We're starting a brand new feature here at Intermission Impossible. It's called the Green Room because of the format — actors, directors, and designers hanging out talking to other actors, directors, and designers. Sometimes these pieces will take the form of a traditional interview, but Green Room features may also be more casual and intimate conversations between people who know each other very well. They might focus on current theater projects, or not at all. The point is to make something new that's fun and informative, and puts local artists where they belong— in the spotlight.
I want to avoid this becoming a forum where PR folks at area theaters interview their current casts. For two reasons, I'm making an exception for this first installment. For starters, when he's not repping for Theatre Memphis, guest interviewer Randall Hartzog is a pretty fine actor in his own right. Also, his interview with Wait Until Dark performer Andria Wilson tells a great great story. Wilson, who plays the show's visually impaired protagonist, was legally blind as a child and teenager.
Actor Randall Hartzog talks to Andria Wilson about struggles with visual impairment and her role in Wait Until Dark at Theatre Memphis.
Randall Hartzog: What was the extent of your visual impairment?
Nearsightedness runs in my family. My mother has severe nearsightedness and hers has resulted in a detached retina, and macular degeneration. Equipped with my genetic history, the ophthalmologist was aware of potential issues from my childhood.
I remember going to my first eye exam at the age of 6. The doctor was surprised I would even read because my vision was so poor. I was given my first pair of (now) vintage amazing 80’s Strawberry Shortcake glasses that changed prescription each year until I was put in contacts at age 9. Due to the rapid deterioration of my vision via nearsightedness, the doctor suggested contacts early due to the fact that contacts can help slow this process. I was declared legally blind at 9, although this was correctable with the aids of glasses and contacts.
Due to wearing contacts so young, my mother took them out each night and put them in each morning until I was a more capable 12, as I was prone to infection and eye ulcers. Looking back, I remember several times that poor vision kept me from experiencing normal childhood activities. I often pur
posely skipped out on summer camp and sleepovers because dealing with my contacts was such a pain. Additionally, once my contacts were removed, I couldn’t see well, even with glasses, and this left me feeling different and not quite as confident in social situations. I remember being in 4th grade and attending a swimming party. I removed my glasses/contacts to swim and when the game Marco Polo was played I didn’t have to close my eyes as friends shouted “Marco Polo!” – I couldn’t see them, so there was no point in shutting my eyes. While others found this funny, I found it as a barrier of connection to my friends. As if red hair and freckles weren’t bad enough as a kid, right?!
Do you mind telling the cause?
Heredity. Bad genetics, man.
Describe your treatment/recovery and your current state.
Throughout my teens my eyesight became additionally challenging with infections, ulcers, and my vision became worse. In my early 20’s Lasik was becoming a popular tool for nearsighted individuals to reclaim their vision. Dr. Freeman from The Meca Eye Clinic here in Memphis met with me and informed me that while they could do the
surgery, the outcome would probably not be the best as it would be with a less severe nearsighted individual and I would still need the aid of contacts and glasses. Honestly, I was most concerned about being disabled without the aid of contacts/glasses. If an emergency came along and I was without my contacts or glasses for some reason, whether I was driving or at a mall shopping…I was in big trouble and I knew it.
At the time of the surgery my vision was a sad -10.25 and – 11.50, and the nurses had to physically lead me to the operating room. I remember one of the nurses whispered to me how much this would change my life. She was right. After that day, my “normal” was no longer “normal” and I could actually see when I awoke. I had become so accustom for years to keeping my eyes closed while doing my morning bathroom routine of brushing teeth and washing my face — as it was pointless opening my eyes as I couldn’t see anything prior to putting in my contacts. After surgery, I remember having to remind myself to literally open my eyes in the morning as I could now see. The surgery changed my life. While I still have to utilize glasses and contacts, I am comforted in knowing that I can see well enough without them that should an activity or emergency arise that requires me
to do without, I’d be more than okay. I’m no longer disabled. I no longer live in that fear.
How has the experience affected your life and to what effect has it had on this role?
I remember during the audition process transporting myself as much as I could to my old “normal” prior to surgery. The old “normal” of listening, feeling around, not relying as much on my eyesight as I did on my other senses. I continued this process throughout the rehearsals of Wait Until Dark and found the experience both cathartic and rewarding. As a child and young adult struggling with vision impairments I often felt that I was less-than or somehow not quite as worthy as my friends without visual impairments. This thinking greatly affected my self-esteem and willingness to join in.
Through the preparation process, the character of Susan reminded me that blindness and/or visual impairments aren’t a measuring stick to determine self-worth. Confidence and courage are revealed through our challenges. As I walked with Susan navigating her dark world, I rejoiced at her willingness to own her blindness, use it, and cheered as it propelled her towards the discovery of her power, to turn the tables on her assailants. There’s a grace to her stumbling around her apartment, her world, in an effort to find stability, to claim her strength.
This character is witty, smart, and struggling, and she eventually learns the value of owning her story in the mist of her vulnerability. I believe she’s a role model for not only visually impaired women, but for all women navigating their worth and discovering their power.
Any additional comments you would like to share?
We as a cast and crew have been blessed with the input and friendship of Stephanie Jones, a teacher from Clovernook, a service center for the blind and visually impaired in Memphis. Stephanie lost her sight 9 years ago (and has five kids!) and is a source of incredible strength and beauty. She is living a life full of joy and gratitude and has been thoroughly excited to play the part of “consultant” for our show. Her input from prop usage to character development has been invaluable. Stephanie feels that the blind community misses out on experiencing theatrical opportunities around town and is thrilled we are going to offer an audio version of this show to allow those with visual impairments to have the audience experience. We love her!
(Tracey is currently in talks to make this happen)
Favorite roles to date?
I did a play reading of The Shore
at the Pasadena Playhouse several years ago with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. Although I was a bundle of nerves and my role was rather small, the experienced proved to be heart-lasting. Both Mary and Ted were lovely and I found myself laughing hysterically with Mary in the bathroom over a wardrobe malfunction, chatting over various line delivery options with Ted, and ended the adventure with a late night sushi dinner with them and the director. They were gracious and kind. Like I said, it was a heart-lasting experience.