January 11, 2015
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — Audience members begin experiencing the blind theater the moment they enter the hall in darkness. The spectators enter single file, each person holding the shoulders of another in a line of 10 led by a blind actor.
Walking blindly induces dizziness, and it takes just seconds to become disoriented, so tension fills this theater in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, as audience members take their seats.
The audience is about to “see” a blind play, an artistic performance staged in darkness. The cast includes blind, visually impaired and sighted actors.
The play, “The Desert Island” – “La Isla Desierta” in Spanish – is interactive and multisensory. Actors engage audience members in the production.
The theater turns into a jungle in which the audience can hear, smell and feel rustling palm trees. Rain falls, the aroma of brewing coffee fills the air, someone cooks and serves dinner, the temperature turns tropical.
Grupo Ojcuro, a blind theater company that has pioneered this genre in Argentina, developed and performs “The Desert Island.” The play premiered in 2001 and is still being performed; the next run is set to begin in March.
Jesús Igriega, one of Grupo Ojcuro’s blind actors, studied theater for 10 years in his hometown of Grupo Ojcuro, Jesús Igriega, blind theater company Mar del Plata, 400 kilometers (248 miles) south of Buenos Aires. He was unable to land acting gigs there.
In 2009, he moved to Buenos Aires in the hope of acting in the Argentine Center for Blind Theater, a venue that presents plays, as well as wine tastings, meals and concerts, in darkness.
A member of Grupo Ojcuro since 2011, Igriega credits the blind theater with greatly expanding his artistic and employment opportunities.
“The blind theater gives us the possibility to do theater for everyone and to play the characters we want without having to play a person with a disability or expose the visual impairment – two things that were impossible in conventional theater,” he says.
Many blind actors in Argentina have trouble landing roles. Two blind theater companies aim to fix that, presenting performances in the dark and expanding the job market for people with visual impairments.
Through plays and alternative forms of theater, these troupes hope to sensitize Buenos Aires theatergoers to the lives of blind people. Both companies plan to increase work opportunities in 2015.
Among the 174,373 Argentines living with some sort of disability, an estimated 9,566 have visual impairments, according to a 2013 Ministry of Health report. The report is based on the number of people in Argentina who have the Certificado Único de Discapacidad, or CUD, a national legal document certifying that a person has a disability. Argentines who hold the document can obtain benefits, such as free public transportation.
Just one in 10 CUD holders is employed, the report states. The number of blind people with jobs was unavailable.
As of 2001, only 120 Argentine blind people were formally employed in the arts, drawing regular salaries and receiving health insurance coverage, according to the blind theater groups, the Ministry of Labor and local organizations that aid the blind.
The only formal jobs available to blind people were in the 69-member National Symphony Orchestra of the Blind and the 51-member National Polyphonic Choir of the Blind. The Ministry of Culture funds both groups.
Over the past 10 years, Buenos Aires theater companies have made strides in creating opportunities for blind actors.
Grupo Ojcuro was the first theater troupe in Argentina to cast blind actors in roles unrelated to their blindness, says Laura Cuffini, director of “Quiroga and the Illuminated Jungle,” the company’s most recent work. “Quiroga” reopens in March.
Actor-director Gerardo Bentatti and director José Menchaca, Cuffini’s partner, formed Grupo Ojcuro in 2001.
Bentatti and Menchaca were inspired by a play in the dark in which Bentatti performed. They saw no reason why they should not cast blind people in their productions.
But finding blind actors was a big challenge, Cuffini says. The first actors came from the Argentine Library for the Blind, where plays are read aloud.
“To integrate the blind to the cast is logical thinking,” Cuffini says. “Who will move better in the dark than a person who does not see?”
The emergence of Grupo Ojcuro led to new initiatives.
Bentatti and others left Grupo Ojcuro to create the Argentine Center for Blind Theater in 2008.
In addition to creating jobs for blind musicians, sound technicians, waiters, wine stewards and cooks, the center seeks to raise awareness of the experience of blindness.
Both companies operate as cooperatives in which all members, from the director to the sound technician, share earnings equally.
Together the two companies employ 45 blind and visually impaired performers. Both troupes also include members with full vision.
Blind theater is vital to actors like Igriega, whose primary income is from acting.
“The blind theater allows you an economic inclusion,” he says.
Blind theater offers dignified and challenging work to people with visual impairments, says Martín Bondone, general director of the Argentina Center of Blind Theater.
“A person with a visual impairment in the blind theater does not suffer that disability,” he says in a phone interview. “[The person] is on equal footing when it is time to work.”
Audience members are often unaware that blind people are engaged in a production, Bondone says.
“Upon completion of the show and the lights turn on, they realize that the person who waited on their table, the person that guided them, is blind,” he says. “And a very strong break in the paradigm is generated.”
Attending the center’s “Babilonia FX” play in the dark was a surprising experience, says Manuel Berti, 23, a fully sighted resident of Buenos Aires.
“[They] generate a space through the sounds that are very different from the actual space that you are in,” he says, referring to the people who perform in the blind theater. “It is very intense. It really submerges you in the story.”
In addition to providing employment for blind actors, blind theater stages productions that blind and visually impaired audience members can fully enjoy.
“When one attends a conventional theater, some little thing always escapes you,” says Buenos Aires resident Marcelo Vázquez, who is blind. “The gestures and changes in scenery are not indicated. For that we always try to go accompanied by someone who sees so they tell us what is happening in the scene.”
A cultural problem underlies society’s failure to fully integrate blind people, says Santiago Morrone, interim president of the Association Aid to the Blind. Blind people should play an active role in society and the economy, he says.
“We cannot, nor should we, wait for society to take pity,” he says. “We have to fight for opportunities and occupy the spaces we are winning.”
Grupo Ojcuro and the Argentine Center for Blind Theater are promoting social change, Morrone says.
But Cuffini says blind theater is merely a doorway to heightened awareness.
“This work is not sufficient,” Cuffini says. “A willingness of the people is required. You have to trust each other, in the blind person as a complete person.”
The center plans to create 15 more jobs for blind people this year, Bondone says.
The company is considering creating a center in another province to advance its mission, he says.
In July 2014, Grupo Ojcuro premiered “Quiroga and the Illuminated Jungle,” a children’s production in which blind actors operate luminous puppets.
Igriega says he is excited to continue his role in “Quiroga” when it begins its second run in March because it enables him to convey empowerment to children.
“We seek to remove the image of the blind person who always needs help,” he says. “We show with the facts that a blind person can do a professional theater play and handle puppets. I think that message sticks with children, and that is why my wish is that many more come during 2015 to see the play.”
GPJ translator Lezak Shallat translated this article from Spanish.