Listening at the theater

You’ve got a head start in this world if you don’t mind doing what it takes to get the job done.
When Mississippi native Mackenzie Westmoreland moved to New York about 12 years ago, he knew he wanted to be involved with theater.
But they don’t hand out directing jobs to just anyone who moves to “The City,” as Westmoreland calls it.
By day, he worked in the marketing department of a television and music video production company.
“I was working my day job to pay the rent,” the 40-year-old said, “and at night, I was producing and directing theater because that was my passion.”
He meant to say that directing was his passion. Producing is one of those things he had to do.
“Sometimes, if you want the work to go up, you have to be a producer,” he said.
Westmoreland raised money, found the venue and dealt with tech crews. Basically, he handled all of the details that had to be done so he could be a part of The City’s theater scene.
“I was used to working with set designers in college, where they had a place to build sets,” he said. In The City, “I had to find the place to build sets. It’s a different mind-set.”
Theater is a collaborative art, and Westmoreland sought help from whomever was willing to give it.
“I carried a list around,” he said. “When people said, ‘How can I help?’ I pulled out my list.”
In his world, the top of the mountain would be a full-time job with health insurance in the New York theater community.
“I was climbing,” he said. “I was close.”
He’s in Tupelo these days because he’s experienced a setback that’s put his climb on temporary hold.
“I lost my sight last August. It’s kind of weird. It’s not even been a year,” he said. “I went to bed able to see. The next day, I was blind. It was very sudden. I woke up one morning and couldn’t see.”
He later learned that he had complete retinal detachment in both eyes. The condition was brought on by diabetes.
All he knew that August morning was life had changed in a dramatic fashion. At first, his mind raced with questions, concerns and anxieties.
“After that first 10 minutes, I thought to myself that there are hundreds of thousands of blind people who get along fine. If they can do it, I can do it.”
He realized he needed to learn how to be independent again, and he didn’t want to do that in The City.
He moved back to Mississippi and heard about REACH Center for the Blind in Tupelo, where he enrolled in April.
“You just have to find out the plan and do it as you go. That’s the way I learned to do theater,” he said. “I learned from each show and went into the next show knowing that much more.”
At REACH, he’s working with a cane to get around, finding new ways to manage his money and figuring out how to adapt to everyday challenges.
“I’m learning the skills to be independent again,” he said. “I always knew I was going to return to The City. I knew I was going to return to the theater.”
A blind director will face more challenges than one who can see, but Westmoreland doesn’t have a history of trusting his eyes when he directs.
“Even before I lost my sight, I spent a lot of time really sitting with my eyes closed, listening to the actors,” he said. “To me, an actor’s most important tool is the voice. If you are using your voice properly and you tell the story with the proper emotions, the body follows naturally. I’m a big believer in that.
“That’s one of the reasons being blind doesn’t scare me too much,” Westmoreland continued. “Even before I lost my sight, I depended more on what I heard than what I saw.”
When he returns to New York, he wants to stage “Saturn Return,” a play he wrote with two friends. He’s also interested in directing “Orpheus Rising” and “The Side Man.”
He has dreams.
He has goals.
He has plans.
And he has a history of doing what it takes to get the job done.
Westmoreland expects to finish his curriculum at REACH in the fall, then he’ll focus on reacquainting himself with The City.
“I know it’s going to be difficult to find someone who will give a blind director a chance,” he said, “but I know it can be done.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.

M. Scott Morris / NEMS Daily Journal