The tap, tap, tap of canes are heard twice a week on the sidewalk of a tree-lined residential neighborhood in Santa Monica as a group of visually impaired actors make their way from transportation vans and up a driveway to the garage of a large house. These sounds turn your average night into a special one as the taps are replaced by the rhythm of music and singing, and the sounds of voices calling out to each other. These sounds are the rehearsal of the only blind theatre company in America.
Founded by Crossroads School alumnus Greg Shane, 37, the group is called Theatre by the Blind. Shane started the theatre 12 years ago while volunteering for the company “Changing Perceptions,” a program for visually impaired individuals at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. When a woman running the program passed away suddenly, Shane stepped in.
“I just thought the program was way too important to let slide, and at the same time, I saw this as an amazing opportunity to use theatre as an empowerment tool to help the visually impaired community,” he said. “I’m blind in my right eye, so I had a sensitivity to the group.”
The theater company started with four people and now, under Shane’s leadership, it has expanded to 60 actors and musicians who put on roughly five productions every year. Each play is in rehearsal for 3-4 months, with weekly meetings. Most of the plays are staged at Magicopolis just off the Santa Monica Promenade.
Theater by the Blind is part of CRE Outreach (Create, Reflect, Empower) a larger Los Angeles nonprofit that serves about 3,000 people – including at-risk youth, the visually impaired, and military veterans. The theater company’s members range in age from 15-year-old saxophone player and singer Dave Sandoval, to 75-year-old Ernest Pipoly.
“The only time Pipoly leaves the house is to come to rehearsals, because he looks forward to it all week,” said Shane. “For them, this is so much more than a theatre company, it’s a place for them to feel at home. And they’ve really grown as individuals and in their talent as well.”
Pipoly has done 17 plays with the theater over the past two decades.
“I really enjoy acting,” he said. “It’s an outlet for me to express myself where I normally would not. I had a stammering problem for a while and this group helped me with that.”
In the company’s most recent production, “A Reason to Love,” Pipoly took on a new challenge as a blind performer.
“The woman I was costarring with, we did a ballroom dance, and I had never done anything like that before,” he said.
Learning lines presents another challenge, which actors in the company cope with differently. Pipoly memorizes his lines by having Shane or someone else read the script while Pipoly records it on a cassette tape. He then brings it home and listens to it until his lines are memorized. Willie Ruth “Cookie” Cooke, 68, also has her lines recorded, and eventually, through repetition, they stick.
Everyone’s sight ability is different, so the cast members have different ways of memorizing lines. Some use braille and some record. Cookie became blind as a result of domestic violence. When she enrolled at the Braille Institute to learn how to adapt to her blindness, she volunteered to join the theater company. Nine plays later, Cookie loves the group not only because she enjoys performing, but because, “We’re a family.” Cookie says that Shane is at the top of her list to call when anything important happens in her life. The members all lean on each other.
“We close the doors and we get busy with it, no matter who it is or what it is,” said Cookie. She said her blindness resulted from a challenging time in her life, during which she made mistakes. But now, the company brings her so much joy. “It’s just so amazing,” she said. “Instead of being down, I’m way up here!”
Cookie has a voice that could make anyone smile. She has long since overcome the moment after her operation when the bandages came off and she was told she was going to be sightless. “I can’t remember what I used to get depressed about,” she said. “Theatre by the Blind rescued me.” Like Pipoly, Cookie used to get stage fright and forget her lines. “I had my bloopers, I’m still having em’,” she said.
Pipoly says he now feels relaxed and comfortable on stage, but faces other challenges. “I wear hearing aids, so I got to make sure that those are on while I’m performing, and I do have a slight speech impediment but I try not to let it bug me while I’m performing,” he said.
For Shane, one of the theatre’s biggest challenges is getting the word out to the public. “Our last show, we reached about 750-800 people which I was really happy with. But it’s taken awhile to get there and I feel like the work is so important for people to see,” he said. “I just wish there were more avenues to get the word out there to the public and really make a big difference.”
The group’s next show, “Dr Phil Good,” premieres on March 2, at 7 p.m., at Townhouse Venice (52 Windward Ave. Venice, CA 90291). Tickets are available at CreOutreach.org.
Even more important than these disabled actors having a place to work, Shane explains, are the less tangible benefits. Partially sighted actress Melanie Hernandez used to be hyper and temperamental but Shane said the performances have helped her. “But now she’s really gained patience and is trusting herself and the cast,” he said.
When the company’s piano player, Laywood Blocker, passed away just a few weeks ago, the company gathered the next day to support each other and tell stories about Blocker, “like one big family,” said Shane. The work brings purpose and meaning to the members of the company. Cookie’s mother sends Shane a message every other month to tell him to keep on being the angel who rescued her daughter. After one performance, a neighbor’s little girl pulled on Cookie asking how she could be an actress. Cookie even got to visit the Playboy Mansion. “We went and did a promotional there and we sang our signature song, ‘Flying High’ and got interviewed. All these things probably wouldn’t be happening to me if I weren’t blind,” she said. When asked what the program means to her, Cookie’s answer is simple: “Just about everything.”
ONDINE PECK-VOLL is a ninth grade student at Crossroads High School