Adventures in Partial Sight

It is common when people see me with a mobility cane to assume that I am completely blind. This is much the same as people almost always assuming a wheelchair user is paralyzed, or that a deaf person can’t hear anything, etc. As to be expected, the spectrum of the disability world is much wider than most imagine. Most blindies can see something, most deafies can hear something, most wheelchair users can stand, walk, etc. This is an attitude that I think most crips get use to as part of their inevitable and unavoidable job of educating people not in the disability know how on the reality of disabled life. That’s all fine with me. I expect people to have questions. I certainly would. What I find interesting is that when I tell people that I have some useful vision (I can read large print, see colors, etc) the usual response is “oh thank god!” I.E. “You’re sort of normal, that must be so much nicer for you than other blind people! It could be so much worse!”…

Now, I will state that having some useful vision is helpful, and probably makes certain aspects of daily living easier for me than for someone with no vision. Though I will do my political duty here and say that this is because the world is geared towards people who can see. It has nothing to do with people who are completely blind being less capable. For the record, I also know a fair amount of blind people with no vision who cope and seem far more independent than me… disability is only one factor in how a person copes with his or her life… Likewise, if I were to loose the vision I currently have, I would have to make some huge adjustments in how I operate in that I’m use to being able to read print, see the color of my clothes, and identify large visual cues when navigating a street in order to orientate myself. What I don’t think people are aware of is that there are also many points in my life where I actually think being completely blind would be far more useful than my current visual state. This is no more apparent to me than when I’m on stage.

I spend the majority of my life looking at a blob of blurry color and shape and trying to identify what it is. My brain can’t not do it. Often I’m wrong. This usually leads to very interesting and fun experiences where my brain will invent images (not based in reality) in order to make sense of said blob. I have seen people seemingly sprout wings and watched what looked like a line of gigantic pumpkins parading down a building sight (they were tractors). I’ve also seen repeated shapes that I logically know are something mundane like a couch and constantly identified them as other things in my visual memory. In my childhood best friend’s house, her family had an old grandfather clock next to a recliner, and the two objects together always looked like a strange dragon to me. I even went so far as to name him (Samuel) in my mind, though I was never brave enough to tell anyone of my imaginary friend.

As fun as that can be, and as much as I am convinced that this experience in itself is largely responsible for me leading a life and career in the arts, it can also be exhausting and frustrating, and is something that can only be turned off by closing my eyes. Also, when the shapes are extreme brightness (like a stage light) or extreme darkness (back stage) they actually become uncomfortable and extremely disorientating. Spotlights mean all I can see is light, and often leave me with a glare that hangs around for a few minutes regardless of the actual lighting state, which restricts any useful vision I have. Also, there are points where extreme changes in light mean it is easier for me to operate as though I can’t see anything. For example, in Threepenny, I have one small part where I play the glockenspiel. The first time I play it, it is lit. This particular one is silver so it gives off a glare, thus meaning I can’t see it. The second time I play (as I play it actually) the lights do a quick fade to a much dimmer state, and in my visual brain gives the image of the ground and the gloche dropping out from underneath me. I’m use to it now, but the first few times, it did actually make my tummy jump a bit. (Ironicially, I was more worried about the gloche than my own safety)

I also find in dancing that I am often better with spacial awareness with my eyes closed, particularly when I’m spinning. This is the case in the tango for Threepenny where Macheath and me spin around quite a bit in our dance. Funnily enough, I use a visual cue to find him at the beginning of the dance. He has a white shirt, which to me in the lighting state (which is quite red) glows like a beacon. Then as soon as we’re both down stage and singing he moves to a different place and due to his proximity to the light behind him, he completely disappears so I have to find him through sound (difficult when his voice is coming out of various speakers, including ones behind me) and muscle memory.

Also, when on tour this means everything changes in each venue. This is the case for everyone who performs in multiple venues, but is again one of those things that can be less acknowledged as lighting states, sets, etc. don’t change thaaat much usually. Even the smallest shifts in a set or a light can change everything.

I mention all of this not as a plea for pity at all. I’m very happy with my visual impairment and who I am with this visual impairment. I don’t think that my supposed “issues” make anything harder for me than anyone else. It’s just how it works for me. I mention this because I’ve had a few people (blind and sighted) make comments about how much easier things must be for me for having some sight. While I won’t outright deny it as I’ve never experienced “proper” complete blindness, I will state that making a cut and dry statement like that is not going to be accurate. Visual impairment as it exists for many people (i.e. having some vision and dealing with the various ways that this state shapes the world one lives in) is a vastly unexplored subject outside of the medical world… and in that world most of the exploration seems to be about how to capitalize on the vision that is there in order to make a person as sighted as possible… fair enough. But blindness, like every other disability, and really like every other part of life that shapes a person’s identity, is complicated and unique for each person. Things that are easy for some are not for others and vice versa.

I’ve unintentionally stepped on my soapbox here. I hope you’ll excuse me for that! This is just something that keeps coming up for me, and therefore something I thought I’d share. As always, thoughts are most welcome!

Getting into trouble: Jenny Diver and Brecht


Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Myself as Jenny Diver, in a skimpy black dress, legging and black heels. Standing in a sexy pose with a snarky smile on my face. I have my cane across the back of my shoulders almost like a weapon.

“Art is not a mirror in which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” (Bertolt Brecht)

Last week marked the start of my rehearsals for the ThreePenny Opera which is being put on by Graeae Theatre, the New Wolsey, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I get the exciting challenge of playing Jenny Diver, Mack the Knife’s favorite whore. As an actor, this is an insanely exciting opportunity to be in a great show with a very talented group of people. As a researcher, it presents some interesting thoughts as well.

I have said previously that I like the idea of “trouble” in the academic sense of the word. This means spaces of tension or unresolved-ness where questions arise out of something being slightly strange or other than the norm. I think Brechtian theatre is an interesting style in which to play with trouble, because he has his concept of Verfremdungseffekt. This has been called the v-effect, alienation effect (when badly translated) and more recently either the estrangement effect or distentiation. A literal translation of the word is “to make strange”. The idea is that Brecht wanted to “distance” his audience from becoming too invested in the characters as he thought too much investment would distract from what he saw as the purpose of theatre: to invoke and inspire social and political change. i.e. by watching the play people would want to change the world and make it less corrupt. So an audience would follow and invest in a story only so far as they could learn from it. Trouble, as a concept, is not as inherently political. But it can be about making what seems “normal” or “real” strange by introducing things that are not of the norm into new spaces. For example, putting a bunch of disabled actors in a mainstream and widely viewed theatrical production, like the ThreePenny Opera, is outside of the norm for most people. (This is what Graeae does. It is a disability led company, so one might say they specialize in the good kind of trouble.)

I am diving into this trouble, or distentiation or whatever you want to call it through the hard skinned London prozzie, Jenny. I am a not-so-hard skinned USA-er who, by Brechtian standards, has had a pretty fucking easy life. As a disabled woman, I have certainly had to deal with my fair share of discrimination, but I have never reeeeaaally had to want for work, money, food, shelter, family or friends. I’m not rich, but I’ve always been cared for, and usually am able to do what I want in my life. I am very lucky. So playing Jenny is a bit of personal “trouble” because I am not a broken woman. I don’t have to have sex for money, I haven’t been in abusive relationships, etc. Of course, Brecht would say I don’t need to (and maybe shouldn’t) fully embody her. I need to represent her. What that means and how that will develop in this whole process and rehearsal period will be extremely interesting. I feel like representation often exists in things like gestures, body language, costume, etc. I wonder how visual this process is going to be, and what kind of “trouble” I as a blind actor will come across.

Last week, we focused pretty much on the music… in itself a beast of a task as Kurt Weill does not make it easy for anyone. This week, we knuckle down into the acting, so all things will be revealed in good time…

For info on the show, and to see some publicity shots visit:

Nuts and Bolts

Here are some useful things to know about my research. Again, please ask questions, debate, comment, etc. I am still getting to grips with most of this, so any thoughts and ideas are useful!

1. I’m looking for “trouble”. When I say this, I don’t mean it in a straight forward, “you did bad, go sit in time out” kind of way. Trouble in an academic sense is a space of tension, subversion or rupture. It is a place of conflict where things aren’t (and may never become) resolved. Though this might come from doing something like breaking a rule, the result is not as straight forward as the common understanding for the word trouble insinuates. For one thing, I don’t think trouble is “bad”. These places of tension often bring about possibilities for new questions, thoughts and ideas to occur. Trouble can (should?) be a place of creativity and insight as well as a method for laying down boundaries and rules. 

2. I’m going to use the word “crip” a lot. This too is an academic term. Shocked? Good. That’s the point. There is a whole section in disability studies that calls itself “crip theory.” (Look up Robert McRuer and/or Carrie Sandahl if you don’t believe me) It is based in methodologies from other identity based studies like queer theory and feminist studies. The use of the word is meant to be a tongue and cheek provocation. It is also a common word in disability culture. We all call each other crips, and when we do we’re not just referring to physical disability. Blindies like me get to get in on the action too, as do any others who fit under the disability umbrella if they so choose. 

3. Everything can be a performance, or at least “performative”. Crip theory and queer theory take on the idea of “performativity” which is… difficult to explain in a few sentences. In essence it means that pretty much everything you do, and everything you associate as yourself is performed. Gender, sexuality, culture, social class, and yes, disability (among other things) all have aspects of them that are based in societal structures and expectations that are taught to us from childhood. If this seems unlikely, think about toys that are given to children. The average five year old girl and boy have the same hormonal make up, yet what will the little girl be likely to want for her birthday? What will the boy? These are taught behaviors that are repeated continuously until they become “normative” or what is considered to be normal. Obviously, this is not universal for everyone, but the general systems that are in place are pretty obvious once you start looking for them. 

4. I’m an actor who has trained a in modern, western school setting, which means that I have been taught that an actor’s best tool is her imagination. I am really curious about what the imagination is and what it does for an actor. What images does imagination create? What are those images made of? In particular, I want to know how much of these images are visual, and more to the point, how often methods of acting, training actors, directing actors, etc. expect this imagination output to be visual? The academic way I am phrasing this in my thesis at present god something like, “Is acting ocularcentric (visual)? If so, where does the ocular sit in acting processes?” (blahhh!! …so much for not using words that no one understands!)

So essentially, I am a crip actor who wants to trouble the “image” in imagination. Make sense? No? Good. That’s about where I’m at with it too!