Going in Blind: A Crash Course in Stagecraft with Samuel Beckett

by Pamela Sabaugh

in Global Connections

Post image for Going in Blind: A Crash Course in Stagecraft with Samuel Beckett

Rehearsals for Waiting for Godot—scheduled to travel to Zagreb, Croatia, for the Blind In Theater festival, October 11 to the 17th–have been underway in earnest since July, and it is already proving to be quite the journey.

Our goal with this production, which features two blind actors in the central roles of Vladimir and Estragon, as well as a vision impaired actor in the role of Lucky, and myself (also vision impaired) as director, was not to present a “blind version” of Waiting for Godot, but rather to explore the themes of the play and tell the story as any other theatrical ensemble might do, only from our unique perspective: our Didi and Gogo will not pretend to be sighted, but will play the roles as themselves– interpreted by actors who happen to be blind –letting the circumstances and experiences that make each of us who we are, resonate within the material, and then see how it might inform and guide our exploration.

But this creates an additional set of issues which must be addressed on top of the many staging puzzles that already exist in this play. After all, theater is a practical endeavor and, as with any production, problems must be solved, before you can hope to make any magic.

First, before any considerations of staging, the actors had to figure out exactly how they might work with the text—what was their preferred mode of “reading” for the purposes of table work (while working on memorization). George (Didi), formatted his lines and cues and read them on a portable electronic Braille display. Gary (Gogo) recorded his lines and cues onto a handheld digital recorder, listening with an ear bud. I formatted my entire script into large print and printed it out, a binder for each act, it was massive. David set out to memorize Lucky’s vast monologue before being called into rehearsal. All four of us, when working on our own, process and assimilate the script in other ways as well: on the computer with a screen reader, kindle audio book, an NLS recording for the blind or sighted reader. The idea was to digest this text in whatever way possible in order to work off one another and breathe it back into life. Arduous and slow going at first, but through steady scrutiny and repetition, the actors began to absorb the words and make them their own.

Then it was time to get on our feet. Given our approach to this material, we have the additional issue – or puzzle – of having to take on notions of “seeing” and “looking.” When our Didi and Gogo look at the tree, they need to see the tree, which means they need to feel the tree, which means they need to be in the right spot at the right time, to naturally make this happen within the rhythms of the piece.

The play is written with a technical precision that is unlike any other, from the language to the physicality, to the engaging verbal riffs to the pure silence, Beckett does not allow much room for one to go off the rails. If you do, you feel it, and the balance is thrown.

When Pozzo, proffers his handkerchief (as indicated in the stage directions) to Gogo, and says, Comfort him, since you pity him, How does our Gogo see the handkerchief Pozzo is holding out? Does Pozzo—who is not one to get up and give it to Gogo—snap the handkerchief, so Gogo will (hopefully) hear it? Do we add the word “Here,” before he says “comfort him”? And even before this moment, when Pozzo arrives on the scene, proceeded by Lucky, who is tied to a rope, stooped and sagging with burdens, how do we make it clear to Didi and Gogo that one man is tethered to this other man by a rope around his neck?

All these practical problems, though challenging for sure, have informed our production in ways I had never even imagined. The set itself was inspired by these very considerations.

The blind actors and I were discussing how they might best orient themselves on such a sparse set. We came up with the idea of using rope along the floor to make clear demarcations. We then realized that very rope could define the country road, and our set designer (who is also our Pozzo) took the idea and expanded it even further, making the tree out of the very same rope which springs up from the road. Thus the entire set, with the exception of the low mound, is made up of rope. And since you could say Didi and Gogo are at the end of their rope, as well as the talk of rope for hanging, and that one character is tied to another by rope, it now becomes a theme working on many levels.

It’s this rope our two leads feel as Lucky passes. And we ended up finding a way to actually entangle them in it, making it very clear to them that the grunting man who walked by them is tied to the other man who is shouting orders. And this furthers the idea of being bound to one another, and how we can get entangled in each others lives.

And so it is these very problems or considerations which create the overall aesthetic of this production. And that has been my deeper goal for years: to take a straight ahead approach, while at the same time celebrating diversity and creating a “blind aesthetic” if you will—one that informs the piece in a way that is transformative, where the barrier itself is reinterpreted into Art.

I had only a slight suspicion that Beckett might be the perfect playwright for us to work on to try to achieve this goal. And though I am becoming more assured in this belief, that is not to say it is easy. The play at times seems intentionally constructed to throw you, deliberately vague, with physical complications that can make the brain hurt. Or it can feel like you’re in a maze, or vast labyrinth, where the deeper you probe, the more lost you become. I found myself in rehearsal howling, “Why! If Beckett did this deliberately, then why?” And all I can come up with is that it’s a masterpiece. It’s a true work of art, and with any such greatness, you have to work for it, and you have to work hard. But when you do, accidents happen, vistas open up, and you are rewarded for your efforts.

I’m not saying we’ll get fully there, solving every problem and fully realizing the brilliance of this play, but the journey alone is making me understand and appreciate the power of theater, and stage craft in a new way.

And this is just the beginning. What will happen when we present it before a mostly blind audience at the BIT festival? How it will resonate and reverberate through the audience and, in turn, how this will feed what the actors do and experience in the moment, is yet to be determined.

Pamela SabaughPamela Sabaugh is a New York-based performer, playwright and musician, and is a leading company member of Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB). A recipient of the 1998 Princess Grace Award for Acting, Pamela has performed with the company in numerous celebrated Off- Broadway productions. She has also worked with TBTB behind the scenes as educational director, artistic advisor and administrative associate. This year Pamela is directing TBTB’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, to be presented at the 8th International Blind In Theater Festival in Zagreb, Croatia. Sabaugh has also worked extensively on stage, regionally as well as in film and television. She was the first visually impaired actor to play the title character in Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, with The Amaryllis Theater at the Adrienne in Philadelphia in 2007. She performed her critically acclaimed, autobiographical solo rock musical, Immaculate Degeneration, in the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival, and it has since been published as part of the “Best of the Fringe,” at Indie Theater Now.com. Pamela received her MFA in Acting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.

  • Judith

    Will the play be performed in NYC?

  • Pamela

    Not at this time. We do hope the production will have a life in NYC after Zagreb, but we have to wait for that other show on Broadway to end!