Greg Shane, the artistic director of CRE outreach, (Theater By the Blind) brings us another original production, “Beyond Sight.” It was about a year ago that I saw their last production, “Yesterday’s,” about a struggling club owner and his motley crew. What an inspirational group. I was so moved by the show I jumped up at the end and ran on stage to hug everyone – not paying attention to the fact they were still taking their bows. Okay, so I am emotional, and yes, I was crying. I was so impressed by the strength and determination of this talented group of actors that I was just blown away.
“Beyond Sight” is an original musical about a soldier who loses his sight on the battlefields of Afghanistan and the trials and tribulations of retuning back to the US, disabled and struggling to find a place. With original music composed by Mark P. Leonard and Colin Simson and a mix of sighted and blind actors, I am certain this will have the same quality and emotional impact as the last play, and maybe more so due to its current political relevance.
I would like you to meet Greg Shane and let him tell you more about his organization and this new play.
Hey Greg, how are you?
Greg: Hi, Rose.
Rose: As the co-founder and Artistic Director of CRE Outreach, can you tell us how you became involved in theater and working with the blind?
Greg: I first entered the theater world as a professional magician. After acting in several shows, I became fascinated with directing and working with people who didn’t have access to the arts, such as prisoners, at-risk youth, military veterans, and blind individuals. My work with blind actors began about 10 years ago with four students from the Braille Institute. Since they were faced with unique challenges such as moving around the stage and memorizing their lines, I found that teaching them was different from teaching sighted individuals. Perhaps or in spite of that, it was also rewarding in a different way. I quickly saw these individuals growing not only as performers, but more importantly gaining confidence and finding purpose in their lives. Being blind in my right eye myself, I had many challenges to overcome and found alternative ways to live a full life. Transformational is the word I would use to describe Theatre by the Blind.
Rose: CRE stands for: Create, Reflect and Empower. How does the show “Beyond Sight” reflect your company’s motto?
Greg: Those three words are really the staple of what we do at CRE. We encourage our actors – veterans, visually impaired, and at-risk youth – to bring their own real-life feelings and experiences into our scripts and performances. Our actors are not only instrumental in creating their own plays, but they’re reflecting on their own lives. They’re also educating others, of course, since audiences walk away from our shows with a deeper understanding of a perspective other than their own. That’s where “empower” comes into play, and how the three words work as a unit. While creating and reflecting upon their own situations, our actors are empowered by sharing their stories … and in addition to that, audiences are empowered to go out in the world with a higher sensitivity toward others who might seem different, but who are, in actuality, similar to them in many ways.
Rose: You work with at-risk youth and veterans as well as visually impaired artists. In “Beyond Sight,” the lead actor is a veteran returning home after being blinded in action. How do you feel theater helps in terms of healing as well as relating personal stories similar to the one in the show?
Greg: Veterans and the visually impaired often experience a lot of ups and downs, and they have such interesting and unique stories to share. However, those stories often go untold and unheard, simply because there aren’t many outlets. Theater is a great form of self-expression, but there’s also a protective layer – a safety net – that makes it easier to relive and share the tough things. Each character will doubtless be similar to its actor in some ways, but that cushion gives the actor room to feel the emotions and address the relevant issues in a way that’s at least partially hypothetical.
Rose: A musical is difficult enough to stage, but what is the difference in working with a blind actor?
Greg: The difference in working with Robert is that he had to learn to memorize the layout of the stage. There is a moment in the show where he runs from one side of the stage to the other and this took some practice. Robert has done work on stage in Theatre by the Blind productions in the past, so he picked up the staging fairly quickly. In my experience working with the blind, I approach the actors in the same manner I would approach sighted actors. The only major difference is you have to get creative sometimes in making adjustments.
Rose: The musical stars blind actor Robert Smith and war veteran Ginger Lawrence, who served four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines. How real to life is this staging? Did you set out to cast actual veterans?
Greg: I believe one of the strongest aspects of “Beyond Sight” is the authenticity of the production. The source material was taken from interviews with military veterans at New Directions for Veterans and actors of the Theatre by the Blind company. Therefore, audiences resonate with how real to life the story and the staging is. In fact, while rehearsing for the show, a few of the veteran actors had to leave the room at certain moments because they were so affected by what was taking place on stage. I absolutely intended on casting veterans and visually impaired actors in key roles in this production. Since a majority of the work CRE does is focused around working with the blind as well as military veterans, I was dead set on “Beyond Sight” embodying the populations that CRE works with. I believe the casting of this show enables audiences to truly experience the challenges that visually impaired people and veterans face
Rose: What can audiences expect when they see a CRE Outreach show like “Beyond Sight?”
Greg: What makes a CRE play different from any other is the authenticity, because while the stories are fictionalized, you’re watching real people portray real things they’ve experienced firsthand. Our actors rise above their own physical and emotional challenges, not just because they love to act, but because they want to educate others. Seeing a group of hardworking people from so many different walks of life come together and create something beautiful makes CRE Outreach’s plays very raw and very affecting. People leave our shows and tell us that they look at the world a different way, that they think about and notice things and people in a way they hadn’t before.
Rose: Given our current political climate, this musical is very timely. Do you think our country is doing enough to support veterans? Do you work with other veteran programs in Los Angeles?
Greg: I don’t’ want to get into a political discussion on whether or not our country is doing enough to support our veterans. I will, however, say that I believe the general public is unaware of how difficult the transition is from leaving war and coming home. “Beyond Sight” illustrates these struggles whether it’s dealing with PTSD flashbacks, issues of intimacy, or identity loss. The current work that CRE Outreach does at New Directions for Veterans gives veterans the opportunity to tell their life story through the vehicle of an original play that they create. The program is called Heroes Stories and was created to give veterans an outlet for the challenges they face when returning home from the war. New Directions is a treatment center for veterans dealing with substance abuse problems and homelessness.
Rose: You contributed to the writing of the lyrics for “Beyond Sight.” What was that like and what experiences or aspects of the story inspired your work?
Greg: I wanted the lyrics to move audiences and to have them reflect on their own lives. My goal with the lyrics was to have them move the story along, but, more importantly, to elicit an emotional reaction. I drew upon all the work that CRE Outreach has done over the years. Whether it be the struggles I observed indicated in the song “Lost” or the confidence realized in the song “Breakthru” or the love felt in the title track “Beyond Sight,” I wanted the lyrics to put audience in the moment that the character is living and step into their shoes. I felt it was very important to have a range of dramatic, comedic and inspiring lyrics that would take audience on an incredible journey throughout the performance.
Rose: Your company’s mission is to “Transform lives one show at a time.” Theater isn’t just about entertainment, but also raising awareness. Can you explain how live performances leave an impact?
Greg: Our actors are from the populations our plays are about, and because we’re openly and honestly telling their stories; we’re not just performing and entertaining. The rehearsal and performance processes double as safe spaces for our actors to explore their pasts in an accepting and nurturing environment. For our audiences, it’s a way to step into someone else’s shoes and see what their lives are like. For our actors, it’s a way to share their stories with people who genuinely care and want to listen.
Rose: What have you learned from the process and experience working on “Beyond Sight”?
Greg: I have learned so much from the process of working on “Beyond Sight.” Most importantly, I learned how important it is to build an incredible team and cast that share the same vision. There is not an ego in the room among the cast and the production team has worked very hard to make this production a reality. I also have learned that there will always be people that doubt CRE’s vision, but in the end if we stick by what we believe and keep true to our mission, the public will see how CRE transforms lives one show at a time.
Rose: I am very curious: do you have scripts in Braille? Or is there another way for an actor to study their lines?
Greg: Our visually impaired actors learn lines in a variety of ways. Some read their scripts in Braille, but for others, especially those who lost their sight later in life, we record their lines so they can memorize by listening to tapes.
Rose: What do you think CRE needs at this stage of its life?
Greg: I think the public needs to be aware of the significant changes that CRE Outreach is making in the lives of people that don’t normally have access to the arts or an opportunity to have their voices heard. CRE needs financial support to provide more programming to the communities we serve and put on more productions to educate the public about important issues that are often ignored. “Beyond Sight” is more than a musical in that audiences leave the theater not only truly entertained, but a have a greater perspective and compassion for these underserved populations.
Well thank you so much, Greg. I am looking forward to the show and I promise this time I will stay in my seat – but there is a good chance I will cry! I wish you and everyone the best and please break a leg.
Ok, folks, taxes are over — its time to splurge and this is a small one. Tickets only 30 bucks. So get off the couch and feed your soul: spend a night with CRE, the cast and crew of “Beyond Sight.”
Fridays at 8 p.m.: May 2, 9, 16, 23; Saturdays at 8 p.m: May 3, 10, 24
(dark May 17); Sundays at 3 p.m: May 4, 11, 18, 25
Stella Adler Theatre 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd Floor
Hollywood, CA 90028
HOW: (310) 902-8220 or www.creoutreach.org
Join us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/creoutreach
Follow us on Twitter @creoutreach
TICKET PRICE: General Admission: $30