The only company of its kind in the nation, Theatre By the Blind brings blind, visually-impaired, and sighted actors together to perform theatrical works. Sometimes the company offers blind-themed pieces, as one might expect; but its latest production is George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance, a comedy about the romantic entanglements of the British upper crust, at the Mint Space.
A few days before opening night, I sat in at a rehearsal of the show. During a brief break, I spoke to TBTB's artistic director (and the director of this production) Ike Schambelan. We were later joined by George Ashiotis, associate artistic director and actor with TBTB.
TM: How long has Theatre By the Blind been around?
SCHAMBELAN: I started it in '79. It began as a sighted company recording for a closed circuit radio network, In Touch. A guy called me from there and said, "Would you want to record some plays?" So I started recording plays. After about a year, Children of a Lesser God opened on Broadway and I thought, "If I can get some blind actors, maybe I can win a Tony!" [laughs] Still working on it. But my grandma was blind; she went blind when I was six and she moved in with us. We'd go to movies together; she was too blind to go on her own, I was too young to go on my own, but together we were unbeatable. You know? That's really the deeper reason that I didn't feel uncomfortable with blind people when I started this. So, Yasha, the guy at In Touch, put me in touch with the Jewish Guild for the Blind, and I taught an acting class there. After a year, three of the people who were more hot for it came out of the Guild with me, and we worked on our own and started staging stuff. George [Ashiotis] joined us in '82 or '83, we got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. For three years, we recorded plays for the Library of Congress. That kind of built our strengths. We incorporated, we got our tax-exempt status, and we started raising money. I think, the first year, we raised $600; the second year, we raised $4,000. Now, we're at about $200,000, which is great.
TM: When was your first full production?
SCHAMBELAN: I think it was in '85; we did a revue of material about blindness. In '86, we did our first real play, Crystal Clear, which was a hit in Britain. We got to do the New York premiere. It was about a guy who was losing his sight and his two girlfriends--one sighted, one blind. Then we started doing traditional plays--Comedy of Errors, Ten Little Indians, All My Sons. In '91, we started developing our own material about blindness and doing that. Now we alternate between traditional material and new stuff that we write. Our mission is to change the image of the blind from one of dependence to independence, and to change the media stereotype. Blindness is the third most feared thing in this country, after AIDS and cancer. Isn't that astounding?
TM: Is this a set company of actors that you're working with?
SCHAMBELAN: Very, very much so. I hope you can feel it in the work. We were thinking about doing two Noel Coward one-acts that would have involved six people. But then everybody said, "Wouldn't it be nice to use more people? We're a company." So we read Misalliance. It has because I sensed that people wanted a company play, and it nine roles, all good. It has one set, and everyone only has one costume. That's a producer's dream!
TM: How many visually-impaired actors are in the company?
SCHAMBELAN: There are two blind, two visually-impaired, and five sighted.
TM: Does Theatre By the Blind have a core audience?
SCHAMBELAN: We do. We have a mailing list of about 7,500 people, and we have a real repeat audience. We also, I hope, are building on that. In October, we did an Agatha Christie play--nothing sells like Agatha Christie!--and we had 200 people sign up, which is terrific. We're trying new marketing, too. We're not an easy sell, truth be told. I went to a friend's 60th birthday brunch the other day and this woman sat next to me. She said she just loved what we're doing, thought it was wonderful...but she couldn't possibly come and see it. "I couldn't face that," she said. I told her, "You won't know the blind actors from the sighted ones. It's not what you think it's going to be." But that is the problem.
TM: People are actually scared?
SCHAMBELAN: As I said, it's the third most feared thing in this country. How many people do you know go into AIDS wards? People want to believe that blindness is worse than it really is. I think it's one of the last great prejudices.
TM: Do you get a large blind audience?
SCHAMBELAN: Absolutely. Last year, our blind audience percentage was about 20%. Generally, it's 10-15%. Our best performances are when there are a lot of blind people in the audience. It kind of relaxes the sighted people; it relaxes them about laughing, particularly if it's a blind-themed play. And seeing-eye dogs are great; people love it when they come to a performance.
TM: Do you do anything special to enhance the enjoyment of the blind audience?
SCHAMBELAN: I don't know if we read any stage directions in the part of the rehearsal you saw...Yes! You didn't even notice it, which is great. "Hypatia darts across the garden, followed by Percy." You wouldn't normally say that in the play, but it's there for the visually impaired audience members. We also do a talking program that introduces the set. I wrote this one so that it's done by the Tarleton family, in character.
TM: Do you draw many audience members with other disabilities?
SCHAMBELAN: Yes, and we try very hard to have an accessible space. This [Mint Space] only has one wheelchair location; it's a shame, because we know a couple who like to come together, but what can you do?
[At this point, actor and associate artistic director George Ashiotis enters with Royal, his seeing-eye dog, and joins the conversation.]
TM: George, do you have to memorize where everybody is on the stage when working with Theatre By the Blind?
ASHIOTIS: Yes, but it's not as if all the sudden I have to think about it. It happens when it happens, in it's own organic, evolving way. I think my biggest problem is memorizing my lines! [laughs]
SCHAMBELAN: It's not counting steps or anything like that. When you've rehearsed, it's like being in your living room. You know the space.
ASHIOTIS: I went to the set the other day when it was all done, and suddenly the space was deeper than we had been working with, so my orientation was really weird. I suggested a runner, which helped enormously. Other than that, it's just getting adjusted to the space.
SCHAMBELAN: George can see a teeny bit of light, so a runner that has white against it is helpful.
TM: Do you use the chairs and the walls of the set to orient yourself?
ASHIOTIS: Well, no. I don't think it has anything to do with sight, but I don't like standing in free space. I like dressing myself behind a chair, having my hand on something. In some ways, it secures me.
TM: How long have you been acting?
ASHIOTIS: Since I was 19, I guess. Though I remember when I was 3 or 4 years old, a song would come on the radio and I used to sing along, kind of envisioning that I was in a stadium giving a concert. I just knew I wanted to be onstage. Then I got out of high school and joined the Lighthouse Players. That was my primer for theater; I never had formal training as an actor.
TM: Did you go to college?
ASHIOTIS: When I got out of high school, I had lost so much vision that I couldn't bear having to read more. I didn't know Braille at the time. I didn't know about reading services, agencies that the blind community has. So I got out of high school and studied piano technology. But everyone said, "George, you should go to college; you'd love it." I was petrified of it--though, once I bit the bullet and jumped in, I really did like it very much. By that time, I was aware of the various kinds of support services that I could get.
TM: Your loss of sight was gradual as you were growing up?
ASHIOTIS: Yeah, very. We first noticed I was losing sight was when I was five. The nature of the eye condition I have, retinitis pigmentosa, was that I started losing my central vision. So if something was directly in front of me, I couldn't see it. An instance that remains very vivid in my mind was when I was around 16, walking down the street in Astoria where our house was. I caught sight of the moon with my left peripheral vision, I turned to look at it, and it vanished. [pauses] So, anyway, that's a bit of drama for you!