Today, Nearsighted welcomes a post by blind singer and actress Caitlin Hernandez.
There are certain times when family, friends, and specialists, however diligent, well-meaning, and highly-trained, cannot find catch-all solutions. Patience, expertise, and time aren’t always enough to help a soldier fight depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Bullying and ostracism wear on many teens, but for those who are raising younger siblings or supporting other family members, the effects can be devastating. And for individuals who have lost sight or haven’t been adequately taught to adapt to blindness, the clamor of the outside world can be next to impossible to navigate.
These three groups — veterans, at-risk youth, and the visually impaired — may not seem, at first, to be similar. But people from these demographics often feel trapped, isolated, and overwhelmed. Some become so intimidated by the pressures of everyday life, combined with their own situations, that they become unable to function, move, or even speak as they once could.
The common thread binding these special populations — the need for a safe avenue for self-expression — typically goes unnoticed and unaddressed. Intuitively, we all seek sounding boards for our words and outlets for our fears. All that remains is to bring the untold stories to life … and what better way to do that than through art?
Greg Shane, Bryan Caldwell, and Colin Simson, three friends with a passion for theater and helping others, founded CRE Outreach as a means of serving the needs of these under-served groups. This Los Angeles-based organization guides individuals through the composition and performance of original plays that highlight the experiences of each special population.
The CRE Outreach umbrella encompasses three separate theater groups, each addressing the specific needs of its consumers with the utmost sensitivity. Theatre by the Blind is the only theater troupe in the country comprised solely of blind and visually impaired actors. Individuals gain self-esteem, become more physically comfortable navigating through space, and educate audiences about blindness by creating original plays.
Additionally, becoming a character onstage gives the visually impaired actors the chance to forget about blindness for a while: to simply relax, have fun, and be themselves among others who understand the ins and outs of visual impairments.
“When we’re all together, I sometimes forget we can’t see.” Connor Head, 18, is the youngest member of Theatre by the Blind; he has a lead role in the group’s upcoming show, Walk Me Home, during which he acts, sings, and plays guitar. “At rehearsal, we cease to be blind people and just become people.”
Creative Youth Theatre, the second of the three CRE groups, caters to at-risk youth, offering them the chance to share their experiences in a receptive, nurturing setting. And Heroes’ Stories honors the lives of veterans, providing a positive platform from which they can speak about their experiences.
Shane, Caldwell, and Simson, in developing these three diverse programs, were well aware of the complexity of the endeavor. With the safety of a warm, inclusive space, they believed that activities and theater exercises could be invigorating and challenging without veering toward stressful. They envisioned a myriad of benefits, ranging from improved self-reliance to a strengthened sense of purpose and identity.
“We use the stage as a vehicle, as a way to build confidence,” Shane explains. “It’s hard to truly understand the power of theater — and of our organization — until you experience it firsthand. It’s more than ‘Let’s put on a show’; the process is just as important as the product.”
Working together, the actors in each of the three groups craft their own shows and, while rehearsing, enhance social and communication skills, hone talents, and find their own voices, both creatively and in the real world. An added bonus is the opportunity to socialize and befriend people who intimately share and understand their specific trials and triumphs.
“I’ve never really met many blind adults,” says Head. “Being in this group makes me more hopeful for my own future. I used to think that blindness was a weakness, but now I know that, even if I lose the rest of my sight, I can keep going … because people in this group who have done it, so why can’t I? Anyone can wish for things to be different, but I know now that I can work with what I have.”
Through CRE Outreach’s productions, audiences receive personal, evocative, and often autobiographical glimpses of different worlds. Through art, fears and misconceptions are eradicated, causing audiences to think twice about those they may once have perceived as “different”. And, of course, the process of creating and acting in plays that openly and honestly depict their own stories is both validating and beneficial for the actors as well.
Quiet, hesitant, reclusive teens, while stepping into a role, learn to project, to speak out, to break free of their shells. The visually impaired, guided by sound and tactile cues, learn to confidently navigate a stage without sighted assistance: a skill that can be applied to everyday life, where independent travel is often a struggle. Veterans establish rapport with others who have gone through similar experiences, finding solace in a welcoming, receptive environment where their stories are respected, understood, and appreciated.
“CRE isn’t your typical theater company,” Head explains. “It’s not like the director makes the rules and the actors follow. And it’s not like we just run in, learn our part, and run out. It’s an amazing friendship experience. There’s such a connection among the cast; we’re all very in tune with each other. Just by listening, we know when someone’s happy, sad, worried … We get to know each other really well, and that helps our characters interact and develop.”
Shane couldn’t agree more. “All the actors encourage each other to fulfill their best potential. There are no egos here. We’re a family.”
To learn more about CRE Outreach, visit their web site at www.creoutreach.org.
Watch this blog for upcoming articles about CRE’s three upcoming shows: Sit, a Theatre by the Blind production about a young blind girl fighting for her independence; Walk Me Home, another Theatre by the Blind production about two blind teens who fall in love and support each other through the unpredictability of their senior year of high school; and Beyond Sight, a full-length musical about a soldier who returns from Afghanistan after being blinded, featuring performances by both veterans and the visually impaired.