Theater by the blind company members (from left) Melanie Hernandez, Arnette Coates, Tori Taite and Bert Grose rehearse for Private Eyes, opening March 10. (Argonaut photo by Vince Echavaria)

It never really occurred to Willie Ruth “Cookie” Cook to take up acting.

Having become fully blind after suffering trauma to her one good eye, Cook said she felt like a shut-in until she met Greg Shane of Theatre by the Blind, who encouraged her to give theater a try.

It was just the push she needed, as acting has led her to become a more active person and shown her that she has the strength to overcome challenges beyond blindness.

“It’s given me a lot more confidence that I can do this and get in front of all these people. I guess there’s no limit as to where the sky is going to take me,” said Cook.

Cook has become comfortable enough in the acting spotlight to where she is playing the lead female character in some of Theatre by the Blind’s productions of Private Eyes, running Saturday, March 10 through April 8 at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica.

Acting has had a similar effect on Arnette Coates, a member of Theatre by the Blind for the past eight years who is playing one of the primary roles in some of the productions.

“Acting gives me courage, like a flower blossoming,” said Coates, who has been blind most of his life.

“I enjoy being on stage and entertaining the audience in some aspect. It’s a great feeling; I love to hear the audience when they clap.”

Theatre by the Blind is the only theater company in the country featuring either entirely or partially blind actors, said Shane, the company’s director. It is a program of CRE Outreach, which works to use theater as a way to enhance self-esteem, encourage self-expression and empower individuals to overcome challenges in their lives.

Shane said he co-founded the nonprofit organization with Bryan Caldwell seven years ago following the death of a prior group’s founder, Christina Kokubo, in an effort to continue providing theater programs and performances to Los Angeles area community centers and schools.

Theatre by the Blind has performed six previous shows of its original works and will take on a published work, Steven Dietz’s Private Eyes, for its newest show. Described as a multi-layered comedy of suspicion, Private Eyes revolves around a pair of married actors whose relationship is tested when the wife becomes involved in an affair with their play’s director. As a play within a play, the show has many layers and offers a challenge to the performers with a “wordy” script, Shane notes.

“It takes the audience on a wild ride and presents a great challenge to the actors as well because they have to understand all the layers and really embrace their characters,” he said.

The cast includes seven totally blind and two partially blind actors who have been rehearsing for about 11 months in Shane’s parents’ house in Santa Monica and a community center in downtown Los Angeles.

The actors have learned where to move on stage through the use of rubber floor mats and by feeling for objects such as chairs. When it comes to their lines, which they have memorized through tape recordings or Braille translation, the performers take sound cues from each other.

“There’s a lot of trust in this,” Shane explains. “The actors have to trust that they’re going to be there for them, which is remarkable.”

The company members have also given credit to Shane’s direction and communication with them, saying he has been their “backbone.” Shane, who is blind in his right eye, says his condition has helped build his character and he tries to teach his performers that any obstacles they face can be a learning experience.

The director is impressed with the transition he has seen many of the visually impaired actors make, saying some who were previously shy have become more vocal and confident in themselves.

“I really feel like I see miracles every day I go to class,” Shane said.

“I think they feel really proud of themselves for this production because this is the most complicated show we’ve done and I’ve asked a lot of them. I feel they’ve really stepped up and become some seasoned actors.”

Theater can be an important tool for improving the visually impaired’s self-assuredness and movement, as well as an opportunity to overcome fears of public speaking, Shane said. Playing the role of a character gives them the chance to step into someone else’s emotions and perceptions, he added.

Caldwell agreed with his CRE Outreach co-founder. “There’s something about theater itself that it’s more than just an art form, it forces people to branch out from their own comfort zone in a very big way,” he said.

Tori Taite, a partially blind actor who will play the lead male role in Private Eyes, enjoys the transformation that acting out a character can bring.

“It’s a challenge but at the same time it can be a fun challenge,” Taite said. “Acting allows me to be someone other than myself for a while – it’s interesting, entertaining and it’s really creative.”

Shane said the company’s productions provide a forum for the actors to showcase their abilities while raising awareness about the struggles and capabilities of the visually impaired.

“I think it gives them a voice for some of the challenges they face and to feel that they can really overcome them,” he said.

Caldwell added, “We want people to walk away with a new understanding of what blind people face and that they’re not letting that stop them.”

In addition to helping boost their confidence and conquer certain fears, the performers say they have become part of a family with Theatre by the Blind.

“I like being with the family here; that brings me to rehearsal and the acting kind of comes along,” Cook said.

Shane said the ultimate goal of the production is for the audience to watch the show as if the entire cast were not blind.

“I hope they will come see it, be touched and say that was something they’ve never seen before,” he said.

Private Eyes will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 10 through April 8 at the Promenade Playhouse, 1404 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. Tickets for the opening night gala March 10 are $35. For all other shows, tickets are $20.

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