Culver City’s newest theater shines a light on the talents of blind performers
By Brian Marks
Theater is traditionally an art populated by the able-bodied and the privileged. The Blue Door, a new theater opening Friday in Culver City, is determined to make theater accessible to those who are so often excluded.
The Blue Door’s Parent organization, CRE Outreach (Create, Reflect, Empower), organizes programs that create opportunities for veterans, underserved adolescents and the blind.
Greg Shane has been artistic director of CRE Outreach since co-founding it 2003, and soon he’ll be overseeing the theater, too. He’s previously directed plays written by and starring military veterans, as well as works for Theatre by the Blind — the only blind theater company in the U.S.
Shane’s connection to the group is personal — he’s blind in his right eye, and had to patch his sighted eye for a number of years, during which he was functionally blind. Shane’s history with blindness helps him understand the difficulties blind actors have to overcome when performing.
The Blue Door opens its inaugural season with Theatre by the Blind’s production of “Lost in the Light,” an original play by Pelita Dasalla. The story centers on Angel (played by Magally Ocampo), a blind woman striving to lead an independent life — she even gets around on a skateboard. Her sighted family members constantly worry about her safety, however, and threaten her autonomy. Angel’s relationships with her family and her boyfriend (also sighted) are put to the test when she’s offered an experimental treatment with the potential to restore her sight.
Lee Pugsley, who plays Angel’s boyfriend, has been acting since first grade. He studied acting through college, but his early experiences weren’t particularly welcoming for an Asian-American boy with visual impairment. Pugsley grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a city that’s over 90% white, and his house was only a 15-minute drive from a white supremacist compound. But even after moving to multicultural Los Angeles, it was still hard for him to find roles.
“People don’t think outside of the box for casting,” Pugsley says, noting his appreciation for Theatre by the Blind. “It’s been really great coming into this group. I realized, ‘Maybe there is a place for me now.’”
Matthew Saracho has been performing in Theatre by the Blind for three years and also makes his Blue Door debut in “Lost in the Light.” He acted in high school and college, but most productions didn’t accommodate the needs of blind performers.
“Here, everyone is able to have their lines down in some way, whether it’s a recording, or braille or a large print document,” he says. “In college I never got a script or scene in braille.”
Although “Lost in the Light” doesn’t feature any characters bursting into song, it’s still a musical of sorts. The scene transitions are scored with songs written by Laurie Grant and Chloe Copoloff that are performed by the band Rex & Friends. Most of the tunes are empowering pop anthems that touch upon the play’s themes. That kind of direct commentary could be stifling for many songwriters, but not Grant.
“Writing with a theme in mind is just my favorite way to do it,” she says. “You have a focus; you have something the song is supposed to be about. Some people might find that limiting, but I really like it.”
Rex & Friends is fronted by Rex Lewis-Clack, a blind pianist with autism. The rest of the band is rounded out by vocalists on the autism spectrum.
It’s easy to walk right past The Blue Door the first time you visit. A boxy building tucked between a Oaxacan restaurant and a plumber, its façade of shiny white tiles is set back a bit from the other storefronts. But the door is, of course, a very bright shade of blue.
For years, Theatre by the Blind and Rex & Friends have had to travel across the region to give performances. With the opening of The Blue Door, they and other underserved groups finally have a permanent place to call home.
“Lost in the Light” opens at 8 p.m. Friday (April 13) at The Blue Door, 9617 Venice Blvd, Culver City. Shows continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through May 12. Tickets are $15. Call (310) 902-8220 or visit creoutreach.org.