right to vote… I was quite the radical. A Socialist and anti-war activist. I was one of the founding members of the NAACP. I was very politically engaged.”

 

“So how’d you end up performing like a freak on vaudeville?”

“Indeed, people criticized me for ‘the deplorable theatrical exhibition into which I had allowed myself to be dragged,’ but we needed the money, and we were one of the highest paid acts on vaudeville.”

“Oh, I get it,” you say,

“you were a sellout.”

“You know,” she says testily, “it’s not easy to make a living as a deaf blind woman, even graduating from Radcliff, summa cum laude. I didn’t want to be a charity case. Andrew Carnegie Offered to give me a pension for the rest of my life… But of course I couldn’t possibly accept his money since he was a capitalist pig who, during our interview, threatened to take me over his knee and spank me for my pinko politics–can you imagine? I was a grown woman! Therefore, it was much more dignified to perform on vaudeville… Besides, being on stage gave me the opportunity to educate people about worker’s rights, and the injustices of our capitalist system.”

“Wow.” You say, allowing in a little snark, “that sounds like a fun show.”

I had jokes too.”

“Hey, did you hear about the Paralympics plane crash?”

“The what?”

“Three disabled guys, a blind man, an amputee and a guy in a wheelchair–”

“Oh no!” she says.

“Oh yes,” you say, and continue with gusto, “are flying back from the Paralympics games in the middle east when their plane crashes in the Sahara desert. They are the only three survivors…”

Helen Keller flips through her notes and then begins reading over you, “As I grew bigger and stronger, my parents began to fear that they might really have to send me to an asylum…”

Two can play this game, you think and raise your voice. “So they wait around for a while for someone to rescue them, but no one shows…”

She gets louder. “But then my mother read Charles dickens’ American Notes, in which he describes his encounter with Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind American to be educated.”

“They start to get real thirsty, so they decide to seek out water.”

“Now I’d like to introduce you to Charles, who will read the passage…”

“The amputee leads the way with the blind man pushing the guy in the wheelchair, and eventually they find an oasis.”

“…the passage that inspired my family to contact the Perkins School for the blind…”

“The amputee leader goes in first, cools himself off, drinks a load of water, and walks out the other side, and, it’s a miracle! He has a new leg!”

“…, where Laura had miraculously been taught to read, write and communicate using the manual alphabet.”

“The blind man offers to push the guy in the wheelchair, but he gets refused because the guy in the wheelchair wants to be mister independent and insists the blind man goes ahead first.”

Helen calls, “Dickens!” to someone over your shoulder, perhaps the guy up in the sound booth, but you don’t turn around to look. You want to finish your joke.

You talk faster, “So the blind man goes in, splashes around, drinks a load of water walks out the other side and, whoa, it’s a fucking miracle! He can see!”

“Dickens?” she calls again.

You are frantic to get to your punchline. “Now the guy in the wheelchair is getting really excited , starts pushing with all his might, goes into the water, cools off, drinks, goes out the other side and lo and behold…”

She shouts, “Dickens!” which forces you to scream out, “New tires!”

You laugh uproariously until the authoritative electronic English voice–a voice like Charles Dickens robot ghost–blares from the PA, “Long before I looked upon her, the help had come. her face was radiant with intelligence and pleasure. Her hair, braided by her own hands, was bound about a head, whose intellectual capacity and development were beautifully expressed in its graceful outline, and its broad open brow; her dress, arranged by herself–”

“You mean she dressed herself?” you interrupt, “Very impressive.”

“Be quiet,” she says to you and pulls out a flask from an inner pocket. “Go on Charles,” she says to the voice over your shoulder, and takes a giant swig.

You are stunned . Helen Keller drinks?

“…was a pattern of neatness and simplicity; the work she had knitted lay beside her; her writing-book was on the desk she leaned upon. – From the mournful ruin of such bereavement, there had slowly risen up this gentle, tender, guileless, grateful-hearted being.”

“Ugh,” you say. “dickens at his cheesiest.”

“Shh!” she rebukes.

Charles continues, “Like other inmates of that house, she had a green ribbon bound round her eyelids. A doll she had dressed lay near upon the ground. I took it up, and saw that she had made a green fillet such as she wore, and fastened it about its mimic eyes.”

“Ha!” you say, triumphant, “Even blind people don’t like to look at blind eyes! But what was Dickens doing visiting some deaf-blind chick anyway?”

“Laura was famous,” she tells you, as if you were a child. “Thousands of people visited her at the Perkins School.”

“You mean they put her on display!?”

She seems embarrassed, sensing a trap. “Sort of, but–”

“Like a freak show!”

“No. It wasn’t like that. It was about progress. About the possibilities of education and science. About enlightenment and humanitarianism.” She is regaining momentum.

“Uh huh. Did they charge money?”

“Not exactly,” she says softly, the pool of lamplight falling at her feet.

“But I bet she brought in lots of dough for that blind school.”

“Well yes, and is that so bad?” She perks up. “I mean, that helped the Perkins Institute educate Teacher and send her to me…” She grows fanatical. “to rescue me from an irrevocable descent into complete animalistic degeneracy!”

You’ve got nothing to say to that. She looks pleased. She returns her attention to her book. She shuffles her braille book one way, then the other. The oversized pages have been printed on perforated sheets, which suddenly cascade to the floor. She pulls the accordion back together and tries to find her place. This is painful to watch. You do the peeking out through fingers thing in your commiseration with her discomfort.

Suddenly she flings the pages over her shoulder and wings it. You’d suspected all along that she didn’t need them; it is her story after all.

Anne Sullivan Macy, Teacher, was blind as a child and, though a series of operations restored much of her sight, she always had trouble with her eyes.”

“Ha! The blind teaching the blind!”

She ignores you. She removes her jacket with the angel sleeves. At some point she has removed her miner’s lamp. How had you not noticed this or the fact that she is you suddenly see that she is quite attractive.

“Teacher’s life started out much worse than mine. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her mother died when she was a child and her father was an alcoholic who abused her and her siblings.”

“Hey,” you try lamely, “did you hear the one about the Irish guy who went to a private investigator because he’d lost his temper?”

She does not miss a beat. “When her mother died, Teacher was put into an orphanage, where she learned early to fight. She was uniquely qualified to tame the tyrant of Ivy Green. In fact, some people called her methods unsound.” Her voice has changed registers; now it is sultry, inviting.

“hmm,” you say, “this sounds interesting.”

“yes,” she says with flirty eyes, “I was impossible. Oftentimes Teacher had to resort to physical restraints and other extreme measures to dominate me.”

The food fight scene is back up and you glance at the black and white woman tackling the little girl. Your eyes return to Helen’s pretty face, then slip down to fixate on her boobs–how had you missed those? You are very glad the spotlight is not on you anymore. Reluctantly you look back up and realize with a little jolt that she is looking directly at you, or seems to be–for with the spotlight on her now, she must be quite blind to you sitting out here in the dark–and waiting for you to say something. “Mm,” you say, “go on.”

“Well, it was very hard for Teacher to do her work with my parents scrutinizing her every move.” Helen is fiddling with the black strap that dangles from the handle of her white cane. It is a little bit obscene the way she is fiddling with it. “Finally teacher convinced my parents that, in order to master me, she must remove me from their presence.” She bats her long lashes at you. “We were installed in a little cottage some distance from the main house…”

She trails off, allowing you to follow. It dawns on you where she might be going with this and you smile at her. She seems to see and smiles back.

“And, in order to make me believe I was in a new and unfamiliar environment…Far from my family and completely reliant on Teacher… They…”

You burst in and together gleefully say, “moved the furniture around!”

“Yes!” she says, and theatrically raises her arm to present the final joyful water pump scene where Teacher (Anne Bancroft) drags the impossible Helen (Patty Duke) to the water pump and spells w-a-t-e-r into her hand while the water splashes over them and the light dawns and Helen understands language. All is joyful and triumphant. Bells ring and the movie rushes to the end.

“That’s a lovely story,” you say, a little misty-eyed despite yourself.

She is pleased. She says, “And that’s just the beginning.”

“No,” you say, “That’s the end of the movie.”

“THE END” looms above her in all its Hollywood glory, and you are a satisfied spectator.

Helen Keller, on the other hand is not happy. “But I’m only 7 at the end of the movie. And I live to be 87.”

You feel mean again. You don’t understand what her problem is. “So? You were deaf dumb and blind. You learned how to quote talk–” you make air-quotes with your fingers, “what more do you want?”

She turns as if to leave, then turns back at the wall next to THE END. The spotlight constricts, haloing her.

THE END fades and a book entitled The World I Live In by Helen Keller opens with cinematic magic. There is music now and a page has its passage highlighted while Helen recites. “Every book is in a sense autobiographical. But while other self-recording creatures are permitted at least to seem to change the subject, apparently nobody cares what I think of the tariff, the conservation of our natural resources, or the conflicts which revolve about the name of Dreyfus. If I offer to reform the education system of the world, my editorial friends say, ‘That is interesting, but will you please tell us what idea you had of goodness and beauty when you were six years old?’ The editors are so kind that they are, no doubt, right in thinking that nothing I have to say about the affairs of the universe would be interesting. But until they give me opportunity to write about matters that are not-me, the world must go on uninstructed and unreformed, and I can only do my best with the one small subject upon which I am allowed to discourse.”

Star of Happiness promotional shot: Godin in white, sleeves hanging down. The End looms large in projection.

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