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Kansas City Actresses Fight, Make Up And Build Trust In Coterie Theatre's 'The Miracle Worker'

Julie Denesha
Helen Keller, played by Josephine Pellow, and Annie Sullivan, played by Vanessa Severo, battle it out at the water pump as Helen learns her first word. The Coterie Theatre's 'The Miracle Worker' also features ASL interpreters on stage (at left).

As a young child, Helen Keller lost her vision, hearing, and ability to speak. Her teacher, Annie Sullivan, gave her the tools to communicate with the world. Theirs was a friendship that lasted for five decades – and the play about that relationship, The Miracle Worker, opens this week at the Coterie Theatre. 

As part of our monthly series Actors Off-Script, Vanessa Severo (Annie) and Josephine Pellow (Helen) talked about some of the challenges of bringing this story to the stage. 

When I grew up, everyone seemed to have read the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. How much did you two know about them prior to this? Vanessa, I'll start with you.

Vanessa: "I grew up reading it as well. It was one of those assigned things in school. But I always found her very fascinating. She was brilliant, you know, just to overcome all of those things. I was always interested in her from being a young child."

Josephine, what about you?

Josephine: "I didn't know much about Helen Keller. But I watched the 1962 version (of the film) and the 2000 version and me and my mom readthe story of her life. That really helped."

How do you go about preparing to play Helen, who became deaf and blind as a young girl? Are you practicing at home?

Josephine: "I do practice at home sometimes. Before the callback, I walked around with a blindfold and in rehearsals, they have a blindfold on me sometimes. That helps give the feel of what it was like to be blind."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR
Helen Keller (Josephine Pellow) meets Annie Sullivan (Vanessa Severo) for the first time.

This production is being staged in ways that make it more accessible. It's being "shadow interpreted" — meaning there will be American Sign Language interpreters on stage — and relayed via "audio descriptions" by other people. Vanessa, what will this be like for the audience and for you as an actor?

Vanessa: "What would be different about this production than anyone's ever seen is that there are several languages happening at the same time. So you've got the language of the play, which the actors are saying, and then you have the ASL (American Sign Language), and then you have the audio interpretation. I told (Coterie artistic director) Jeff Church, 'I want you to turn around, put your back to the audience at some rehearsal, and close your eyes and not watch the play and see if you can get it from beginning to end.' If that's the case, then we're accomplishing what we're supposed to."

How is shadow interpretation different from having someone sign the show?

Vanessa: "In a typical play, if there is an ASL person, they will be put off kind of towards the corner of the stage with a bit of a spotlight on them,  so you can choose to look there or not but this will be different because they'll be all over the stage with us."

When The Miracle Worker was first on Broadway, the scene where Annie and Helen physically battle over the proper way to use utensils at the dinner table was so grueling it had to come right before intermission. You two don't have that luxury because this is a one-act production. Is the blocking of that scene proving challenging?

Vanessa: (laughs)

I take that as a yes.

Vanessa: "Josephine gets a little breather afterwards but I go right into the next scene and we did it yesterday and I was sweating for about five minutes. It took about five minutes to regain my breath, and maybe it will get easier but I doubt it. It's an intense thing."

Josephine: "Yeah, it's intense."

Vanessa: "We slap each other."

Can you describe that battle for people who maybe haven't seen that scene?

Vanessa: "It's a knockdown, drag-out fight between these two people who are beginning this relationship that is going to last fifty years. It's the first time basically that Helen is being told 'no.'"

Other than being an obvious inspirational story about overcoming barriers, what else do you hope the play will impart to its audiences?

Vanessa: "I think it's simple. Nothing is impossible. To know this is true, that this happened, that this woman accomplished what she did for as long as she did, but it took the two of them, it took that relationship to get there. I think the biggest thing is to count on love and to know that, through that, nothing's impossible.

Are there other messages you hope people will take away?

Josephine: "Yeah, just, like, the trust between Annie and Helen. It's a big relationship between them."

Having played her for a few days in rehearsal, can you imagine what her life must have been like?

Josephine: "I would have been crazy. I don't know. It's pitch black and you can't hear anything. Just stuck in a dark, quiet world. It would have been really hard."

The Miracle Worker, through October 25, at the Coterie Theatre, Crown Center, 2450 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-474-6552.

The Actors Off-Script series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at sewalker@ku.edu

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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