How do you describe a show you can’t see? Do you go by the sounds? The scents? The sense of motion? Or do you pretend to be like the heroes in eighties and nineties martial arts films and try to “see without seeing”?

I was invited last Thursday to experience two scenes from the play Camille with other members of the local media. The brainchild of Concordia professor Audrey-Anne Bouchard, it’s a multi-disciplinary show specifically designed for those with visual impairments.

Bouchard lives with Stargardt’s disease, a rare macular disorder. After the media preview I had a chance to sit with Bouchard so I asked her about what it is and how it affects her, for when I first saw her, she seemed to have perfect sight.

“I don’t have the gene in my body that eliminates Vitamin A so Vitamin A accumulates itself on my retina and it blocks a part of my sight which is exactly at the center of both my eyes so I use my peripheral vision,” she explained. “I’m quite fortunate that I’m still very autonomous because my peripheral vision is good and I can see and I work with my sight a lot. The hardest is really to read, like to focus on the details. When I go see a show, for example, if I’m not in the first row I will most likely miss an actor’s head or a part of the image – I always miss a part of the image. The closer I am the easier for me it is to put all the pieces together.”

Unfortunately for Bouchard, there is no treatment for the disease yet. In order for Bouchard to see, she has to rely on her peripheral vision, explaining that if she wanted to see into my eyes, she will train her sight a little over my eyebrows because focusing on the center would make them fall into the dead spot of her vision.

Bouchard created the show after speaking with people who were completely blind as they confided in her that they were always feeling that they were missing part of the experience when they went to a dance or a theatre piece. She created the show with the goal of having an experience where people with no sight won’t miss anything and it will be interesting for them.

“Everything is conceived not to be seen. The language that we created is transmitted through the other senses.”

The project started three years ago when the team met with seven people who have different visual impairments and asked them if they would be interested in a show like this. For Bouchard, it was important to have this adventure but only if those for whom the show was created would want to experience it.

The show is multidisciplinary, meaning that it includes multiple forms of art such as dance, theatre, music, and they’re all intertwined. Instead of having one theatre scene, one dance scene, and so on, they are all one “in the language of the show”. The choreography, by Laurie-Anne Langis who is also a dancer and massage therapist, does not just involve dancing to music, it also involves how you approach someone to guide them. The interaction between spectator and performer is part of the choreography of this show.

In order to develop the choreography, the team worked with people with different kinds of visual impairments, some fully blind, some with partial sight. This was important for Bouchard, for despite her disorder, she relies on her sight and works with it a lot.

Over the three years developing the show they had thirty different people come into rehearsal – whom Bouchard refers to as their ‘experts’ – to tell the cast how they would like to be guided. The team also underwent training in partnership with the RAM – the Regroupement des Aveugles et Amblyopes du Montreal metropolitain and they gave the team training on how you guide someone who cannot see, as there are certain specific techniques involved. They even organized activities for the team including a dinner in the dark with other blind people so they got to experience what it was like and get their feedback.

To experience the show, those with sight have to wear a blindfold. Given how much visual impairments can vary, I asked Bouchard how severe would they have to be to wear the blindfold for the show.

“If you can see anything – light, movement, color – you have to wear the blindfold. It’s only if you can see nothing that you won’t wear a blindfold.”

I got to experience two scenes from Camille as part of this media preview. They taught me two things: the first is that we take our sight for granted when humans have so many other senses by which we can process information. The second is that you can still experience theatre without sight.

Prospective audiences should know that there are parts of the show that might make you a little dizzy, and that in order to guide you, the cast will touch you a little during performances, but nothing inappropriate or weird.

If the snippet I experienced is any indication, Camille is going to be a great show. It’s running from September 4th to 22nd at the Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI) and tickets are available through the MAI website.

Accessibilize Montreal, a local group committed to accessibility and “challenging mainstream perceptions of disability through direct action,” took such action last Friday at metro Places des Arts, calling for more accessible transit.

According to the group, currently only 7 of the 68 metro stops in Montreal have elevators and many busses lack functioning ramps. 

Here is an interview in collaboration with Dragonroot Radio with Accessibilize Montreal organizer, Aimee Louw.