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An Actor Finds Truth & Power Negotiating Her Vision Loss

Marilee Talkington is a critically acclaimed actor, writer and director who works in plays, film, multi-media performance, journalism, and sound sculpture.  She is the founder and Artistic Director of Vanguardian Productions, a Resident Artist of Crowded Fire and earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from the American Conservatory Theater, marking her as one of only two legally blind actors in the country to do so.  She has been nominated for the Princess Grace Award in Directing and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for playwrighting (Attrition). She has received a MacDowell Fellowship for 2011, a 2010 Center of Cultural Innovation Investing in Artists grant, a Bay Area Theatre Critics Award for Acting (Godspell) and was the recipient of the A.C.T. Carol Channing Trouper award for excellence and leadership in the theatrical craft.  Her Off-Broadway credits include the lead role in John Beluso’s A Nervous Smile, the lead role in A.R. Gurney’s The Middle Ages, and the world premiere of Justin Quinn Pelegano’s The Last Day. Regionally she has performed at A.C.T.  (A Christmas Carol), Theatreworks, Center REP, Magic Theatre, and Crowded Fire Theatre.  Her original works include Attirition (SF), TRUCE (NYC, SF, BBC), Sugarville: a little death (NYC), The Rape Poems (SF, NYC, Philadelphia, Edinburgh), Daughter of the Floods (SF), Wormhole: a 3-D Sound Sculpture (SF, NYC, SF City Hall), and OH! : a sound sculpture (SF).  Talkington is also a contributing writer for the Kennedy Center’s online magazine Opening Stages and wrote and self-published an acting training book called The Zen Handbook for Actors.  She is currently developing a professional acting training program for performing artists who are blind and visually impaired and is working on her next experiential play called Sticky Time, which will be produced in 2011.

Theater never interested me as a kid.  I preferred sports and Nikes to musicals and wigs. But fate intervened in 1996 during my last semester of undergrad at UCSD.  I was about ready to graduate with the oh-so-generic psych degree and a respectable minor in mathematics, and I needed one more GE class to get the hell out.  So I followed one short funny dream of a boy named Frankie into an intro to acting class, as he said it would be an easy A.  I quickly left San Diego three months later, trading in the dream of Frankie for the dream of Hollywood. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to succeed just because I happened to be legally blind.  I just thought it  would be hard because I was a girl.   I wasn’t necessarily wrong about the latter, but I came up against some startling revelations about what the entertainment industry thinks, or rather doesn’t think, about persons with disabilities.

Having been born with a rare eye condition called Cone Rod dystrophy, which I inherited from my mother who also has it, I became quite used to navigating through the world without seeing what was directly in front me.

Cone Rod Dystrophy is a condition that prematurely ages the cones and rods inside the retina, causing total blindness in the central vision field, blurred vision in the peripheral field, color blindness, and extreme sensitivity to light and glare. Which simply means, that if I’m looking directly at you, I don’t see your face, but rather a large tv static looking blind spot.  I only see what’s around your face. But if I say, shift my eyes to the right (which would appear to you as if I was looking over your shoulder) then I would be able to see you with my peripheral vision, which is currently corrected to 20/200 (legal blindness) and could be visually described as someone smearing an inch of Vaseline over your eyes.

The body is an amazing adaptive machine however.  And I became facile at seeing with my fingers and ears.  But since my mother had the misfortune of growing up in a time when disability meant death, and the fortune to see how the ADA* (Americans with Disabilities Act) meant life, she bestowed on me two rules to live by:

1. Look people directly in the eye and pretend you can see them, or you will be treated differently.

2. It is the law that you receive reasonable accommodations in this country.

And so, there I was, a sporty young girl, looking people in the eyes pretending I could see them. All the while, I was receiving the law enforced enlarged books, hand-outs, extra time on tests, personal readers, and enlarging machines from high school through college.  I ‘looked’ normal.  And because everything I needed was made available to me…I damned well acted normal too.    And then Hollywood hit.

Quiz:  What year does this statistic apply to? 1996, 2004, or 2010?

“Only one-half of one percent of words spoken on television are spoken by a person with a disability.” **

Fast forward to my first audition in L.A. in 1997 when I received the sides as I walked into the room and was told to do a cold-reading.  I’d never even heard of a cold-reading before.  But I wanted to be an actor so I went in, sat down, and pressed the paper to my nose so I could see the print, and started reading.  I was quickly excused before finishing with no comment except laughter from the director and his assistant when the thin door closed behind me.

Fast forward to my first audition with a prominent theater director after having learned my lesson and was prepared to enlarge the script on my own.

“Hi there. I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m supposed to read for you and I was wondering if you knew if there was a copy machine in the building that enlarges.  I can’t see the script.”

Director:  “No, there isn’t.  But if you can’t see the script, you don’t belong on stage. Next.”

I played a lot of sports when I was a kid and how I won M.V.P. and was named to the Regional All Star team in basketball when I had no vision centrally, I still don’t even understand myself – except to say that I had serious will-power and a willingness to incur a great deal of pain. My motto back then was “suck it up!’ So since I didn’t have the Disability resource center to advocate for me anymore, I had to learn other ways of navigating the business that didn’t seem to think too highly of folks like me.

So I decided I wouldn’t tell the directors or anyone on the casting end that I was visually impaired. Which always felt like a betrayal. And I would show up as early as I needed to to re-write the entire script by hand in large print.  I hadn’t learned how to vocally advocate for myself yet in a way that didn’t feel angry or demanding, so at times I flat out lied. I remember calling an audition hotline once using a different name and asked if someone who was visually impaired could get the script ahead of time to memorize.  I was told that they couldn’t because it would pose an unfair advantage over the other actors.

And so that was the way of things for years. That was the way of the grad school auditions too.  I walked in, did my work and left my blindness at the door.  I looked teachers in the eyes even though I couldn’t see them, and pushed myself as hard as I could to listen and feel what I was supposed to see.  And so as not to pose any problems or extra work for any or the staff, teachers or other actors, I spent hours enlarging my scripts for the readings in class. Re-typing my scripts for rehearsals.  And basically doing what my mom taught me.  Pretend I could see.  I got so good at it, that most of the time, I forgot that I couldn’t.

This truth has stirred quite different reactions from people.  Some say that if you put a smile on your face, you will end up happy.  Others say that smiling when you aren’t happy is denying how you really feel.

And depending on the day I will live in either of these camps.

But what is most challenging is that the business still demands conformity.  And the professional training systems still want actors who are commercially viable to come out of their programs.  So when casting directors say that the reason they don’t cast an actor with a disability to play a character with a disability is because they just aren’t talented enough, it’s both crap and truth at the same time.  In one way it’s an excuse not to take a chance. In another way it’s true because actors with disabilities are not being let into prominent programs. And if you say, well “Marilee, you got in…” Indeed, but you might want to know that I’m one of only two legally blind actors in the country to receive an M.F.A. in Acting, and it’s 2010.

When the heads of the American Conservatory Theater MFA program found out I was legally blind, they asked one question:  Will you be able to satisfy all the requirements of the rigorous training program?  Of course I answered yes. And that was that. My vision was never brought up by the faculty or staff…or me (Well, save one enlightening interaction with a very well known Shakespeare instructor, who was brought in to guest teach. I was working on a monologue by Richard III, and I mentioned that because of my vision, I understood what it was to push against something on a daily basis.  His terse response was that I should get over my self-pity and stop using my vision as an excuse. I kept my challenges and experience of being visually impaired very close to me after that incident).

Fast Forward to 2005:

My vision had been stable for quite a few years, and I had adapted fairly well to the current peculiarities of it.  But, during my first year living in NYC, after grad school, I started experiencing some dramatic shifts in my sensitivity to light, and sharp decline in my peripheral vision. I was fairly devastated at receiving confirmation by an NY eye doctor that indeed my vision was progressing again. And I finally hit a tipping point.  All the fear and grief that I had been experiencing and swallowing so as not to appear weak, came rushing forward.  And I had no tools to move through the density of emotion.  I didn’t know anything else but to swallow, to move ahead with relentless stoicism.  But that was no longer an option.  I hit bottom fairly hard, and fairly quickly.  And my boyfriend at the time seeing that I desperately needed some sort of outlet convinced me to write a show about it all.

I fought him tooth and nail, as I was so not interested in telling this story, convinced no one wanted to hear it, just because I needed to get it off my chest.  But he assured me over and over that it was indeed important, that I was an artist.  So why not use the gifts I was given to offer some sense of freedom within the walls that I constructed around my eyesight?  And as he happened to be a beautiful writer himself, he offered to help me navigate those waters so I maintained the balance of artistry and self-expression. I embarked on the adventure of writing TRUCE and telling my story.  The process ultimately culminated into a fairly comedic piece about my mother’s and my tumultuous relationship as two blind ladies figuring out their way in the world.

We produced it at the NY International Fringe Festival, because I figured it would be large enough to feel like I’d accomplished something but small enough not to hit the mainstream entertainment world – thus keeping the risk of getting pegged as a disabled actor (which basically means you don’t get cast at all) quite low. To my surprise however, the show fared quite well.  It received more notice than I had expected, and the phrase “sublimely theatrical” was even used in a review. It didn’t have hoards of audience members, but those that came seemed to have been affected in a positive way. And I did what I needed to do for myself, which was for all intensive purposes….come out. TRUCE was done.

Fast Forward to 2009:

While acting as a disability consultant for the drama department at an east coast university, I met a beautiful young actress who also happened to be blind.  My whole paradigm of how I thought about disability suddenly shifted.  Even though I did TRUCE, I still had been fervently trying to stay within the acceptable ranges of ‘difference’ so I could get work in the homogeneous realm of mainstream acting, not realizing that I was denying a huge aspect of myself to well…myself…and to others.

When I meat this young lady, I felt like I was looking into a mirror. She was actively battling to deny that part of herself, the blindness, the difference. And my heart just ripped open and screamed “Listen damnit! This is bigger than acting! This is about self-acceptance and realization. Don’t turn your back on her, like you have so many times on yourself.”

It was one of the most intense moments of purpose in my life. I realized in full clarity that I had a responsibility to this person to lead by example, from a truly empowered place. It was time to step into the largeness of my experience as a human being and let the Marilee who couldn’t see stand alongside the artist Marilee with equal pride and ownership. And so, in one quick moment, I decided to re-investigate, re-wrtie and re-mount TRUCE in 2010 in San Francisco with the unwavering commitment that it would a beautiful and stunning piece of art that was absolutely authentic to who I am.

I’m not going to lie, it was terrifying and I didn’t know what the importance of it was besides just saying yes to my whole self. It was only when the first blind audience member came to see the show that I started understanding the impact.  Because another came.  And then another.  And their families.  And their teachers. And then the emails started about the universality of the piece, and the phone calls and articles in the SF Chronicle, and the SF Bay Guardian, the SF Weekly.  And then the BBC called and asked if they could run the show indefinitely on the BBC Radio 4. And I kept hearing the same thing. Thank you for showing us us.

It’s been a whirlwind of a year, as I have recently received a 2010 MacDowell Fellowship, a Center for Cultural Innovations Award, a commission for a new play during the 2011 season and a commitment from the BBC to cover TRUCE if it tours to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next year. And because the need has revealed itself in such a strong way, I’ve started coaching several young blind actors and have begun developing a new professional actor training program geared specifically for them.  Wham bam, thank you mam. As always funding is the biggest challenge.  But it seems fairly clear that the two things I know best should be working side by side, right?

As I say in TRUCE, I’m still negotiating my relationship with my vision loss.  But my purpose has widened dramatically. And within that constant negotiation, I have found some truth,  and a sense that I can make not only an impact in the realm of art, but also in the realm of humanity.

*The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives federal civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and services, state and local government, and telecommunications.

** For this statistic and more info on persons with disabilities in the arts, visit I am PWD.

Photo: Marilee Talkington in TRUCE. Production design by Andrew Lu.

  1. pam munro on Tuesday 26, 2010

    it’s wonderful that you have been able to cope with your disability so well – & that in the end you have succeeded to such a degree. Yes, there is a terrible stigma to going public with being a disabled actor. I found out that I am bipolar & have hesitated to list myself in the disabled actor category for SAG, for example. In my experience, only obvious disabilities seem to qualify. I remember going to a disabled bathroom at a screening, when a snooty executive said” You don’t look disabled!” (He wanted to push ahead of me…) I replied:”It’s invisible.” As it is – & thereby hangs the rub…It’s invisible & although it is probably not uncommon among actors & Patti Duke – because famous admitted it – for someone in my less stellar position, it still could be looked at as a liability, laws or no laws. I have never been close enough to eny of my reps to go into this, for example – Altho I recently read on the net of an actress with lupus who could tell her agent of her ups & downs – What a lucky thing she is! I am just holding on as it is – as a 60 yr-old character woman – So, I will unload to Minerva – but on the other hand, not to anyone hiring me!!

  2. tara on Tuesday 26, 2010

    This”“Only one-half of one percent of words spoken on television are spoken by a person with a disability.” is ableist because it assumes that there are no invisible disabilities which were not disclosed.