by Marilee Talkington
From the Editor: The last speaker of the morning on Sunday, July 8, continued the performance theme. The presentation was as moving as anything I’ve witnessed, but the transcription is similarly the hardest I’ve ever participated in. We have tried to capture the spirit, enthusiasm, and poise of Marilee, but what she said and the way she said it isn’t easily framed using the rules of written grammar. It is best experienced through audio, so let this presentation serve to push those who are reading this in Braille and in print to listen to these remarks as delivered. They can be heard at https://nfb.org/images/nfb/audio/
Here is what Marilee Talkington said:
[Alicia Key’s “Girl on Fire” plays as she takes the stage]
I love that; I get a theme song. Now, who decided to put me after JP Williams? Come on, that’s the hardest act to follow; he’s amazing! [cheers]
My name is Marilee Talkington; I am a professional actor. I am so, so excited to be here because the ferocity in this room is stellar. When I walked in on July fourth, and the number of young people—[in a faux-old-person voice] the number of you young people, all you young people with canes—[in her normal voice] I was stunned by how many young people there are, and it inspired me so deeply because I don’t remember having that kind of community when I was younger. I’m just so deeply honored to be here and privileged. Let’s dive in.
I think one of the things I wanted to talk about was transformation, this thing that I hear a lot of people talking about is how to turn obstacles into stepping stones. Just to give a little history: I was born with rod-cone dystrophy; I’m totally blind centrally. My mom has it—it’s genetic. I have peripheral vision, and it’s been degenerating over time. I’m light blind, which, lovely—these lights are shining right in my eyes—and I’m photophobic. So I’m light blind, and light causes me pain. For those of you who have rod-cone or cone-rod and don’t have central vision, you know—you understand—that to see people, you look away from them.
In fifth grade I got what I like to call “The Talk” from my mom. I have the same thing she does. I want to preface this by saying that I don’t judge her for saying this, she was working with the strategies she had at the time and with the experience she had at the time. She said, “Now you have a couple choices—maybe one choice and a couple options. To see people, you need to look away from their face.” Ok. “Or you can look at them and not see them. If you look away from their face to see what you need to see, the world that we live in will treat you differently.” I was in fifth grade. “Or you can teach yourself to look people in the face, not see what you need to see, and move through the world.” As a fifth grader I wanted to move through the world with as much ease as possible, so I chose option number two, and I trained myself to look people in the eyes; I still do. [applause]
This can be confusing for many, many people. When they meet me, they assume that I am fully sighted, which is not the case. But what it has opened up for me is that I play mostly sighted characters on stage. Ninety-five percent of the characters that I play are sighted. [applause]
Let’s just jump forward. First, acting class: I took my first acting class at UC San Diego. I was studying psychology and mathematics at the time. My grade point average was so-so. I needed to raise it, and I was looking for classes that I could take to raise my grade point average. My friend said take an acting class, and I was like, “No way, no, not even close.” I couldn’t get in any other class, and I was like, “Fine, I’ll take acting.”
So I took acting, and something happened. I started telling stories about other people, stepping into who they were, and it was the most incredible experience of my life, those first days in acting class. All of a sudden this enormous imagination of mine had a platform to play on. I’d always been good at voices and characters, but I’d never really had an avenue to walk down and express those things. All of a sudden I’m getting to live other people’s lives. All of a sudden my life felt limitless. [her voice goes slightly higher, a bit more childish] And I started working with all these different characters, you know, and just like playing, [her voice goes deeper, sounding more masculine with a New York accent] and then just like doing something else, right? And we’d talk, and every single character— it’s not just about voices. [Her voice stays deeper, but the accent shifts to more Russian] But then you take on these completely different experiences of life. [back to her normal voice] Right?
So I realized that this is what I want to do, and I never thought in a million years that I couldn’t do it because of my eyesight—never—never crossed my mind.
I graduate UC San Diego, my grade point average lifted because of that acting class. I stop off in LA—that’s a whole ‘nother story; we won’t go there right now—but I end up in San Francisco. I go to my first theater audition, and they had what’s called cold sides there; it’s a cold read. A cold read is when they have the script there, and you’re supposed to read it—look it over in fifteen minutes—then you go up. Well, of course I can’t read the script. I ask the director if there is a photocopy machine. This is back in the day; this was twenty years ago. There’s no technology around, right? I’m like, is there a photocopy machine? He has no idea. So I go out searching for a photocopy machine, and it takes me two hours. I find a photocopy machine at a local business (I think it was a real estate place), and I said, “Can I use it?” They were kind enough to let me. I enlarged it as much as I could, and I eventually found my way back to the theater after two hours. The director was still there. I went in. The script still wasn’t large enough, so it was pretty darn close to my face. I started reading, and the director said, “If you can’t read this script, you don’t belong on stage.” He excused me from the audition.
This is twenty years ago. I had no mentors. I had no one to talk to about this. There were no blind actors that I had ever seen or knew of. I know that a lot of you can relate to this feeling of isolation. This is one of those pivotal moments where I went home, and I was devastated. The question I asked myself: “Do you believe him? Do you believe that you do not belong on stage because you cannot read this?” And the answer that came back was a resounding, “No I do not believe him!” [applause]
But what I did believe at that point was that I needed training. Everything is about training: training, training, training. Because in this business, the acting business, you have to be well-trained. You can dream to be an actor, but if you don’t actually do the work, it’s not going to happen.
I went to school, and this is where I began to advocate for myself. I had to advocate for myself because I was the first blind, low-vision, disabled person to walk in to those acting classes.
My first movement acting class was at a studio. It was an Alexander technique class, which is a movement class that is all about alignment. The teacher said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is going to be the right class for you. You really need to be able to see what I’m doing.”
And I said, “No, that’s not right. I’m going to be in the class, and we’re going to figure this out.” I had to battle my way into these classes. I got into the class, and I ended up being the top student.
I say to myself, “What is going on here, people? I have the drive. I have the willingness to go into the room, so you need to match that.” But this happened over and over and over again. But it developed my muscle to self-advocate.
I auditioned for grad school, because at this point I’ve taken probably ten or twelve studio classes—night classes—Shakespeare, voice, whatever—but I want to take it to the next level. I want to audition for grad school. I do that, and I don’t get it—not because of my vision—I just don’t get in. Grad school—the one I auditioned for—is one of the top in the country. It’s extremely competitive. But I didn’t give up. I trained more that next year, prepared myself even more, and I auditioned the next year, and I got in. I got in to ACT [American Conservatory Theater], and I was the first person with a disability to ever get in to that school. I believe I’m still the only person with a disability to go to that school, and at this point there are only two legally-blind actresses in the country with an MFA in acting. I’m one of them.
I’m sure all of you have heard this before—I remember being taught at a very young age that you have to work twice as hard just to get to the baseline as everybody else, all the sighted people. I said, “I don’t want to be at the baseline. I want to be great at what I am doing.” So I’m working three times as hard, four times as hard, and I never took for granted for one moment when I was in grad school, not one moment. [applause] I had this experience I want to share. It’s less about my vision physically and more about the vision for myself. We were doing this show called Master and Margarita, and it was directed by this wonderful [with accent] Eastern European director named Adria Guirgia. [back to her normal voice] The role that I was cast in was Abaddon, the Angel of Death, and the director said, “Okay, I want your big, red, curly hair everywhere.”
I said, “No, actually, if I’m the Angel of Death, I think I should be gender neutral. People shouldn’t know if I’m male or female. I should be everything at all times.”
I had no language. I had no lines in the script. I wasn’t actually written into the script. He said, “Okay, fine, you can be gender neutral whatever that means,” because that was fifteen years ago; we didn’t even know what that meant.
I realized that he wasn’t calling me to rehearsal. So I thought to myself, “If I’m the Angel of Death, where would I be?” I said, “I’d be everywhere!” So I started putting myself into all the scenes. I showed up to every rehearsal and put myself in every single scene. The director was like, [in accent] “This is brilliant! I had a brilliant idea. She’s in every scene. I love it.”
We go to opening night, and the irony is that, if you ask anybody who saw the show, “Who’s the character you remember?” The answer would be the Angel of Death.
The director comes up to me afterwards and says, [in accent] “Just to let you know, I am taking credit for this.” [laughter]
I said, “Okay, that’s fine, that’s fine.”
But this whole thing really solidified for me—that moment, that particular moment—this nugget of wisdom: when the world doesn’t have a vision for you, you must create a vision for yourself. [applause] That is something that I hold in my heart very deeply.
Long story short: I moved to New York after grad school, and I don’t get that fancy agent. I don’t get all those auditions because acting is really, really competitive. It’s so competitive. I go there thinking, “I’ve got this great degree; I’m going to do it.” And it didn’t happen.
So what I did is I took my career in my own hands, and I started creating my own work, or I should say continued to create my own work because I was already creating my own work, much to the chagrin of my professors. I created my solo show Truce. I play twenty-two characters in that, half of which are blind. And I started creating other work, too—experiential work—that’s what I like to call it—experiential work where I was writing and directing and acting using site-specific scripts—not just theaters but sites you walk through and experience. Because even me, an actor, when I’m an audience member in a theater, loses a lot of it. I can’t see a lot of it. So I was creating theater that you could experience, that people could walk through, and really getting my confidence that way. I was not waiting for somebody to choose me; I was choosing myself. [applause]
I was creating work, but I’ll tell you moving to New York was tough, and I actually ended up having a nervous breakdown. I moved back to San Francisco to heal. I thought, “Oh my God, I failed. I went to New York, and I failed. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t hack it. I’m not strong enough.”
I went back to San Francisco, and there was this little whisper of a voice that said, “No, no, this is exactly as it should be. You’re on the right path. Have faith, have faith, have faith. Take time to heal.” So I stayed with my grandmother, who gave me unconditional love, and I kept writing. I wrote a play, and I directed that. I started slowly building a community in the Bay area, and I was healed. I found this new strength after going through something really, really traumatic. Failing—failing—moving back, going through something really traumatic, taking the time to take care of myself, and then picking myself up and taking that next step forward because I knew—I knew—that I am an artist, that I am supposed to be an artist.
I know that I’m preaching to the choir here: this game ain’t easy. It’s not easy, right? There’s pain involved. There’s failure involved. The mark of who we are is what happens after we fail. What do we do? We pick ourselves up and keep going.
So I’m in the Bay area, and this is where the next level of advocacy started happening. I had to teach the Bay area community how to work with me and how to open their doors to more persons with disabilities. I made the agreement with myself: that “Marilee, you’re going to go out and you’re going to stay open and curious and engage in any and all conversations that come toward you. Because half your job is artist and half your job is advocate.” I walk into that, and I walk into every room carrying both those banners. Sometimes I don’t want to. Sometimes I just want to be an artist. I do, I really do. But I know that because I’m the first, I have to be an advocate. It’s my responsibility to, because if I don’t, no one will.
So I’m getting into those rooms, and I’m getting cast, and my craft as an actor is getting more and more developed, and my craft as an advocate is getting more and more developed. I’m figuring out what I need and how to ask for it. That’s a hard thing to do, because things can change, especially in my business. Not all theaters are the same. Not all directors are the same. I get new bosses every three months. I have to go into a new space, assess, and then communicate, and then negotiate. This is kind of a fun thing: I was in a show, and this was me accommodating for myself, because most of the time I’m figuring out for myself how to do things. I was in a show called Salomania, and it was about Salome. I played five different characters, one of which was a soldier boy. [speaking in a Cockney accent] A Cockney soldier boy who’s a lovely little boy. [in her normal voice] The opening scene was five of us soldiers—I was the only woman, by the way—launched ourselves over a ten-foot ledge, with a rifle and a bayonet attached to it. The first time we rehearsed it the director said, “Everybody run, jump over this thing, and land on the ground safely.” I’m like, okay, this is—um, all right. Because I’m that person that’s like, “I will figure it out.” You tell me I can’t, I’ll go off and figure out how to do it and come back, like, “Here you go.” Because they’re not going to know, God bless those sighted people, they’re not going to know. So he throws all of us this blocking (blocking is staging)—I forgot to say, we’re in full battle gear and gas masks. He says, “Okay, let’s do it.” And I couldn’t do it. And he said, “Do we need to change the blocking?” And I said, “Just give me a sec, Mark.”
When I can’t do things, the first thing that happens is I feel pain; I feel frustrated, I feel pain. I often shed a few tears to myself. Then I grit up. I turned around to him, and I said, “Do what you need to do; I’m going to talk to the stage manager, and I’m going to rehearse this after rehearsal is over.”
And that’s what I did. I got the stage manager, and I went through and marked every single spot where my foot and my hand needed to go. I did it over and over and over and over. I did it dozens and dozens and dozens of times until it was complete muscle memory. I didn’t need any eyesight at all—at all—at all.
On opening night we’re all running from backstage up on this ledge. And the guys come over, and I fly over, and my body is doing what I just trained it to do because I’d been rehearsing it literally hundreds of times after rehearsal, over and over again. I fly over. I land on the ground, bayonet in hand, and I realize: I did it. I just did this. And I didn’t kill anybody! This is awesome!
So that’s just one little story—I realize I’m going over time. Two minutes Mark? Thank you. I want to jump fast fast-fast-fast-forward to this NCIS experience. [cheers] It was awesome, y’alls. It was awesome. Let me tell you this: going into the room, I took this job very seriously, not only as an actor but as an advocate, because I knew this was a big deal. I knew this was a huge deal for NCIS, for CBS, for me personally, and for the community. In the audition room, usually casting directors ask, “Do you have any questions?” I said, “No, do you?” I just opened up the conversation. After I got cast the executive director and the director called me and said, “This is so wonderful—you’re going to be with us, wonderful—we—how do we—so we’re going to be working—you’re blind, so how—what, um? All right.” This is what I said to them: “Don’t worry, it’s going to be great. You’re going to love it.” THEY wanted to know, though. They were scared. I wasn’t; they were.
That night I wrote a cheat sheet on how to work with me. A cheat sheet! I’d never done that before. I wrote down “This is my disability; this is how I see; this is how it manifests; these are the identifiers I like; you can call me blind, legally blind, partially-sighted, partially-blind; you cannot call me handicapped. I don’t go by that. I was just laying it out: boom, boom, boom, boom. “Director: If you’re giving me direction, I may not look at you, but I am listening. Also, if you could wear feathers, that would be great.” So I’m throwing out a few jokes here and there.
Well, it turns out that this little cheat sheet I sent them is circulated through the entire NCIS production team, through CBS—I booked another show while I was on CBS, flew to Toronto, that cheat sheet had made it all the way over to Toronto. “We love your cheat sheet; it’s really great; we get you now.”
All this to say, and I know that you all understand this, that self-advocacy is so huge, especially when you are the first, second, third, and any number through the door. We have to speak up for ourselves. We have to carry a large vision for ourselves when the world doesn’t have that vision for us.
I want to leave you with one thing. This is a quote that I read and that I still read over and over and over again. It is by Marianne Williamson. Perhaps you have heard of this quote; I’m sure you have: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?The intention I want to leave with you, the intention that I have for myself, and the intention that I have for all of you is: own your fabulousness. Own it. Own your absolute uniqueness, and own your power to be the magnificent creators of your destiny and dreams! Thank you.