by Mark Van Streefkerk
Blind or visually impaired (BVI) people navigate a world built for sighted people everyday, but how often do sighted people truly see these individuals or understand their experiences? The audio play Flying Blind! offers a candid look at life for BVI people, with plenty of insights for sighted folks to take note of. Produced by South Seattle-based Anything is Possible Theatre Company (AIP) and written by and with the blind and low-vision community, the play is a series of audio scenes, sounds, original songs, and music that together illustrate some situations BVI people encounter — situations that can be frustrating, misunderstood, or even comical.
“Please don’t tell me that I’m an inspiration just for getting out the door today. / Can you see that the main obstacle is not what I can’t see, but a society that’s not set up for people like me?” asks the opening song in Flying Blind!
“Our society is not set up for people who have blind or low vision — or any kind of disability really,” said Kathleen Tracy, composer and music director for Flying Blind! “[BVI] people are amazingly resourceful and can totally live their lives [in spite of] impediments, some of which are hilarious and some of which are infuriating.”
Audiences will learn how the sound from tapping a cane helps a BVI person map their surroundings and about a relationship with a trusted guide dog nearing the end of his life. They’ll hear about a blind hockey player and about instances of unsolicited — and sometimes dangerous — “help” from sighted bystanders.
“It’s a really fun play for blind people to listen to, because we can relate to the stories,” said Sheri Richardson, the BVI consultant for Flying Blind! “Even if that particular story is not ours, we can understand it.”
AIP Executive Director Ellen Cooper, who is also the producer and playwright of Flying Blind!, hopes the play will create more connections between sighted and BVI communities. “I think getting to know the [BVI] community in a respectful way, asking questions, finding out what they need and what their experience is … increases understanding and confronts some of those barriers that I think prevents any group from knowing one another,” she said.
Some tips for sighted people in Flying Blind! include introducing yourself by name when approaching a BVI person and not touching or distracting a guide dog when you see one — it’s the equivalent, BVI people will tell you, of grabbing the steering wheel while someone’s driving.
The idea for Flying Blind! began over two years ago. During her commute to work, Cooper passed by the Department of Services for the Blind’s Orientation and Training Center (OTC) in Columbia City. “I began to notice folks learning to use their canes, learning to navigate the neighborhood,” Cooper said. She also noticed how little interaction there was between sighted people and BVI people. In fact, they were “sort of avoiding each other on the streets,” Cooper said.
Around December 2018, she sat down for coffee with Tracy, founder and director of the Columbia City Community Chorus, and Richardson to get their input on a potential play about BVI people. Richardson was part of Tracy’s community chorus, but at first she was a little wary of Cooper’s idea. “My first question was why? Why are you interested in doing this?” Richardson remembered.
“To me, it is just an ordinary life. I don’t think of it as anything worthy of a theater piece,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t quite sure where they wanted to go with it or what they had in mind. It turns out they didn’t really know where they wanted to go with it either, so we really came together as a team.”
Richardson acted as a liaison between Cooper, Tracy, and the BVI communities. Together they went to groups and events like the Washington Council of the Blind meetings. They held sessions at the OTC and conducted one-on-one interviews to help inform the play. As Flying Blind! neared completion, the intention was to have a live production with “what we call audio transcription,” Cooper explained. “We would describe what was happening [during the play]. We would take the audience on a tour of the set and costumes prior to the performance … we were really going to try and make it as audio as possible.”
As fate would have it, Flying Blind! did become an audio-only play due to something the team could have never anticipated: the COVID-19 pandemic. When it was determined that there was no safe way to rehearse or have a live performance, director Laura Ferri coordinated rehearsals via Zoom, and the cast — made up of both sighted and BVI actors — recorded via staggered sessions at Jack Straw Cultural Center. The play was recorded in four days last November. Flying Blind! was first released at the beginning of this year.
Although a live performance of Flying Blind! might be off the books for now, Cooper is committed to debuting the play in person at some point in the future. “We’re going to be meeting again this fall, talking about ways forward, with the hope that we will do a live performance next summer if possible,” she said.
You can listen to the play for free online. Check out more information about Flying Blind!, including how you can donate to help promote the play to wider audiences, on the official website at http://anythingispossibletheatre.org/.
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