circle of life theatre

An Interview with San Francisco’s Circle of Life Theatre

This week on Nearsighted, we’re pleased to feature an interview with Fritz Lambandrake, executive director of San Francisco’s Circle of Life Theatre. From their website:

Circle of Life Theatre is the West Coast’s ONLY theatre company intentionally casting and reasonably accommodating physically, emotionally, cerebrally, and developmentally disabled actors, singers, and performers of all kinds – to interact harmoniously and seamlessly with fully able performers on the same stage.

Belo Cipriani: What made you start Circle of Life Theatre?

Fritz Lambandrake: Circle of Life Theatre Artistic Director Joseph T. Hege and I became fast friends when both of us sang wth the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. My membership was between summer 2011 and winter 2012. Joe was (is) the head of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’s “Spirit Team,” which is a very small group within the Chorus that helps ill or dying members with their physical and practical needs. I created a 32-member, ’round-the-clock caregiver team that provided one of our Chorus brothers with the constant assistance he needed after his bone-marrow transplant, something he needed in order to defeat leukemia. Without the advance creation of the caregiver team, our brother’s transplant could not have been approved by his team of doctors. During this several-months-long period, Joe and I came to know each other, and we discovered our common love of theatre, an art form with which we both had been involved since childhood.

Belo: Where is Circle of Life Theatre located?

Fritz: For now, our offices are located inside ILRC/The Independent Learning Resource Center in the South Financial District of San Francisco at 649 Mission St. – 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105. However, when ILRC relocates next month, we will lose our donated office space, so we are seeking another now. Our productions take place at ADA-compliant venues in San Francisco. Wait Until Dark (Fall, 2014) and Big River (late Spring, 2015) will be presented at the 491-seat Victoria Theatre at 16th & Mission. The Elephant Man (late Winter 2014-15) and our world premiere of Odd Man In (the double-feature offering of Samlandia & The Brothers of Bayou Teche) will be presented at a more intimate venue, still being sought.

Belo: Who else is part of the management team?

Fritz: Artistic Director Joseph T. Hege, Executive Director Fritz Lambandrake, Musical Director Rick Roberts, and PARADOX Musical Director Carlos McMillan Fuentes.

Belo: How long did you hold auditions for?

Fritz: We’ve been auditioning talent for eleven months, since we were formed, and we’re still auditioning. We never stop auditioning. General auditions were held in October, 2013 for our 2014-2015 season, but many of our actors, singers, and other types of entertainers were cast during individual auditions. Many of the singers in PARADOX A CAPPELLA were cast in this way. At Circle of Life Theatre (C.O.L.T.), we actively seek out a variety of talent all the time, even if the shows in our main-stage season don’t call for that type of talent. This openness is what allows us to cast a variety of talent, from sketch comedy to opera singers to performance artists in our weekly variety show, A C.O.L.T. FOLLOWING. We spent three months seeking out and auditioning truly blind actresses for the lead role in Wait Until Dark.

Belo: How many artists are part of Circle of Life Theatre?

Fritz: Taking into account the casts of our three main-stage shows, the players in Odd Man In, the singers in PARADOX A CAPPELLA, and the long list of entertainers in A C.O.L.T. FOLLOWING, there are nearly seventy artists actively involved with Circle of Life Theatre at this time. Approximately one out of every three has some kind of disability, which is a much higher percentage than the one in eight in the general Bay Area population.

Belo: What will be your first production?

Fritz: Our first production will be Wait Until Dark, which runs for twelve performances; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and Sunday matiness between September 4th and September 21st. Opening night has a post-show, on-stage VIP party with cast members, supporters, and press. Wait Until Dark, which is a 1967 gruesome murder-thriller about a recently blind woman accidentally embroiled in a drug-trafficking plot, will feature two legitimately blind actresses sharing the lead role of Susie Hendrix: Arianah Ruzovich and Megan Luis.

Both Arianah and Megan have different types of partial, yet severe blindness. Arianah has Stargardt’s Disease, which is a form of macular degeneration; she has no central vision at all, which means she sees only blackness when looking straight ahead, with very limited, peripheral vision only. Megan has severe nearsightedness; while she can see with her contacts in, her vision is so distorted that she is effectively blind for all purposes without them.

Because the role of “Susie” is written to be completely blind (she sees no color, no shadows, no shapes, just total blackness), both Arianah and Megan will wear contacts to block out what little vision they have. In other words, they will be performing the role, including the terrifying, gruesome, high-risk stage-combat scenes completely blind!

Belo: How can people support Circle of Life Theatre?

Fritz: The best way to support Circle of Life Theatre is two-fold: 1) Buy a block of tickets to Wait Until Dark (group discounts available) and 2) make a sizeable donation through our page on Fractured Atlas. Circle of Life Theatre is a fiscally sponsored 501(c)3 corporation, courtesy of Fractured Atlas in New York City, so all donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. However, there are many other ways to offer support. Anyone may donate their time, attention, talent, marketing or public-relations skills, or other valuable services. We need support staff in all areas all the time — backstage at all of our shows and behind the scenes with our day-to-day operations. Otherwise, the best way to support Circle of Life Theatre is to open a door for us and make an introduction to people and companies who care about the the mainstreaming of disabilty in the arts. We need all the help we can get.

Get in touch with Circle of Life Theatre via email: For tickets, visit: Also, connect Circle of Life Theatre on Facebook.


Images courtesy of Circle of Life Theatre

Belo Cipriani View more

Belo Cipriani is the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams. He is a disability advocate, a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and is currently the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine -- a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work.