Blind actors get rousing reviews for Santa Monica theater production 'Private Eyes'

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It’s an hour before showtime and director Greg Shane leads a half dozen of his cast members through a process many actors are familiar with: the obligatory “warmup.”

But here’s where it gets a little different.

Actors stomp their feet and exclaim “Yes to energy! Yes to success! Yes to not tripping over the mat!"

Shane - who can see - says this particular exercise helps muscle up the willpower.

“One of my actors, she’s actually playing ‘Lisa’ today - Maria Perez - when she first started, she was terrified to move," Shane says.

Like the other members, Maria Perez met Shane through the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. She sees nothing but dark gray all the time.

“With me, it’s like a big issue moving around," says Perez. "I’m always scared I’m going to flip over a chair or I’m going to bump into a table or walk into a wall so that was a major issue for me.”

Never mind that she and her fellow cast members are visually-impaired.

“They walk around the whole space, they move from tables to chairs to couches," says director Shane.

He says “Theatre by the Blind” - the nonprofit that’s producing this show - is the only company in the country that features partially or entirely blind actors. What’s tricky about this production is that they have to portray characters who are not blind.

“And my thing is I use my cane but I can’t use my cane on stage. So that was a problem, too," says Sheela Walker. She's been without sight since birth, and wears dark sunglasses on stage.

Walker and the other actors have learned their lines through through tape recordings and Braille translation. They rehearsed for weeks to move effortlessly around each other - and perform only a few feet in front of the audience.

“You know, an actor might get stuck trying to find a newspaper on stage but it becomes some of the best moments. It becomes comical. She works with it. Or he works with it,” director Shane emphasizes, pointing to several rubber mats taped to the floor.

For these actors, the mats are like GPS for their shoes.

“You can feel them under your feet," says Perez. "And you know that when they end there’s going to be a table there or when they begin, you can start walking straight to the table.”

“I gotta make a movement so I go to make a movement and luckily it turns out right," says veteran performer Ernest Pipoly. He lost his sight in his mid 50s.

Perhaps it would’ve been easier for Pipoly and company to perform a show where they simply sit and speak the whole time. But who needs easy?

Torie Taite, one of the lead actors, has glaucoma. He prefers the challenge of darting back and forth on stage.

“Man, it’s great. It gives me a chance to really know more about the art of being an actor.”

During the performance, Taite and company eat, dance, pour wine, sing and yeah – even kiss. In one scene Taite taps his foot near a prop on the floor, so a fellow cast member can hear where to go.

There are few stumbles, and a few lines flubbed here and there. But it doesn’t matter to patrons who have the theatre packed. They especially enjoyed a plot twist they didn’t see coming.

As the play winds down, the audience turns its attention to stage left where blind musician Bert Grose blows his sax.

The dark shades Grose wears are almost as cool as his disposition. In his 70 years, he’s been through a lot, having suffered five strokes and a 38-day coma. He’s struggled with memory loss - but hasn’t forgotten everything.

“Gunshot... boom. I said ‘doggone it.‘" Grose says, pointing to his temple to indicate he was shot in the head.

In the end, director Greg Shane leads Grose and the other actors for a bow. Each of them hand in hand, smiling as the audience gives its final hurrah.

That’s the great thing about applause. You don’t need to see it.

“Private Eyes,” written by playwright Stephen Dietz, wraps up in Santa Monica this weekend.

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