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Visions of hope, healing

Blind adults find new ways to perceive the world, thanks to a unique acting class.

October 20, 2003|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

Bert Grose leans over his sax and begins a wistful version of "Unchained Melody." He pauses, and Leela Kazerouni stands to tell the story of her blindness. She was reading a newspaper, she says, and the words became blurry. Everything became blurry, even her thoughts and especially her future.

"I wanted to commit suicide," she says.

One by one, the 10 actors, sitting in a semicircle before a small audience at the Platt Library in Woodland Hills, tell the stories of how they lost their eyesight. For some, it faded slowly, like a picture washed out by the sun. For Grose, 61, it was sudden, a gunshot to the face while he was selling on the street. It happens all the time in the drug trade, but Grose wasn't selling drugs. He was selling roses.

He leans into his sax again.

Known as Changing Perceptions, the actors are members of Theater by the Blind and Physically Disabled, founded by actor-writer Christina Kokubo. On Tuesday, the group will perform at Bruin Plaza on the UCLA campus. On Wednesday, it will be at Los Angeles City College.

Kokubo's classes are conducted at the Braille Institute near downtown Los Angeles and at Media Access, a liaison between actors with disabilities and the entertainment industry, located in North Hollywood.

When Kokubo first visited the institute 4 1/2 years ago, she noticed the silence. "There could be crowds of people in the hallway, and still it would be so quiet," she says. Through drama, she wanted to give the students a voice.

Kazerouni, 43, one of four students who showed up the first day, didn't speak at all. She kept her head down, facing the floor. Even the thought of hearing her own voice terrified her. Before Kokubo could begin to teach acting, she had to find a way to help students open up.

"Most of them were depressed and angry with their situations. The huge journey was to get them to a point where they were in a state of well-being enough to be able to perform."

She would give them an exercise and then wait for them to speak -- five, 10, 15 minutes sometimes. Sweat would drip down the sides of one student's face and, finally, he would make a sound. It was unrecognizable, but it was a start.

"I was misinformed that he had a brain tumor, and I thought that was the reason why his sight was shutting down and he couldn't speak," says Kokubo. "What I discovered is that it was fear that was paralyzing him." Slowly, the man began opening up. She taught him to smile. "You have to squeeze your cheek muscles and show your teeth," she would say. And, in time, he did.

Initially, exercises were designed to be fun, to lift their spirits. Then she started asking them about their lives, and the stories she heard were shocking.

"I have three men whose wives and families abandoned them when they lost their sight....The fear was so great that their families couldn't handle it."

Martin Bormaster is 82 and was one of the silent ones. He lost his vision in 1991 and started taking classes at the Braille Institute that year.

It wasn't until he started in the drama program in 1999 that he began to open up. Earlier this year, he and his wife of 21 years were divorced. "She said, 'I just can't take it,' " he says, "so I said goodbye." He now lives alone in a senior center.

One by one, the actors stand to tell their stories, and in between each story is the sound of a lonely sax. One man struck a pedestrian. Mike Novak was struck by a car when he was 5. One woman lost her friends, who worried she might want them to take care of her. One man lost his leg.

Kathryn Janssen sways gracefully and easily to the music. "There were bells on a hill, but I never heard them ringing...." Her voice and her eyes sparkle. For five years, she sang and danced on the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.

She appeared in the "Poseidon Adventure," and her voice was in "Ghostbusters." Even now, at 80, she does commercials. She has partial vision, but her eyesight continues to worsen. She says she feels lucky to have what vision remains. The performance is a mixture of music and monologue as well as short skits.

The actors talk about their lives before they were blind, their lives since. They talk about frustrations and fantasies.

Janssen's fantasy is to sing at Carnegie Hall. Stephanie Lynn Schaefer, 29, dreams of being a mermaid, of drifting through the waves.

A graduate of the University of Maryland, she studied psychology and art with an emphasis on photography. She has limited vision and is considered legally blind. To get a feeling of what the world looks like through her eyes, she says, try looking backward through binoculars.

She moved alone from Baltimore to L.A. because she wanted to be on her own. Freedom, she says, is not about being able to see; it's about being able to work around obstacles. For the blind, there are many: cars parked on sidewalks, signing on the dotted line.

Kokubo -- who has performed on stage, in film and television -- says her fantasy is to have a van for the program, to develop a dramatic arts academy. But right now she can't even afford to print programs.

As the show winds down, the actors continue describing their fantasies.

One woman would like her sculpture of Angelina, with long brown hair and green eyes, to be shown in a museum. One man's fantasy is to walk down the streets of old Vienna. One wins a gold medal in judo. Another wins Wimbledon.

Arnett Coates, 56, stands to describe his fantasy. He raises his arms above his head. In his fantasy, he can fly.


'Changing Perceptions'

When: Noon Tuesday at Bruin Plaza on the UCLA campus, enter at Westwood Boulevard and stop at kiosk for parking and directions; and at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Clausen Hall at Los Angeles City College, 855 N. Vermont Ave., L.A. Both performances are free.

Info: Christina Kokubo at (323) 660-4607.

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