In a town dominated by the entertainment industry, we rely on storytelling in its numerous forms, but rarely do we consider its deeper purpose and its origins, which lie in the anecdotes shared around ancient campfires. Such stories were not merely a source of entertainment, but rather a method by which to impart collected communal wisdom – from the logistics of hunting and gathering to more profound truths about the human condition.
So to expect the current iteration of that tradition to merely entertain us is to strip it of its true potential. That potential, however, powerfully informs the work of Greg Shane, the artistic director of CRE (Create, Reflect, Empower) Outreach, an organization dedicated to theater as a means of helping underserved individuals in greater Los Angeles “overcome the challenges in their lives.” Incorporated in 2007, the group specifically works with at-risk students and the visually impaired and, among other endeavors, runs Theatre by the Blind, the only entirely blind adult theater troupe.]
About three years ago, Shane had the idea of creating a new musical that dealt with blindness resulting from injuries suffered by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. After penning the title track, Shane found composer and lyricist Mark P. Leonard through the Internet. He then secured director and co-book writer Jeremy Aldridge, who has experience developing new musicals through Sacred Fools Theatre. The two were already connected as Aldridge had previously mentored Shane and had partnered with him through the Lake Street Community Center. Colin Simson (lyrics, music, producer, and also with CRE Outreach) and book writer Nick Sivakumaran joined the effort as well, and the team went through several workshops and numerous drafts of the scripts in developing Beyond Sight, which is now running at the Stella Adler Theatre.
Once it came time to cast the show, however, it was important to Shane to have both veterans and the visually impaired involved. Theatre by the Blind member Robert Smith (who plays Jack Carter, the lead soldier struck blind in combat) was central to the project from its inception, and fellow company member Sean P. Gorecki (Jack's boot camp buddy Kevin) was soon cast as well. To find former soldiers, Shane turned to Veterans in Film and Television, a nonprofit networking organization that facilitates connections between the entertainment industry and veterans. Through it, Shane and Aldridge found Ginger Lawrence (Jack's love interest Lily McCord), Christopher Loverro (Lt. Johnson) and Loverro's understudy Chayce Lee.
While the remainder of the sizeable cast was made up of sighted, non-vet actors, there remained challenges in the rehearsal process for Aldridge, who had never worked with vets or blind actors. In directing Smith, who has been blind since birth, Aldridge spoke of working together to develop a physical vocabulary, and in doing so discovered directing techniques that he says will influence his work going forward. Gorecki, who has Retinitis Pigmentosa (a genetic retinal degeneration that has left him legally blind, but with some limited peripheral vision), plays a sighted character, and Aldridge and the others were continually impressed with the incredible work he put into moving about the stage without his cane, not to mention learning and executing the show's choreography.
On the veteran side, the three former soldiers ran a mock boot camp one day in rehearsal to allow the other actors to get a real sense of military protocol; they also advised on the costumes and weapons used in the production. “I think soldiers make great actors,” says Aldridge, because they're “so incredibly open to notes and instruction [and] are ready to work as a team.”
The story of the piece centers on a young ROTC cadet (Jack Carter, who in his younger years is played by a charming Raufel Muhammad) leaving for war in the wake of 9/11 and leaving his love Lily behind, only to be struck blind in combat and then captured by the enemy. He finally returns after being rescued ten years later. The source material is powerful, but what stands out about the show is the way it embodies the experiences of the characters. We get to see Smith, playing Carter as an adult, experience his blindness on stage and come to terms with it. We get to see actual veterans helping each other deal with PTSD. Sure, the piece has some rough edges in terms of the balance between vocals and the musical score, the slightly choppy storyline, and the awkward lyric here and there, but its real impact goes beyond the entertainment value of theater.
Lawrence, who served four tours of duty with the Marines, spoke to that impact, saying, “I want to use the abilities that I've been given… to make sure that I'm doing something for the things that I have seen and the things that I care about.”
Shane, the driving force behind the project from day one, says it best: “For everyone – whether it be the military vets, or the at-risk youth, or the visually impaired actors – stepping into another character allows them to forget about themselves for a while and feel new emotions, and take on new experiences, and really live a life that they don't have the opportunity to live every day.”
And isn't that part of the purpose of storytelling?
Theatre by the Blind (CRE Outreach) at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through May 25. (310) 902-8220, www.creoutreach.org.
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