Director returns to theater after vision loss

MOOREVILLE – Mackenzie Westmoreland leaned against a stage in Mooreville High School’s gymnasium, listening sharply as a prince and an enchantress conversed just above him.
What he heard did not match the tableau he saw in his mind. The blind director knew that the characters were too far apart.
Westmoreland asked the two students rehearsing for the school’s performance of “Beauty and the Beast” to move closer to each other, and then to hum so that he could determine their appropriate locations on the stage.
That instruction to hum wasn’t premeditated.
“It just came naturally,” Westmoreland said. “Sometimes I’m aware of using a trick and sometimes I’m not.”
Directing plays is nothing new to Westmoreland, who has directed many off-Broadway productions in New York through the years. Directing without vision is.
Not long after Westmoreland lost his sight in August of 2009 because of diabetes, he came to Tupelo’s REACH Center for the Blind, which helps newly visually impaired individuals become independent.
While there, he was connected with Faye Saxon, the drama teacher for the Lee County School District. He agreed to help direct productions of “Beauty and the Beast” at both Shannon and Mooreville High Schools, and he travels to each school three times a week.
It is the first time he’s directed since losing his vision. He wanted a chance to “test drive” those skills.
“I never lost my confidence that I could still do it, but there is a big difference between thinking you could do it and actually doing it,” said Westmoreland, who plans to return to New York in the spring and continue directing off-Broadway productions there.
“It is a self-esteem boost. Prior to this experience, I knew I could work with actors on developing character one on one. I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to explain mentally to actors the pictures I see in my head.”
While Westmoreland learns to adjust his career to his new condition, the students at both schools get the opportunity to work under an experienced theater man. Many of them raved about how well he’s helped them grasp their characters.
“It’s like he has a mental image of where everything is,” said Shannon High School senior Josh Phillips. “It’s like he can see the stage.”
Added Mooreville junior Stefanie Watts: “It is like he has a little box, and he opens the box and what is inside is what our character is supposed to be.”
Saxon and Westmoreland have been able to complement each other. Many times, Saxon critiques the rehearsing actors on body language and movements, while Westmoreland listens carefully to their voices and encourages them to better develop their characters. She’s the eyes, and he’s the ears.
“He thinks of all kinds of ideas that I would not have thought about,” Saxon said. “He is encouraging and helpful, and I will miss having him.”
Both schools will perform the play during the middle of November. They will act for younger students first before holding a public performance. Shannon’s will be on Nov. 11, and Mooreville’s is on Nov. 16.
As much as the students learn about acting from Westmoreland, they are also learning about something much larger by watching the way he has carried himself.
“He has not given up on life, and I’m so thrilled they have an opportunity to see him going on with his life,” Saxon said. “These kids will have things happen to them. I think they will think back on this experience and remember that MacKenzie didn’t give up even though he is blind.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal