Photos by Laurence Gagnon Lefebvre

A blindfolded theatre experience

Camille: un rendez-vous au-delà du visuel is a play designed for the visually impaired, stimulating all the other senses.

Lodged snuggly in your plane seat, you feel your apologetic neighbour brush past your knees. Passengers chatter, the captain announces the takeoff and a voice hisses, “You’re leaving your friend behind.”

I am blindfolded, sitting in a plush office chair, so my mind is painting in the visuals while performers and music fill out the other sensations in this scene from Camille: un rendez-vous au-delà du visuel, a show at the MAI designed for the visually impaired.

Camille is leaving on a jet plane, leaving her childhood confidant Pierre to grapple with her mysterious departure. The audience is only six people, who must be blindfolded if they have any level of vision.

A team of dancers guide the participants physically through the story and the space. The medium is the message as you’re whisked from a café to a barbershop to a restaurant, while props, voices and sounds create a story that, while light on plot points, is rich in emotion.

Multidisciplinary artist Audrey-Anne Bouchard has been developing this project for years. Bouchard was 18 when she found it hard to read the blackboard in class; she figured glasses would fix her sight. But two years later, Bouchard got her diagnosis: a rare and degenerative condition called Stargardt’s disease. Already committed to studying and practising visual art, Bouchard is now a professor at Concordia University. She has peripheral vision.

“People started questioning me, ‘Isn’t it paradoxical, someone who is losing their sight but is working in theatre?’” said Camille’s director. “And I came to realize how visual (our work is). I became obsessed with the idea of what people who cannot see get from a theatre or dance piece.”

Bouchard surveyed people with visual impairments. They told her they found that the theatre was an “interesting” experience, but they knew they were missing parts of the show.

So six years ago, Bouchard approached Laurie-Anne Langis, a choreographer who also works as a massage therapist. Together, they developed a method of performance that employs touch, sound, taste and smell to tell a story.

“We wanted to move the person into the experience,” explained Langis, who incorporated her massage training and resources on guiding the visually impaired from local non-profit Regroupement des aveugles et amblyopes de Montréal. Dancers are instructed to improvise with the audience, tailoring their movement to different ranges of mobility and comfort.

“It’s really nourishing,” she remarked, contrasting it to dance work on a stage. “It’s really nice and beautiful to be that close to the spectators.”

The pair auditioned their performers three years ago, testing for their ability to touch. They devised scenarios where they could tell a story through the other senses. The plot of Pierre and Camille’s friendship, incredibly, was the next part of development to follow.

Before the 60-minute show began, I stored my belongings in a box, slipped on fuzzy socks and put on a comfortable blindfold.

When we crossed the threshold into the gallery, it took awhile to quiet my brain, which was busy imagining how silly I must look or how my movements compared to the others.

Prompted by careful guidance of the performers, I fell right into the story. I thought of the heroine in the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale who had invisible servants catering to her needs. The experience is incredibly tender and personal. Langis confirmed that audiences reference ASMR, a tingly response many get from watching YouTube videos of breathy roleplaying. After the performance, Bouchard told me that feedback from audience members with visual impairments has been positive.

While the current show can logistically accommodate only a small audience, plans are afoot to develop larger performances, and to teach their method to other organizations.

The world of storytelling is growing ever more complex, with virtual reality, sprawling video games and at-home entertainment. It’s refreshing and hopeful to see such innovation and inclusion for the live theatre experience. ■

Camille: un rendez-vous au-delà du visuel continues at the MAI until September 22. The show is presented in French. Audience members who are sighted or have partial vision will be blindfolded; performers also frequently touch the audience. Tickets: $26, $22