January 27, 2020

Theater for (and by) the Blind

If you’d been blind your entire life then heard about an experimental surgery that could provide you vision, would you opt to have the procedure? What if gaining your sight could entail other losses — such as to your identity or relationships? (What if, for instance, you discovered you weren’t attracted to your boyfriend after you saw him?)

These are among the questions posed in the play “Lost in the Light,” premiering April 13 at the Blue Door theater in Culver City, the new home of the decade-old performing arts-based nonprofit CRE Outreach. CRE runs Theater by the Blind, the nation’s only entirely blind acting troupe. Partnering with the Braille Institutes of Los Angeles and Carson and Junior Blind of America, the troupe is set up to help blind and visually impaired people become more self-sufficient and empowered. CRE Outreach has other performing arts groups, as
well, including a veterans’ empowerment theater group, an award-winning ensemble of disabled musicians called Rex & Friends, and theater arts programs for at-risk youth.

“Lost in the Light” features 15 blind actors and eight members of Rex & Friends, who perform original songs composed by the group’s musical director, Laurie Grant, and singer-songwriter Chloe Copoloff. The play, written by Pelita Dasalla, tells the story of a 20-something woman who has been blind since birth. As with all CRE shows, “Lost in the Light” aims to challenge expectations about the capabilities of all of us. Most actors in it play characters who can see. They move freely around the stage, unassisted. One actor even skateboards across the stage.

To help the actors stride onstage and move through the blocking confidently, CRE Outreach co-founder and director Greg Shane devised a textured floor system to provide clues about location. It’s a kind of “floor Braille” created by laying out squishy and bumpy gardening kneepads on the stage. Shane places the pads on the floor for each new production in a way that enables actors to feel through their feet in order to know when they’ve reached the edge of the stage, or when it’s time to turn toward the bed, or to set down the meal they’re about to serve.

“One of the hardest things for the visually impaired is movement,” said Shane, who was born blind in his right eye. He had to wear a patch over his left eye during much of his toddlerhood to prevent the muscles from taking over, leaving him with a wandering right eye. The experience of trying to move around without sight stuck with him and prompted him to look for a way the actors could experience physical freedom. “We’re not re-creating the wheel in terms of movement, but to have the confidence to run across the stage in a full sprint really manifests in their lives,” he said. “It helps them see that they can really do anything.

“So many people told me I wouldn’t be able to drive or play sports,” Shane said. “My parents stood behind me as I figured out ways to adapt. I was a varsity athlete in soccer. I have a giant mirror in my car right now that lets me see the side. I believe in the capabilities of people and how much they’re able to accomplish.”

“We’re not re-creating the wheel in terms of movement, but to have the confidence to run across the stage.” — Greg Shane

Willie Ruth Cooke, a 69-year-old mother of two living in South Los Angeles, lost her vision as a result of domestic abuse, she said. As an older adult, Cooke was living with her mother, hanging around the house and feeling aimless. Then she tagged along with a friend to a CRE rehearsal. She’s been a member of the cast ever since. “A lot of people who lose their sight, lose our way,” she said. “This gives you something to be devoted to, which makes you feel so good. You have something to grab ahold of.”

An estimated 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired, according to the National Federation of the Blind, with 1.3 million of these meeting the criteria for “legal blindness,” which means having vision of 20/200 or less in the better eye (even with corrective lenses) or a visual field of 20 degrees or less. Ninety-nine percent of blind adults in the United States lost their vision over time as a result of macular degeneration, glaucoma or diabetes. Losing your vision brings with it a host of challenges that can have ongoing economic, social and psychological effects. The same National Federation of the Blind compilation of statistics shows that 70 percent of blind, working-age adults are unemployed.

Most of the 2,500 people CRE serves live below the poverty line. As with Cooke, many of them find a home and a purpose in Theater by the Blind. Troupe members have long traveled from across the Los Angeles area to get to rehearsal, which until now was held in various venues. The new Culver City theater gives them a permanent address.

It’s easy to spot the theater on Venice Boulevard, wedged between Casa Oaxaca and a plumbing supply shop. Shiny black-and-white tiles cover the façade, and a cobalt-blue double door is situated in the center. The inside has been gutted and renovated, funded entirely through in-kind donations. Local contractor Lanny Savoie did most of the build-out. Artist Scott Renfro donated the paint and painting labor. Matt Wolf of Tileport donated the tile. Stephen Hochstrasser donated and installed the blond hardwood floors.

This outpouring of support is due to the success of their work, Shane said. “People have seen over years the impact of the program. It truly does change lives.”

Shane was inspired to start CRE Outreach not only by his own experience overcoming sight-based limitations, but also because of the influence of Judaism — specifically the value of family and of surmounting hardship. “My favorite book is Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ the choosing your attitude, regardless of your circumstances. That message is the slogan of our organization, ‘Transforming lives, one show at a time.’ ”

For Cooke, the slogan relates to the audiences, too. “To see these people up onstage, moving around, comfortable, doing what they came to do, it gives you the idea, ‘Huh. Maybe I can do something, too.’ We’re helping people. If you can save one person, you’ve gotten the job done.”

“Lost in the Light” runs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, April 13-May 12. $15. Blue Door, 9617 Venice Blvd., Culver City. For more information, visit CREOutreach.org.

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”