When she created the role of the victim in the Broadway premiere of Frederick Knott’s “Wait Until Dark,” the story about Lee Remick was how difficult it was to prepare for the role of playing a blind person and performing it without cheating. “Wait Until Dark” has just opened at the Burbank Theatre. What distinguishes it from other openings of the week is that this time the actress playing the role has been blind from birth.
“Wait Until Dark” represents 31-year-old Cheryl McMannis’ first stage role, but not her first acting role--she’s had an active career in television for several years now, and on Oct. 13 NBC-TV will air a TV movie on a segment of her life called “Can You Feel Me Dancing?” McMannis plays a relatively small part instead of the lead. That’s the strange way TV people think. The actress is philosophical about it, as she is about many things, and is very upbeat as well.
“Up until the past few years, I had no desire or interest to be an actress,” she said. “Five or six years ago I was teaching fifth- and sixth-grade students and going to Biola College to get a credential to teach visually impaired children, something I had wanted to do since I was in the first grade. I got a call from the Braille Institute for a job interview. I thought it had something to do with the institute, but instead it was TV producers David Sehr and David Swift looking for a handicapped girl to play in their TV pilot (I don’t mind the word handicapped; I don’t take it as a negative term).
“I was chosen for the lead over 65 other people, but the movie never was made. That was all right with me. The idea of acting didn’t appeal to me--I had never even been in front of people. I knew nothing about the industry. I come from a conservative Christian family and grew up in Long Beach, which is a long way from Hollywood in more ways than one. I had never even met a gay person before.
“The producers kept after me to do a screen test. I thought that maybe they saw something in me I wasn’t seeing myself. That they believed in me and wanted me meant something--but not in terms of money or being a star. At that time I thought if I went through with trying to start a career and was successful, it could open the door a crack for someone else who really did want it.”
McMannis went from doing a one-liner in “Here’s Boomer” to larger roles in “Simon & Simon,” “The Master” and “T. J. Hooker.” “The more I did, the more I liked working,” she said. “Now I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to teaching. I’m accomplishing the same goals, but in a different fashion, and on a far greater scheme than I ever thought of. I still feel the importance of communicating the necessity of self-esteem, motivation and confidence to children--I think it’s overprotective parents who destroy their children’s sense of curiosity.”
Veteran TV writer and producer Michael Sloane (his most recent show is “The Equalizer”) is behind McMannis’ move to the theater. “We had talked and talked about what I might do,” said McMannis, “and he thought of this. I have great people to work with--Doug McClure and Greg Mullavey are also in the cast, and Ray Simpson, who did ‘Cats’ and ‘Wild Honey’ at the Ahmanson, is the designer.
“There are little things we’ve done to help me find my way around the stage,” she said of the obvious difficulties of managing a stage role that requires unassisted movement. “We use different floor textures so that I know where I am on stage. There’s a thumbtack in the middle of the back of the sofa, so I can center myself. There’s a lip at the edge of the stage. I love to scare the audience into thinking I’m about to go over it. I’m a little scared in the beginning myself, but I concentrate on what’s to come. The trick is to get the butterflies in your stomach flying in formation.”