For most teenagers, perhaps the most important thing in the world is fitting in. In her debut musical, Caitlin Hernandez, blind since birth, shows that being disabled is not the end of the world, and that with determination, a mother's love, and a teacher's encouragement anything is possible. Contributor Anthony Vasquez caught a rehearsal of Dreaming in Color at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica.
For Caitlin Hernandez, getting to perform her musical in front of a live audience is big. The recent college grad was involved in the arts even since preschool--she had the starring role in a play called The Seed.
"I played the seed," said Hernandez. "I liked memorizing the lines and I got to wear this funny flower contraption on my head, and when the play ends I blossom and I pull down the sides of the flower and it was all pretty and everyone was like 'oooh.' And that definitely just got me hooked."
As much as she liked it, Hernandez said teachers had trouble working with a blind actor. So, she ended up with a lot of lines, but little action. At college she took up singing, but never gave up acting and writing. The idea for Dreaming in Color came from a book Hernandez wrote in high school. She wanted to show blind people in a new light.
"They're always either like a superhero or super inept," she said. "And I was just, like, annoyed, and one of my friends said to me as a joke, 'Well, why don't you write a better book then?'"
In Dreaming in Color, 16-year-old Brenna and her dad get in a car accident. Brenna's father is dead, and she is now blind. Though not entirely autobiographical--Hernandez was born blind--she drew from her own experiences to show the challenges that come with living with a visual impairment. Last fall Hernandez got in touch with CRE Outreach, an L.A.-based nonprofit, the country's only acting company made up of blind actors.
From the book came the musical based on Brenna's life. Rehearsals started up at the beginning of June. Hernandez says that the toughest part of acting for her is conveying appropriate facial expressions--she has to play a sighted person at the beginning of the play. She says she's learned to use her emotions to help her show what her character feels.
"I think we've all come a really long way," said Hernandez. "And I definitely have learned a lot, and definitely have gotten better about just opening myself up to feeling all those hard things and just tapping into it to make Brenna's character authentic and to try my best to portray what she's feeling in a believable way as opposed to just you know, saying empty words because that's not nearly as powerful."
Greg Shane, Artistic Director and co-founder of CRE outreach is directing Caitlin's musical. "It's just so traumatic," he said of the musical. "I can't imagine what that experience is like, but Caitlin has really stepped into it, the role, and has really brought out the humanity of it, and the realism of it, the power behind it."
A major theme running through the play is adaptation, learning to face the problems life throws at us. Hernandez notes that it's important to have a strong support network. Brenna's mother and her new teacher help her remake her new life. Near the end of the play, Brenna's teacher Bird, played by Laurel Rankin, gives the aspiring artist words of wisdom.
"You'll always be an artist, Miss Brenna," the character says. "Being creative, having big ideas and carrying them out, that doesn't come from your eyes, or your ears, or your hands. That comes from your heart and your spirit and your soul, and you got lots of those things."
"I had to include that," said Caitlin. "I wanted to portray that and to explain how if a blind person has the right tools and the right people and the right opportunities, they can do anything they want to do. And I have remarkable parents who really push me to do my best and were always very supportive. And I had wonderful Braille teachers and mobility teachers throughout my life who taught me so much more than just how to read and write and get around."
Debbie Hernandez, Caitlin's mother, wasn't surprised to see her daughter take up playwriting. "She just took hold of the reins. You know, she guided us," said Hernandez of her daughter. "It sounds cheesy, but it's true. As a young child she just went after whatever she wanted. It was amazing and she's been that way ever since."
Caitlin said she hopes that when sighted people see Dreaming in Color, they leave feeling more comfortable approaching a blind person. "Because often sighted people are just afraid of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing," she said. "And so they don't talk to a blind person at all."
As a blind person myself, I can relate to the challenges blindness brings: the accommodations needed in school to compete on an even playing field, the insecurities of traveling alone, the awkward social moments. One of the play's most powerful scenes takes place when Brenna crosses the street, completely on her own.
"There are always going to be naysayers and always going to be people who say you can't do something or "are you sure you want to do this?" Or 'why don't you rethink this?'" said Caitlin. "I want blind people not to listen to any of that and just do whatever they want to do."
Along with adaptation, the play emphasizes human resilience. All the support in the world, loving parents, enthusiastic teachers, access to Braille books and specialized technology, will not matter if there's no self-confidence, no passion to move forward. Hernandez convincingly makes the case that one's dreams should not be held hostage by the opinions of others, and that with much perseverance goals can be achieved. Here's a performance of "You and I" from the musical:
Dreaming in Color starts Saturday, July 6 at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica. Performances are scheduled for Sunday and next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.