Nearsighted is happy to have Caitlin Hernandez back with another post about CRE Outreach.
After writing and acting in my own musical, Dreaming in Color, through the nonprofit theater company CRE Outreach, I wrote a second original play especially for my fellow blind actors and actresses. Inspired by the close, intense friendships I’d established with the Dreaming in Color cast, and my complex feelings I felt after returning to my northern-California home after my summer in L.A., Walk Me Home tells the story of two blind teenagers whose friendship and love for one another is tested when their life paths seem to be leading them in opposite directions.
Working with the cast themselves to conceptualize the story, I wrote each character with an actor’s unique personality and voice in mind. Whereas most playwrights must compose a play and then hope that the right actor comes along, I was lucky enough to write a show for a specific group of people. Connor Head, in the role of Tristan, would have a chance to display his guitar-playing and skateboarding skills. Megan Miller would play Ashley who, like Megan herself, is sensitive, well-read, and full of fun.
Though I crafted the characters by tapping into the actors’ innate qualities, I was careful not to model fiction after life too closely. Because Connor is a sunny, chatty, optimistic person, I opted to make his character somewhat less resilient, a touch brooding and temperamental. Megan, who is friendly, confident, and willing to trust others, plays the part of an insecure, lonely teen who hesitates to connect with others for fear of losing them. By veering from the truth to create fictional characters, I hoped to challenge the cast to suspend disbelief, to feed upon their authenticity as people, while also giving them room to grow, both as actors and as their characters.
The eight-person cast is made up of actors who are all blind and visually impaired. Sitting in on a December rehearsal, I was impressed by the actors’ diligence and energy. As ever, I was also deeply touched by CRE’s signature family feel, which imbues its Theatre by the Blind productions with such inherent genuineness, vitality, and humanity.
Greg Shane’s gentle, intuitive directing style enabled the actors to take risks, deepening and expanding their characters to enhance realism. With his trademark encouragement and enthusiasm, he rallied the actors, inspiring them to push their limits as actors. The cast eagerly rose to the challenge, not only individually, but as a group. They were quick to notice one another’s gains, as well as to offer support and praise.
The small cast, clearly already bonded, functioned rather as a family unit. James Hove, who played Tristan’s father, had the most sight of the eight; he was the self-elected gofer, fetching water bottles and assisting his fellow actors in finding their seats and props as they scurried between scenes. Two of the senior actors — droll, plucky Ernest Pipoly, and the gentle but indisputably gutsy mother of the group, whom we all affectionately call “Cookie” — stepped into their roles as Tristan’s grandparents with affecting believability. Arnette Coates and Melanie Hernandez, an inseparable and hilarious duo both on- and offstage, had us all in stitches with their comedic timing. Maria Perez’s natural warmth and compassion lent themselves perfectly to the role of the teens’ English teacher: the one person who deeply understands the beauty and complexity of their budding relationship. And even at such an early stage of the show, Connor and Megan’s chemistry was already unmistakably the hub of the production. Just like their characters, the two teased and chattered, seamlessly transferring their refreshingly open friendship through the wings, onto the stage, and into the heart of the play.
Each actor has his own history, his own experiences, his own story. But in this safe circle of fellow artists who personally understand and empathize with the ups and downs of blindness, they are able to allow their visual impairments to fade into the background. While stepping into their characters’ shoes, the actors find the freedom to be themselves in a more honest, authentic way than they otherwise might.
“I have to continually remind the rest of the world that I’m a capable human being,” says Miller. “Sometimes, as a blind person, it feels like I have to prove myself to everybody. It’s so nice having somewhere where I can go and just be a goof, where I won’t be judged, where people know that I’m not helpless. It makes me feel better about myself, helps me build myself back up when things are hard. It’s given me something that I can be proud of.”
Walk Me Home opens on March 7th at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica, California. To learn more about the play and about CRE Outreach, the country’s only theater company hosting a troupe consisting solely of blind actors, visit www.creoutreach.org.