By: Mackenzie Cash
New York City – Evelyn Koupas caresses her daughter’s face lovingly in the lobby of the Kraine Theater in New York’s East Village. “Every bit of that was you.” she says with a glimmer of a tear in her eye. “I knew you had written it, but those were YOUR words on that stage.” This quiet, emotional moment isn’t without reason. Koupas has every right to be proud of her daughter, Leona Godin. She accomplished what many people never could and what many people believed she couldn’t. She wrote, directed, and staged her own play. While that’s not unusual in a city like New York, what sets her apart from other aspiring playwrights and directors is the fact that 30 year-old Leona Godin is blind.
Leona Godin lived a normal childhood in the heart of San Francisco, that is, until she was diagnosed with retinitis pigementosa at the age of eleven. RP is an inherited form retinal dystrophy and the effects are never immediate. The degenerative eye disease weakens the central vision until the person is eventually left blind. For Godin, she says matter-of-factly, “It was a very slow process. The chalk on the blackboard was the first to go. Then after that, my glasses would no longer work.” Her vision steadily worsened over her teenage and young adult years, leaving her completely blind by her thirtieth birthday. With the help of her guide dog, Igor, and the occasional cane, she refuses to let her blindness have a negative impact and continues living her life to the fullest.
One of the ways that Leona Godin finds fulfillment is through the theatre and through performance. Because Godin went through a majority of her life with her sight, she remains a very visual person. “The theatre is about paying attention and being aware,” Godin says, “As a blind individual, it’s important to stay connected with the rest of the world. It’s easy to be self-centered. Theatre is a connection and staying connected with the rest of the world is why I perform.” Godin is involved in performance in any way she can be. She hosts her own variety show and performs with the Lighthouse International Chorus in her free time. Her biggest accomplishment to date, however, is a production that she wrote, designed, and directed for New York’s Frigid Festival. Entitled The Spectator and the Blind Man: Stories of Seeing and Not Seeing, her show is a composition of six monologues that take the audience into what Godin refers to as the “blind side of enlightenment”.
Based on the dissertation she wrote while completing her doctorate in 18th century English Literature at New York University, The Spectator and the Blind Man tells the story of the invention of Braille during France’s Age of Enlightenment. In her studies, Godin says that the same stories would always come up, the story of the blind entertainer at a sideshow spectacle or the blind pianist caught in the middle of a scandal, but no one had ever connected these tales to the bigger picture of the history of Braille. Godin’s book of the same name takes a look at 20 of these stories in reference to their role in a much larger history. For her stage production, Godin cut down her 20 characters to six. Marie Antoinette, Louis Braille, Maria Theresia von Paradis, the Cyclops, Charles Barbier, and Valentin Hauy each share the stage and share their stories of seeing and not seeing.
It’s the voices of these specific characters that drive Godin’s show forward. While it is a piece of untold history that Godin is putting on a stage, it is Godin’s own thoughts and apprehensions that shine through. It’s her self-proclaimed egotism at having the self-centered occupations of being both a performer and a blind woman that is on display. It’s her anger at the circumstances she’s been handed in life. And it’s her frustration that people will never see the world in the exact same way that she sees it. Leona Godin has accomplished something truly amazing – a stunning visual play that tells the story of what it’s like to live life on the blind side in a compelling and human way.
To make her characters truly come alive, Godin attempted to give her blind characters a true insight into the world of being blind. Though each of her characters echo a piece of Godin’s personal struggle with coming to terms with her lack of sight, through Cyclops’ desire to be part of the world and to entertain, Marie Antoinette’s regret, Louis Braille’s anger, and Maria Theresa von Paradis’ resilience, it’s her unique method of allowing her sighted actors into the world of deteriorating vision by taking away her actor’s sight through custom-made “introspectacles” that set Godin’s work apart. These introspectacles are foil-covered glasses that distort the actor’s sight by refracting the light and making it impossible for them to see. For one of her actresses, Leslie Goshko, who was playing the blind pianist, Maria Theresia von Paradis, Godin required her to record her piano pieces completely blind. Goshko says, “Leona took away my vision, my safety net, but it made me a better performer in the end.” Though Godin’s methods worked at least for one of her actors, not everything went according to plan.
On the second night of performances, each “blinded” actor was faced with a challenge they hadn’t faced in opening night or at rehearsals: a completely silent audience. As a result, the actors began to deliver to their monologues at the walls of the stage rather than to the people sitting in front of them. “At first, I was a bit mortified because the authenticity was important to me, and I especially didn’t want it to seem like a crass comedy device.” says Bill Chambers, who played the Cyclops, “When I heard that the other blind characters did the same thing, and that Leona kind of enjoyed it, I was a bit more at ease, although I was much more conscious of NOT doing that in the subsequent performances.”
Because of the introspectacles, Chambers and two of the other actors had an insight that the rest of the cast didn’t – they saw what it truly felt like to live life through the eyes of Leona Godin. “Leona is constantly an inspiration” Chambers says, “I’ve known her for a couple years and her artistic integrity and tenacity is something to marvel at, regardless of the fact that she is blind. The fact that she IS blind makes it even more impressive”
Leona Godin has accomplished what she was told she could not, all the while amazing her friends and family with her determination and resilience. Godin hopes to take her show on the road, touring from city to city, in an attempt to shine a light on what life is like for the blind. “I want it to be eye-opening,” she says with a chuckle. “Pardon the pun.”