‘Point of Extinction’ Pushes New Boundaries

September 25, 2019
The cast of “Point of Extinction.” Photo courtesy of Theatre by the Blind

Many people feel panicky when speaking before a crowd. The cast members of Theatre by the Blind, the nation’s only all-blind acting troupe, manage this feat without being able to see.

On Oct. 6, the 13 actors in the group’s current show, “Point of Extinction,” face a new challenge: performing in Culver City’s 1,500-seat Robert Frost Auditorium on a raised stage with microphones.

Theatre by the Blind — run by the performing arts-based nonprofit CRE Outreach and co-founded by Greg Shane in 2007 — empowers blind and disabled Angelenos through the writing and performing of full-length plays. Shane previously told the Journal that Jewish values of family and overcoming hardship were part of his inspiration to create CRE Outreach.

“Point of Extinction” began its run at CRE Outreach’s intimate home theater, The Blue Door, on Venice Boulevard in Culver City. The one-day only performance at Robert Frost is thanks to a $12,000 grant from Culver City’s Performing Arts Grant Program, with support from Sony Pictures Entertainment. The grant helped pay the actors for rehearsal time, and using one of a handful of sizable venues.

“We were looking for a way to expand our message,” CRE Outreach Executive Director Bryan Caldwell told the Journal. “The larger venue gives us a chance to challenge the community to stretch its notion of empowerment for people with disabilities.”

A sci-fi political thriller written by Cosette Ruesga and David Shecter, “Point of Extinction” takes place 100 years in the future. A super-volcano has killed one-third of the Earth’s population, and left many survivors disabled and/or blind. America has warped into a nation called New America, run by a dictator-like president. 

“We do say ‘watch’ a movie or TV show. For sighted people, everything is visual. I always tell people that if you close your eyes and listen, you hear things you miss if you’re watching the action.” — Sheila Walker

When the play opens, the president wants to “cure” the disabled by forcing them to take a serum that can restore sight. Or it might kill them. The serum hasn’t been perfected, and as the play continues, it becomes clear that ridding the nation of anyone disabled — and therefore a “strain” on the nation’s resources in the president’s view — has become her real goal.

The play, which feels very much like a commentary on this political moment, casts disabled people as “the other.” This political focus came from the cast, said co-writer Shecter, who usually writes TV comedy, which has included an episode of “2 Broke Girls.” 

“When I came in, they had already decided they wanted the story to be a dystopian future and a clash between this new government and the disabled community,” Schechter said. “They kind of feel like rights are being taken away from this group and that if you’re not a completely healthy ox of a person and upper class, you’re at risk. We thought the play had a strong message: We don’t need to be cured. Who is the government to say that we need to be like you?”

Sheila Walker plays Geneva, the despotic president. She said the play’s dark mood comes from her community’s concerns about this divisive time. “We didn’t focus on race, but the play is mimicking what’s happening right here, right now. If it’s not race, it’s disability. If it’s not disability, it’s something else. It affects us as disabled people.”

This is Walker’s ninth show with Theatre by the Blind, and her first time playing a bad guy. “I told Greg, ‘I want to be challenged to go outside my comfort zone.’ So he gave me this role.” Walker said she “watched (listened to) political debates and movies with super-villains for style cues. 

“We do say ‘watch’ a movie or TV show,” Walker said. “For sighted people, everything is visual. I always tell people that if you close your eyes and listen, you hear things you miss if you’re watching the action.”

As with all Theatre by the Blind shows, this one is something of a musical, with six original songs written by musical director Laurie Grant and performed by Rex & Friends, an award-winning group of disabled musicians. 

“I hope the songs stand on their own, are melodic and fun and alive, but also help bring the points of the play home,” Grant said. The play ends with the upbeat song “Daybreak,” which, she said, aims to turn around the dystopian vision. “They have a bright future.”

Moving the play to Robert Frost will require new blocking and new entrances and exits, which can be challenging to learn, even if you are sighted. Shane, who also serves as the artistic director, long ago devised a blocking method of placing textured gardening mats in strategic locations. The actors guide themselves around the stage by feeling for the mats with their feet. At Robert Frost, Shane will add carpeting around the edges and the front of the stage, which stands about eight feet high. “I have to orchestrate a way for them to know where they are in space and where the stage’s edges are. I have to make it feel safe,” he said. “We have only four hours in the space before the show. The actors won’t be able to walk on the stage until then, or try using the mic.”

Does this make him nervous? “Nooo,” Shane said, his voice cracking. “I think it will be fine. They’re really ambitious and want to push their limits and challenge themselves.”

“Point of Extinction” will begin at 3 p.m. Oct. 6 at the Robert Frost Theatre. For tickets and information, visit CREOutreach.org/Frost.

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.”

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