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With no sight and plenty of lines, blind actors make the scenes

She feared the worst at first.

What if she tripped? What if she fell? What if she ran head-on into a wall?

Blind for 16 years, Maria Perez still struggled getting around in her Santa Clarita home. And then someone came along and dared her to take the stage as an actress, under the lights, under the gaze of an audience.

VIDEO: Blind theater troupe

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“There’s no way,” she thought. “No way I can do it.”

That was two years ago, when she first joined Theater by the Blind, a troupe of actors who put on a show despite their disability. Beginning Saturday, Perez and eight other actors will perform in “Private Eyes,” a love-triangle drama of deceit.

And Perez, 36, will take center stage as the lead character, a feisty, sneaky actress named Lisa.

“I’m subtle, reserved, nothing like her,” Perez said.

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For many in the theater company, each script offers just that: a chance to escape and transform into pixies, army sergeants, football players and ruthless dictators.

Offstage, they each have their own real-life dramas of how glaucoma, detached retinas or gunshots robbed their sight — at birth, as teenagers and as adults.

Perez went blind at 20, gradually slipping into darkness after high school. Ernest Pipoly, a dapper 71-year-old who loves playing bad guys with heavy accents, held on to his sight until his 50s. And Sheela Walker, in her 52 years, has never known what it’s like to see.

Overcoming the darkness is not their only challenge. Many of the actors also struggle with stuttering and slurred speech, often triggered by the frustration they bottled up inside after losing their sight, said artistic director Greg Shane.

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Shane, who is blind in his right eye, began leading the troupe seven years ago with an old college theater friend. They created CRE Outreach, a nonprofit helping the visually impaired, along with at-risk kids. His youngest actor is 8. His oldest, 95.

He recruits much of his talent at the Braille Institute in downtown Los Angeles, searching for people with a spark. Or people so painfully shy, they’re afraid to speak.

He then trains them during weekly rehearsals on a carefully orchestrated stage lined with rubber mats. Each mat, table, chair and prop is a road map designed to guide their steps. So are the sounds — background music and snapping fingers steer them offstage, and whispers, coughs and furniture taps discreetly serve as cues.

“We don’t want people to come to the show and say, ‘Oh, they’ve vision-impaired,’ ” Shane said. “We want them to say, ‘Wow. I never knew they were blind.’ ”

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On a recent afternoon, the thespians gathered for a dress rehearsal inside a community center just west of downtown.

They have rehearsed for months, repeating each line over and over, using a CD recording of the play. Other plays they have written themselves, improvising at times. But “Private Eyes,” which will have a four-week run at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica, will be the first time they tackle an existing script with little room for error.

Pipoly, in velvet scarf and tasseled loafers, balanced his toes over the edge on a purple mat, his face up, listening for his cue to go.

“Is there where you want me?” he asked Shane.

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“You’re perfect,” Shane told him, watching Perez skillfully steer herself to her own spot at the opposite end of the stage.

The moment they deliver their lines, the mats seem to fade into the background and their characters take over.

Pipoly, a self-described ham, is among the boldest in the group. In the 1990s, he not only lost his sight to glaucoma, he lost his job as a truck driver and his marriage of 18 years.

“I felt so angry inside all the time,” he said. “Now, when I hear the audience react, when I hear them laugh or gasp, I feel elated. I feel goose bumps going up my arms.”

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He dreams that one day, a talent scout will spot him during a show and cast him in a television sitcom or maybe, even a movie.

Walker joined the troupe with simpler ambitions. She was so bashful, Shane had to bend over to hear her whisper of a voice. The mother of three from Baldwin Hills was born blind, though her parents didn’t realize it until she turned 2.

“They thought I was just accident-prone,” she said.

When they learned of her condition, they grew fiercely protective, keeping her in the house at all times. Walker grew up isolated and insecure, afraid to raise her voice.

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But with practice — during rehearsals and at home in her living room — the theater group coaxed it out of her in the last year. She plays a gun-toting private investigator and is among the loudest onstage, her voice clear and strong.

“My son’s still getting used to it,” Walker said. “He tells his friends now, ‘Don’t go putting your drink on the table without a coaster [because] my mom, she’s got a mouth on her.’ ”

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com


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