In July 1998 I graduated from drama school with a BA in Acting. Over the next 16 years I have performed on stage, in plays and pantomimes and on screen in films, TV series and commercials. It is truly what I love to do. When my vision loss started, one of my biggest fears was that I would’t be able to perform again. My passion, what I had spent so much time and effort training for and made sacrifices to achieve what I had, was possibly being taken away from me. Not without a fight though and that fight started on the night of my diagnosis with ‘One Georgie Orwell’.
I had auditioned during the journey ro diagnosis day and even performed in this show the week previous but this was the first time when I knew my vision loss was permanent. That made a difference to me as I knew it could be the last time I performed, my swan song as it were. I say the last time but the reason we were doing this and the previous weeks performance was to raise funds to take the show to New York in October. More about that later.
The show itself wouldn’t really test how I relate to others on stage, as I play the narrator, which has little interaction with others. Neither would it test my ability to read and learn scripts, as I had performed it before and was brushing it up, although others may beg to differ regarding learning the lines. What I felt it would test is my ability to actually get up on stage and perform to the level I had previously without my sight. The best way to describe my vision now is like watching ‘Police Camera Action’, where the people who haven’t consented to be filmed have their faces pixelated, only it’s not just the faces it’s everything. I now live in a pixelated world and I need to learn to live in it, let alone perform.
My fellow actors were all good friends as well, so they all knew I had an eye problem but not the extent. Officially neither did I until a few hours earlier. These would be the first people I told outside of my family and work. I didm’t really know how to go about it or what to say but as I met them all at different times I told them all individually. It was one of the first things they asked so I couldn’t really keep them all waiting. I said that I had a genetic condition which has caused some of the cells in the optic nerve to stop working, meaning not all the signals are getting to the brain and therefore I have a blind spot in my central vision. The vision shouldn’t get any worse but may improve. All were truly saddened for me and hoped that things would improve. There were questions, most notably is there anything that can be done? Being newly diagnosed I fielded the questions as best I could but from my research I knew the answer to this particular one. As there’s nothing wrong with the actual eyeballs there is no surgery. The problem lies with defective cells in the optic nerve, which at the moment cannot be cured but who knows what technology might bring. There is a clinical trial in Newcastle that my specialist has put me forward for. On it they are trialling a drug that has shown signs of improving some peoples vision but its not available in this country yet. Generally people can’t believe that in this day and age nothing can be done but it is quite a rare condition and at least there is now a lot of research going into it.
We set up for the show and ran though a couple of sections before getting changed. It was a very low key, relaxed performance so we mingled with the audience before the show started. A friend of the family and her husband arrived so I had a chat with them but didn’t say anything about my eyes. I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I noticed a couple of other friendly faces arrive before the show started.
Being the narrator I started the show with a direct address speech to the audience. Normally this wouldn’t faze me, in fact it was my forte when doing panto. I loved it. The more the audience gave me,the more I would give back. I fed off it. But now I couldn’t see the audience so how much more difficult would it be? As t was an intimate space the audience were quite close so although it was like an ID parade for ‘Police Camera Action’ with all the pixelated faces, I could still see them all there and feed off their energy. The opening went well and I felt I got across what I wanted to. It still felt weird as I found it difficult to focus when I couldn’t see properly what I was supposed to focus on. This continued for me until a section where I speak as Orwell. The speech was almost the complete opposite to what I had been doing. Although it was a monologue, it wasn’t aimed directly at the audience and I was playing a proper character. Much more like conventional acting. Not being able to see the audience at such close proximity actually helped as it gave me the chance to focus on the words of the speech and what they actually meant. For this reason it was probably the best I had done it. Then came the interval and a few moments to reflect on the first half.
I always found the second half easier as there were less and shorter speeches but there was one part that still troubled me. Towards the end three of us did an excerpt from ‘1984’, with me narrating and the other two playing characters from the book. In the past it was considered a nice touch to have me read it straight from the book so for this reason I had never learned it. With my sight deteriorating over the last few months I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do this so I set about trying to learn it but it wasn’t quite going in fully. I hold my hand up, I cheated. I printed the passage out in font size 20, the size I had been trying to learn it from and put it in the book. This cheat created a problem as it obviously became my security blanket. Before vision loss I was a great sight reader, being able to look away from the page then glance back down to see where I was before carrying on. I was trying to do this with vision loss. I would speak the text I could remember then search the page for the bits I couldn’t. Even with font size 20 this was difficult as I could only use my peripheral vision so bits went missing. I struggled through and it seemed to go fine, although one of the others did have to interject a searching pause in order to keep up the tension. I was grateful for it. Then came the end of the show and the post mortem.
Firstly I spoke to my family friend and her husband bur I didn’t mention my news from earlier in the day. It wasn’t intentional but looking back I think I wanted to see if they noticed a difference, not just in my acting, as they had seen me before but also in me as a person. This sounds like a test but it wasn’t. I would have said something if we’d chatted for longer or if the subject had come up. It didn’t come up because they hadn’t noticed. They enjoyed the show, getting inspiration to read some Orwell and thought I was very good, (naturally).
Later I spoke to an old actor friend of mine. We spoke about the show and had a general catch up, as we hadn’t seen each other for a while. As part of the catch up I spoke about my vision loss and what I had been through. He was visibly sorry for my situation but he has the most remarkable way of putting a positive spin on things. he spoke about disabled and visually impaired theatre companies and even had a contact foe me. Now there’s something I need to research..
The first day of the rest of my life was now drawing to a close. I had proved to myself that I can still perform, even if it is a slightly different experience but everything will be from now on. I guess I now have to prove to others that I can still perform.
Before I finish this pot I did say more of ‘One Georgie Orwell’ in New York later so here comes the shameless plug. For those of you in and around New York or visiting at the end of October, ‘One Georgie Orwell’ will be performed at Teatro Latea, Lower East Side from 28 October – 1 November and tickets can be bought from http://www.smarttix.com/show.aspx?showcode=ONE71 Drop me a line if you’re coming and we can have a chat in the bar afterwards or maybe you’d like to show me the sights of The Big Apple from a visually impaired point of view.