Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A dose of blind reality for The Miracle Worker cast

Jaclyn Britz (left) and Megan Bening
Jaclyn Britz felt her way gingerly down the hallway, using her fingertips to explore the cold cinder-block wall and guide her slowly to her next step. Then her next. Playing Annie Sullivan in the upcoming production of "The Miracle Worker" in mid-October, Britz had on special eye wear that simulated the visual impairment that Sullivan lived with. 

Interestingly, walking just behind Britz in this little experiment was Megan Bening, a young woman who happens to actually be visually impaired, but who was strolling along with her cane much more assuredly than Britz. Bening, after all, had years of practice navigating the world without sight. Britz was just getting started. 

Britz was one of a handful of other actors in "The Miracle Worker" wearing the simulation goggles, feeling their way along the lower level of the Performing Arts Center. Director Matt Caron had arranged for Meridith Tietz, a teacher of blind/visually impaired people, to come work with his actors to help them better understand their roles. 

"OK, put your brave on," Tietz said before sending the girls down the hallway. "This is going to be a little bit different than what you're used to experiencing."

Maria Camila Perez (back)
Those words rang true as the girls relied more on touch and sound, unconsciously tilting their heads to the side to listen closely to the sounds of their fingertips grazing bulletin boards and their footsteps on the smooth hallway floor. 

Despite Maria Camila Perez's cautious movements, she still bumped right into the drinking fountain, which Tietz pointed out during the debriefing session afterward. Perez, who plays Helen Keller, said she wasn't startled by the mishap, but rather used the experience as more information gathering to make mental notes on her surroundings.

"It was just like, 'Oh, I forgot the water fountain was there,'" Perez said.

Britz noted how interesting it was that, despite her familiarity with the Performing Arts Center and that very hallway, her senses were heightened with the eye wear on.

"It's interesting to see how cautious I became," Britz said.

Meridith Tietz (left)
Following the hallway exercise, Caron asked if Tietz would watch his actors move about the room, acting as if they were blind, so she could offer tips on their eyes and movements. 

"Go into your brain and shut down your visual system, if you can," Tietz said, adding that they should focus on where they are in space. 

"Don't be tapping your fingers a lot; just let your hand sort of float," Tietz said to one girl. 

"Your eyes are moving too much. Just pretend you can't see," she said to another. 

Bening also provided unique insights to the actors: the way she notices how buildings smell so differently from one another, how she takes note of floor-material changes from room to room, how sounds echo in certain spaces and not in others.

Mostly, through example, Bening showed the actors how naturally and fluidly a visually impaired person can make their way in the world.
Maria Camila Perez, playing Helen Keller, and Jaclyn Britz, playing Annie Sullivan, took part in a workshop using simulation eye wear that helped them better understand how to navigate the world as a visually impaired person.

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