Life as a Visually Impaired Actor-Musician
By Jessica Jolleys
You may remember Jess from the Rock ’n’ Roll Panto piece that we did back in December. Well, she was so good we decided to get her back! In this month’s blog Jess breaks down some her experiences as a visually impaired Actor-Musician. Take it away Jess...
I first noticed my eyesight was affecting performing when I was in my pre-teens, entering dance competitions only to find that, with 100 other girls fighting to be at the front, I was unable to see any of the Jess in rehearsals. Photo by Brian Roberts.
footwork we were being taught. Not wanting to wear glasses, because I’d do a pirouette and they’d fly off my face, I just muddled through. However, many years down the line the ‘dancing with glasses’ issue was rectified while rehearsing for a production of City of Angels. We were learning some choreography when the arm of a fellow actor accidentally swooped my glasses off. I decided I had no choice but to tape my specs to my face. I now ensure I have a roll of tape in my bag for any rehearsal.
Jess wearing her typical rehearsal attire.
I spent many years hiding from my visual impairment and continuing to struggle. After being berated at an audition for a top drama school for not following visual instructions correctly, I decided that I’d have to speak up at my next opportunity. This arose at my recall for Rose Bruford during the voice and movement workshops. I mentioned my eyesight and was pleasantly surprised that any visual instruction was shown up-close to me and described in a way that was audibly clear. This level of understanding and support was present during my whole experience at Rose Bruford - this really helped me to build confidence in communicating and owning my disability in connection to performing.
There aren’t books out there on acting with a disability so it’s been a learning process by trial and error. I’ve found that communication is key. Whilst training I discovered that I’d excel far more in shows if I had a conversation with the director at the start of a process, instead of putting it off to a later. This opens up a dialogue straight away on what is required; for example, enlarged texts, notes given face to face rather than across the room; and the understanding that rather than staring off into space daydreaming, I am actually listening - just accidentally not quite looking directly at them. Also, the more people that learn of my disability the more likely it is that people will come up with ideas to help - often ideas I haven’t even considered before. For instance, Zoë Waterman (my director for Jack and the Beanstalk at Theatre Clwyd) thoughtfully suggested that we stick different coloured tape to the synth we were using for sound cues. This meant I could just memorise the colours instead of straining to read the writing on each key.
Jess' colour-coded synth for Theatre Clwyd's production of 'Jack and the Beanstalk'
One of my favourite moments in that show was when myself and Peter Mooney got to climb the beanstalk at the end of Act 1 whilst singing ‘Livin' on a Prayer’. Unfortunately, on two of our shows we had technical issues and the beanstalk was unclimbable. So instead of climbing we danced around it and towards the end of the song we’d give the audience the impression that we were about to climb. We thought we’d just about managed to pull it off - until the lights went to full blackout. Normally I’d be up the beanstalk at this point, walking along the high beams and bounding down the stairs to have a breather before Act 2, so I was totally unprepared for a full blackout. I was stuck onstage, not sure where the wings were, and conscious of the fact the house lights would soon be up to show me trying to get my bearings. Under the audience’s applause I shouted offstage “I CAN’T SEE!” and then gradually, in the distance, two shapes started to appear and I could vaguely make out the Dame and the Fairy rushing towards me. They grabbed me by both arms and dragged me off into the wings. Thank God!
This just goes to show how important it is for cast members to be informed about my disability. Not just so they can save me from situations like that, but also so they’re aware that I probably won’t react to subtle movement that hasn’t been choreographed. This doesn’t mean that things can’t be improvised or playful - my other senses are more highly attuned so I can react to actors by tuning into their inflection, tone and clear gestures. Also, as an actor-musician whose spacial awareness isn’t great, it’s imperative that my cast-mates keep an eye out for me when doing routines that involve instruments - both for their own safety and the instruments’ (a trumpet in the mouth is a pain I wouldn’t wish upon anyone).
Jess climbing to the heavens in 'Jack and the Beanstalk'.
Sight reading - aka 'A blind person’s nightmare'. Whilst reading from a script I have a tendency for it to gradually gravitate towards my face until my head is practically buried into it. I’ve found this to be a recipe for disaster and the only way I’ve found to combat this is by ensuring all lines are learnt in advance - be that for auditions or rehearsals. In terms of sight-reading music, I use a combination of memorising quickly, learning by ear where possible and putting a music stand directly in front of my head. For piano, if sight-reading in rehearsals, I play the right hand, hold the music in my left-hand as close to my eyes as possible and memorise the left hand at a later point.
There’s definitely been unexpected challenges I’ve encountered along the way. For instance, because my eyes rapidly shake from side to side, a lot of my headshot photos would come out blurry (and boy do we know the expense of headshots). This also led to me being slightly fearful of screen acting. Instead of being able to relax into a character I’d be worrying if my eye movement would be the only thing the viewer would focus on. The only other screen actor that I know of who suffers from the same eye condition as me (nystagmus) is Pruitt Taylor Vince (The Walking Dead, Birdbox). He combated the eye shakes by playing ‘shifty characters.’ Again, this is an example of finding what works for you. However, the public interest online about his eyes made me shy away from screen acting at first - plus, shifty characters aren’t quite my casting, unfortunately. But I’ve realised since then if you use them as a tool rather than a weakness, your unique qualities are usually what help you secure roles.
Pruitt Taylor Vince in “On the Inside”
Auditioning as a visually impaired performer can be daunting: from attempting to exit an audition via a closet, to hiking up 138 steps at Goodge Street with five instruments because I didn’t see the sign for the lifts. Added to that, I have experienced the perils of travelling across the underground; having to use the zoom on my phone camera to read street names and trying to gauge the atmosphere of an audition room whilst staring at a blur of panellists. Not to mention the amount of times I’ve heard that I’d be 'great in a Specsavers advert'. However, despite all this, throughout my journey as a visually impaired performer I’ve learnt that you have to take it all in your stride, find out what works for you and approach everything with humour and confidence - and don’t treat everything as a hindrance.
The Bohemians would like to thank Jess for writing this fantastic piece. Remember to check out all our other blogs by following the links below. LA VIE BOHEME!!!