“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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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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Winter Wonder Maze: My first week without a home of my own and blind

I wish I could claim “winter wonder maze” as my own term for Alabaster‘s mother’s incredible Xmas installation–involving 42 trees, countless elves, Santas, snow babies (little snow men), thousands of feet of garlands, lights, a train set, and whole mountain ranges of glistening cotton snow, but I can’t. It was he, with whom I set out vagabonding, that comforted me with the coinage.

Winter village with train set in front of TV playing scary movie with closed caption, "We're gonna come find you. I promise."

I had been struggling with my inability to navigate the path to the kitchen which cuts through the living room–the nexus of Xmas décor–not only because there are so many obstacles but also because in order to do so one must pass between the watchers of the giant TV and the TV itself. Moving slowly and uncertainly as I do, prolongs my status as obstruction on the one hand and moving picture of interest on the other. I told Alabaster that I could not bring myself to do it. He reminded me that it would be easier when the Winter Wonder Maze came down. But that will not be until January 2.

It was Alabaster also who, when I apologized for not being more present because I was concentrating so hard on just getting around the house, made the connection between what I am experiencing and John Hull’s struggle in Notes on Blindness, which we saw last month at Film Forum.

Towards the end of the film, Hull and his wife and kids travelled from England to Australia to spend time with his parents. He had not been seen by them since the final calamity struck in England, and their shock and awkwardness regarding their adult blind son combined with his feelings of incompetence in an unfamiliar place, made the visit one that was uncomfortable physically and psychologically, gladly left behind and never to be reenacted. In the film, the trip to Australia represents a climax of struggle for John Hull, after which Hull experiences such a sense of relief that it leads him to his ultimate acceptance–almost embrace–of his blindness.

It’s true that I, like Hull, feel a little helpless and useless in this unfamiliar environment, but it is different insofar as Alabaster’s parents only know me as a blind person, and seem mostly curious and accepting. On our first full day here, his mom took me on a touch tour of the house so that I could feel the elves and Santas and trains and villages with church steeples set in snow. The biggest obstacle to my comfort is that I’m really bad at being a blind person. While I feel ok stepping slowly around the several Xmas trees and candle-laden tables in the basement living area to get from the couch where I sit writing to the bathroom, I prefer it if no one is watching me play this very unexhilarating game of pinball.

Once alabaster’s dad came downstairs just as I hit the couch on the far side near the bathroom, but on the wrong side. So with him looking on, I had to negotiate around the couch, Xmas tree number 33, hit the glass cabinet (gently and as a comforting reference point) to slide into the bathroom with a sigh on my side, and some little congratulatory remark on his.

Godin in red, hand on hip, standing in front of winter wonder mountain village on top of mantle.

I work hard to do my slow bumbling thing out of the sight of others, which is why traversing the path of the TV and train room to the kitchen is unbearable, and I generally hop on the Alabaster train. This is not necessarily less embarrassing than going it solo, but simply gets it over with quicker.

Other parts of the sprawling house are easier to traverse because they are less spectacle inducing, though it must be said that the architect was stingy with right angles. The stairs into the basement living room where we work ascend towards the front door so that it is just a matter of turning the corner to the left to slip down the crooked little hallway to our bedroom on the main floor. Well maybe not so easy, for there are several fickle Christmas wreathes extending from the wall like the human-arm candelabra holders in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

When we first visited a year and a half ago, it was springtime. If I wanted to get to the upstairs living room or kitchen I would follow the ungarlanded rail guarding the stairway and hit my comfy chair to sit and experience TV with one ear and listen to social media with the other. Or, I could turn right at the end of the railing, following the path of the mantle, into the dining room (which in other seasons is decked out in a nautical theme) and continue on into the kitchen, thereby avoiding the whole discomforting road between the couch and the TV. Unfortunately, that path is closed to me until the snow melts.

I guess this all begs the question why I’ve put myself in this position. Why have I left my comfortable Astoria apartment where I’d been shuffling from room to room for nearly 17 years, for parts unknown? Our plan is to be hobo artists for a year and then settle somewhere–maybe back to NYC, but probably not. And although I could not imagine taking this trip by myself at this point in my life (both for practical reasons as well as reasons of the heart), the experience is, by design, unsettling. A learning experience. Will I succeed in feeling more comfortable moving through the world as a blind person at the end of it? Will I be better at it? I don’t know.

The fact is that I never imagined staying in that Astoria apartment for so many years. I did not even imagine staying in New York for that long. When I arrived in New York to attend grad school, I had academic stars in my eyes. I thought I’d continue to move east for a while, slipping into some professorial path that involved feeling at home in many cities of the world. I’d already moved from my home in San Francisco to New Orleans to New York, and forayed to Paris during my first two summers in grad school, but then the adventure–at least as a forward moving trajectory–stopped.

Many factors changed my destiny and my mindset: my distractibility, my blindness, my ambitions, academia, downtown performance, karate (specifically a talent show night that put being a comedian into my head!), and a feeling that academia was not exactly what I had wanted when I was a kid, but seemed the most likely.

Strange to say that the ADA has done great things with education regarding blind people since 1990, but less in what is possible after school. Getting a college degree and continuing onto grad school seemed the least resistant, most doable path for me.

Blindness forced a desire for comfort and stability that was not in my nature. When I was a visually impaired teenager, my biggest fear regarding the high probability of future blindness was a loss of independence. These days I’m not so independent physically, but my mind feels quite free.

Although I did not pursue a career in academia, the mission remains the same: to think expansively about blindness as both a physical experience and a metaphorical  construct that is in dialogue with some of our most fundamental conceptions of humanness. From my dissertation to my short-lived standup endeavor                                                                                 , my solo show to this article, I attempt to expose and collapse distinctions between these two ways of thinking about blindness, to trouble the waters between the literally blind and the figuratively blind, seriously and with humor.

But how can I continue to fulfill this life’s work if I close myself up to the world? I think the comfort of living in the same place for so long made me less open to humanity in all its particulars. So I’m out here in the wilds of Colorado, not yet having an adventure in the ordinary sense, but priming myself for it.

winter wonder maze view from front door, including  descending stairs , with garlanded  rail and Christmas lights extending into the distance.

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