NEW YORK — The stage is set as the interior of an English country inn. As the characters enter one by one, they head downstairs into the living room, where tables and chairs are scattered about, or upstairs to offstage bedrooms. As Agatha Christie's "10 Little Indians" unfolds, the actors mix drinks at a bar, shuffle cards - and fall down dead.
In addition to the mystery unfolding on stage, the audience is busy trying to figure out another puzzle: Which of the actors are blind or visually impaired?
It's not easy to tell. And for many in the audience, the question soon becomes of minor interest as they are caught up in the gripping mystery of who's bumping off the characters to match the lines of a children's nursery rhyme pinned to the fireplace.
This production is by Theater By the Blind, which has been entertaining New York audiences since 1983. The only professional theater company of its kind in the US, its aim, explains a note in the program, is to dispel stereotypes about the blind and show "how vibrant, fluid, and exuberant the visually impaired can be."
This show, "10 Little Indians" marks yet another achievement for the company: It's the first time a majority of the actors onstage (7 of the 11) are blind or visually impaired.
Nicholas Viselli, a sighted actor who's performing in his fifth production with Theater By the Blind, remembers the first production he saw several years ago. He had come to see a friend, George Ashiotis, whom he had gotten to know when they worked together in a production of "Julius Caesar" in Scranton, Pa. Both George and his female lead were blind.
"The stage had a lot of levels, which is challenging for a sighted actor to have to deal with - steps and platforms," Mr. Viselli recalls. "There was one scene where the actress takes a cigarette out of her purse. George is standing stage right. He walks across the stage, takes out a lighter, and flawlessly lights her cigarette. There was no grabbing of hands or fumbling. And I was just dazzled by that."
Mr. Ashiotis admits that doing things the audience doesn't expect from a blind actor can be a kick. "It's kind of fun when you run up some steps or jump off a platform [and the audience says], 'Oh my God!' " But Ashiotis, who recently became co-artistic director of the company, says he wants to do more than just avoid "tells" that tip off the audience to his blindness.
"In some ways, I don't even try to pass as sighted," he says. Mainly, "I don't want to be clumsy on stage; I don't want to walk into anything." He says he realizes the audience will spend a few minutes at the beginning trying to figure who's blind and who isn't; but then he hopes they'll settle in to enjoy the play. And he hopes they will judge him on his interpretation of the role, not on how successful he was at giving the illusion that he's sighted.
Rehearsing a production involves some special considerations. Blind actors learn their lines by listening to tapes or reading the play in Braille; the visually impaired may be able to use a large-type version of the script.
Overall, Viselli says, working with blind actors isn't that different from working with sighted ones. One special concern involves handling props. If he picks up a glass and sets it down again six or seven inches away, "it makes all the difference in the world" to a blind actor, he says. It not only could cause some momentary groping around, a "tell" to the audience, it might cause the blind actor to muff a line.
In 2001, Theater By the Blind performed at a theater festival for visually impaired actors in Zagreb, Croatia, and it will return there this year. Recently the company was honored with a $2,500 grant from the American Theatre Wing, which gives out the prestigious Tony Awards each spring. In fact, winning a Tony Award would be a crowning achievement for the company, Ashiotis says. Building toward that goal, he hopes to present plays more frequently and to provide better pay for the actors and crew.
In recent years, the company has debuted material written specifically for it, including the musical review "Whataya Blind?!" Later this year, it will première "When I'm 64," written by co-artistic director Ike Schambelan, in which Ashiotis will play a blind man.
"In the last few years, we've gained a lot of respect from the theater community in New York," Ashiotis says. Not only actors but craftspeople "have been attracted to us. And it's been terrific."