SMUDGE by Alex Bulmer, directed by Alisa Palmer, with Diane Flacks, Sherry Lee Hunter and Kate Lynch. Presented by Nightwood Theatre in association with S.N.I.F.F. Inc. at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Previews from Saturday (November 18), opens Wednesday (November 22) and runs to December 10, Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday matinee 2:30 pm. $16-$21, Sunday pwyc. 531-1827.don't even suggest to alex bul-mer that her new play, Smudge, is simply about a woman going blind.That's the narrative surface. But there's lots more beneath, about going through darkness -- some literal, some metaphoric -- and coming out the other side.
Like Freddie, the central character in Smudge, Bulmer was diagnosed 13 years ago with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that destroys all but limited peripheral vision.
"So often these days, my life is an absurdist script, a heightened slip on the banana peel. It's about sitting on a person at the theatre or grabbing someone in the sauna."
We're in the Nightwood offices, where the show -- intended for both seeing and non-sighted audiences -- is being developed with director Alisa Palmer and producer Leslie Lester. The yellow-orange lenses of Bulmer's glasses are almost as bright as her tomato-orange shirt.
She settles into a chair, folding up her cane, while stage manager Fiona Jones places a mug of coffee next to her, telling Bulmer the mug is located at 5 o'clock.
"Then there's the way overly helpful people respond to me when I have my cane. Complete strangers bless me, tell me their life story or make me cross the street when I don't want to."
She laughs. I quickly learn that a conversation with Bulmer includes lots of humour -- she refers to producer Lester as "the blond leading the blind" -- and that comes out in her work.
A small audience knows Bulmer's performing work, in her drag persona as Alvin Calvin Cumberbund in the Boy Choir of Lesbos or her favourite acting gig as Jonesy, "the outrageous blind lesbian tit-grabber," in Sonja Mills's ongoing soap, Dyke City.
But she's also busy as poet, producer, voice coach, teacher, filmmaker and songwriter.
Cruising is another of her favourite activities. She chuckles and leans into the discussion when I ask about the perils of picking up a woman in a bar.
"It's one big problem when you can't see across a crowded room and give someone the hairy eyeball -- or see her giving it to you. But the big benefit is that someone has to come over to me. I feel like a resident queen. And of course, I have to rely on physical contact. I can grab someone and get away with it."
Sometimes the circumstances of meeting other women can be both embarrassing and an ice-breaker. At one party, Bulmer sat down in the hors d'oeuvres, and a woman she didn't know helped her clean up in the bathroom. They went out for the next year.
People find it endearing, she notes with a characteristic smile, when they see others in compromising situations. But then Bulmer turns serious.
"The challenge is different when you're in a relationship, unable to see your lover and her non-verbal reactions. I remember one girlfriend who was less verbal than I am. There was an emotional scene when I couldn't see her crying. The tears weren't in her voice, and she couldn't capture what was on her face in words."
She continues the frank tone, comparing Smudge's tale of loss and change to an elegy for her own sight.
"People think going blind is about your vision becoming darker and darker," she offers, describing the near-psychedelic experience with disarming candour, "but what happened to me was that images began cracking apart into floating pieces. There's fog, and sometimes purple spots.
"Writing the play made me realize -- and fear -- how much I love theatre, which I've been drawn to my whole life. I thought my connection with the arts was over when my sight disappeared, but I've survived. It's been vital to write about it, to reproduce it as a useful experience.
"I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish, but it's amazing how much my early work in the theatre -- things like movement, listening skills, spatial orientation -- help me in my daily life.
"Thank goodness I didn't start out loving to read novels." email@example.comBy JON KAPLAN