Wyoming Birthday Yellowstone, May 2014

Wyoming BirthdayWe drove into Yellowstone Park to celebrate my birthday. Harris, Carlene, Dennie  and  Nancy,  David and I.  We left Cody and drove towards the Wappedy school on the banks of the Shoshone river. Along the way those of us with eyes spotted a few big horn sheep. They described to me  Horses grazing in the foreground   on the new spring grass with many newborn foals nursing.   We were surrounded by  the snow covered peaks of Heart, Rattle Snake and Carter mountains. I couldn’t believe how much snow there were still on the peaks, whereas down on the flatland in Cody and the adjacent ranches the temperature rose into the eighties every day. Stores in town had planters with an array of blooming flowers and Lilac bushes and Mayday trees bloomed in gardens and along the road.    Though I was looking forward to our hike in the park, I was nervous.

Since  rumors of bear attacks abounded,  I certainly didn’t want my face taken off like what happened to a rancher last year. I hoped everyone    will be on alert. Dennie was the only one who carried bear spray. How would we know if bear spray is enough to prevent an attack.

We stopped for me to get out and to hear the long horn sheep graze on the prairie grasses. While we stood along side the road an ambulance came screaming by at an heart stopping speed. When I hear an ambulance speed by I always say a prayer for the medics and the person in need. On that golden morning I couldn’t help wondering if there was another attack. We stood in respectful silence as it sped by. I have often wondered how one gets medical help in those remote places and hoped this ambulance will be in time to save a life.

We drove on to the East gate of the park where we got out to use the facilities. A park ranger gave us information on the park and lo and behold he had a grisly bear skin which I touched. Bear pelt is  still the softest and thickest sensuous  pelt I’ve  ever touched.  Guess that is why one has fantasies of making love on such a skin.

We left the ranger and his pelt behind as we drove through the gate into the Yellowstone Park.

Our intension was to  hike a trail before the celebratory dinner at the Yellowstone lake Hotel. We arrived at the first trail only to find that it was closed due to bear danger, the second trail had the same warning posted and the third trail was pure mud from melting snow.

We gave up our hiking plans and continued on to the lake. The lake was still mostly frozen. They described to me the hues of whitenesses where the water was frozen and the blue hues where the water started defrosting.   We strolled on the shore. Before long we   found a downed tree trunk to sit down for a tasting of Dennie’s primo whisky. Dennie is a whisky aficionado and carries the whisky in an elegant container and serves it in tiny communion like glasses.  I sipped as if I did have communion for where is God’s grace more tangible than when one is  sitting with friends,  serenaded by meadow larks and perfumed by pine trees.


After a  lunch of fresh fish and salad topped off with  a creamy dessert at the lake hotel,   we took off again.   We stopped along the way to hike  up a ridge where we saw others with binocs. evidently they spotted moose and buffalo and far be it from us to miss a sighting of these creatures.

We found a rock out cropping overlooking  the lake.   Harris offered his gift- an elegant sparkling wine he brought along for the birthday toasting.  We toasted at this most unusual spot where the wind whispered through the fur trees and where here and there I could hear ice cracking in the bright afternoon sun.

Though I speak of ice and snow the day felt golden on my skin. Where ever we walked or sat the sunlight energized and excited me. It seemed to me as if I could see the blessed  blue of the sky with here and there clouds billowing   above me. I imagined the snowcapped mountains and the Indian Paint Brush and Blue Bells in the valleys. .


On the way back to our hosts’ spread  I dozed off and woke when the SUV crunched over the driveway gravel.

“What a day!” we all shouted when we sat down on the benches inside to take our shoes off.

There I left my shoes but not the joy and memory of a day made perfect by God.



Author and actress to receive both Tennessee’s highest award in the arts and
Tennessee’s top award for empowering artists with disabilities on April 12

NASHVILLE, Tenn., April 12, 2011 – Most of us hope to live a long life. That’s not enough for author and actress Estelle Condra, who says she has lived two lives in one lifetime.

So it’s only appropriate that she receive two statewide awards for her body of work on one night.

Tuesday, April 12, Condra will begin her evening at the executive residence of Gov. Bill Haslam, where the governor will bestow on her the Distinguished Artist Award. The award is one of three awards given every two years by the Governor’s Arts Awards and Tennessee’s highest honor in the arts.

She will then leave the governor’s mansion for Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where she will receive the Decade Award from VSA Tennessee, the state organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities participate in and express themselves through the arts.

Condra spent her first life seeing the world. She is spending her second life more deeply experiencing the world with all of her other senses. And it’s during the sightless years of her life that she has done her award-winning work.

“The second half of my life has been more about gaining blindness than losing my sight,” Condra said. “I have lived such an interesting life after I was no longer distracted by what I am seeing. A whole new world opened up to me.”

Since she lost her sight 15 years ago, Condra has:

  • Published a book that was named to the American Booksellers Association “Pick of
  • the Lists” and is now in its sixth edition.
  • Written several one woman plays that she has performed in major venues including
  • the Kennedy Center and the 1996 Para-Olympics at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
  • Founded and chaired an organization to recognize teachers who best incorporate
  • arts in the classroom.
  • Organized an international art exchange between school children in South Africa,
  • her native country and Tennessee.
  • Produced a hour-long radio show that was broadcast twice-weekly.
  • Creatively engaged school children throughout Tennessee with her unique
  • perspective on reading and writing.
  • Helped to found VSA Tennessee, which celebrates its 10th anniversary with a full
  • day of activities and performances at Schermerhorn Symphony Center – capped off
  • by awarding the organization’s founders, including Condra.

And that’s just scratching the surface. A complete list of her accomplishments as an artist, author and actress would cover several singe-spaced pages. And that wouldn’t count her many other adventures, such as learning how to sail and to ski on snow and water. Or riding ponies in Mongolia, Lipizzaner stallions in Croatia and camels in Jordon and

“Losing my sight made me less afraid. For instance, when I learned to ski, I was not afraid of the heights, because I couldn’t see them. Instead, I was free to concentrate on the wind in my hair, the sound of the skis crunching on snow, the crisp smell of winter in the mountains. It was wonderful,” Condra said. “It also meant that I had to trust others, because if my guide had not been telling me when to turn, I surely would have skied off a cliff.”

How does someone lose her sight and go on to accomplish more than several sighted people could working together?

First, it helps to be a talented person who has always been fully engaged in life. But we are all aware of gifted people who were felled by a disability, instead of lifted up by it.

The difference is attitude. It’s deciding to understand your situation as “gaining blindness instead of losing sight.” This philosophy is elucidated in her irreverent one woman comedy “Blind People Shouldn’t Vacuum” where she makes fun of sight loss.

Estelle has been described as a “pack of creative dynamite ready to explode.” This is never more evident than in her one woman play “Caged” where she uses textured surfaces, blowing fans, and sound emitters to guide her on stage as she dances, runs, climbs and jumps. In “Caged,” a metaphor about a caged bird with clipped wings, Estelle as the bird eventually comes to accept the cage’s limitations and turns them into an advantage, learning to fly in a new way.

Estelle’s creative work with children is evident in the way she dramatizes her book, “See the Ocean.” In the book, a little girl is able to “see” the ocean through a thick fog when her sighted brothers can’t, and the ocean she sees in her mind is a much fuller and deeper concept than what her brothers see when the fog lifts.

Her special message also comes through in her favorite one-woman show, “Vibrations of Laughter,” where she uses the story of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, to help children see someone overcoming disabilities.

“Learning to trust others makes you more aware of them, more connected to them. And consequently, you become more aware of who you are and how you are connected to the world,” Condra said. “It’s a whole new way of living, and it is living very directly, very deeply. You really learn to experience the world when you are no longer distracted by seeing it.”

Condra credits her husband, well-known Nashville IT entrepreneur David Condra, with helping her to make the most of her situation.

“David is always challenging me to try new things like learning how to ski or learning how to ride a horse. And he never settles for doing things half-way. So I didn’t just learn to ride a horse, I went on a week-long, 25-mile horseback trip over a 10,000 foot pass in the Tetons.

“Because of David’s connection to technology, I also have every tool you can imagine to help me deal with the challenges of blindness, like a computer program that reads emails to me and a talking watch and even a machine that tells the colors of the clothes and jewelry I’m putting on. But everything is not hi tech. I’ve placed around my garden wind chimes that ring at different tones, so I know where I am by the sound of the chime,” she added.
“Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best, which is another lesson I’ve learned since gaining blindness.”


INFORMATION FOR RELEASE CONTACT: Jeff Bradford or Natalie Townsend

Download the Press Release

Comments on Estelle’s performance at MTSU

Estelle performed at the newly remodeled Tucker Theatre at MTSU on September 28. In the audience was a large theater arts class. The students afterward wrote their thoughts on the performance, a few of which are posted below. Thanks to Jeff Gibson for sharing these.

Here are a few of the essay responses written by the students:

Vibrations of Laughter: Life of Annie Sullivan by Estelle Condra was a one-woman show about Annie Sullivan and her life, from the early years to her job working with Helen Keller. While I liked the first in-class performance, I liked this one much more because not only was it more humorous, but it was also still very enlightening. Her occasional joking and her playing the part of Annie’s schoolmate made the performance funny, laid back, and even gave it some more life. It made the time go by a lot faster- it did not feel like it lasted forever, and I did not start tuning out. The portion in which she played explained how Annie turned out is what was enlightening. It showed that even though Annie had a hard time being blind and trying to learn, she worked hard enough to overcome her disability, graduated as valedictorian, and after learning to see was able to make a career out of helping someone that went through the same things she had gone through. So I think the performance was somewhat of a lesson. And that is if you want something enough, you can have it; you just have to be work hard and never give up. And I think that is something we all forget at some point.

In Estelle Condra’s “Vibrations of Laughter: Life of Annie Sullivan”, the story of Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, and how she struggled with being blind, poor, and orphaned; told through four different characters: The lady who took care of Annie at the nursing home, A child from her school, The wife of the principal of her school, and Annie herself. I loved this performance! It kept my attention the whole time with different accents and a very moving story.  The accent for the older lady at the beginning was phenomenal. I also thought the changing of characters through shedding clothing was very creative. Also, the queues in changing scenes seemed exact;  I knew when a new character was coming before the change of clothing by Estelle’s change in gesture and posture. For example, when the elderly women became the girl you could tell by Estelle’s playful movements. The story was greatly put together and definitely held my attention and I hope to see another of Estelle’s performances.

“Vibrations of Laughter: The Story of Annie Sullivan”, produced, written and performed by the amazing Estelle Condra was a very emotional, thought-out one woman show. I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Condra’s portrayal of Annie Sullivan along with a handful of other characters she acted to get her play better across to the audience. I experienced tears myself when she was describing the feeling of her brother dying. I laughed when she kicked the superintendent, not so much because the thought of it but I could see her being deviant in a child-like manor portrayed by a grown woman. I had tears when she graduated her school but they were bittersweet. I was proud of her that she graduated but scared for the world she was entering blind and the life she faced ahead. It was interesting to hear some of the ways of someone blind, like knowing the footsteps of people. Also, how she made her way about stage with the simple feeling of her feet on mats on the ground, but seemed so complex to fathom to me….someone that is not blind. I asked the question afterwards, “How do you know when the lights come up?” It was funny to know that it was through one clap by your hands, and then the class saw you clap and thought, “Oh, we’d better clap as well if the professor is.” I’ve never been to a performance where it began with a round of applause, now I know why. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance as it gave me a slight insight of some of the trials blind people face and triumph of when they overcome; it is a true play and I will honestly remember.

Vibrations of Laughter: Life of Annie Sullivan, performed by Estelle Condra,
is a play about the struggles of a once blind little girl, who grows up and ends up teaching Helen Kessler, who is blind and deaf, how to communicate and learn. In our previous play about Helen Kessler, I said that I didn’t like one-man plays, however this one completely changed my attitude towards them. I liked the fact that the actress never went from character to character, for example having dialog with herself or doing flashbacks, but she let each character talk about their feelings towards Annie and let the play progress that way. I also liked her wardrobe changes, which helped the audience visualize each character. In the Helen Kessler play, the actress only wore a dress, so it was hard for me to follow her. Throughout the play I did not know that Ms. Condra was blind. I believe she is a wonderful actor and that the life of Annie Sullivan was a good topic to write a play on. Often writers and actors only focus on “amazing” individuals, but never talk about the people who helped them become “amazing” and Ms. Sullivan’s story was definitely worth sharing.

Vibrations of Laughter: The Story of Annie Sullivan,” was written and produced by Estelle Condra in 1994.  I thought this play was amazing because Estelle made it extremely upbeat and entertaining.  She did a wonderful job switching into all of the different characters and portraying all of their unique voices and parts.  I thought that her tone and vocal was perfect because it was loud enough for everyone to hear, and she was able to change it from old to young whenever she needed to.  She did a great job adding humor to the play when she acted as certain characters, such as the little girl when she happily danced around at school.  I was stunned by her ability to put on such a remarkable and complex show with her disability.  The way she used the textured mat as a guide onstage showed how hardworking and talented she is.  Estelle Condra put on an awesome performance, and well informed her audience about the life of Annie Sullivan.

The play, “Life of Anne Sullivan” performed and written by Estelle Condra is about the remarkable life of Anne Sullivan told from people throughout her life and finally from her own point of view when teaching Helen Keller.  I found this play remarkable in the performance by Estelle Condra and strongly motivating from the story of Anne Sullivan’s strong character. The fact that Estelle Condra put on this amazing performance while she herself is blind, is astoundingly impressive. That in itself makes the performance that more powerful.  Anne Sullivan’s story of struggle and success is one to make any feel motivated to push through their challenges, for example: Anne becomes valedictorian of her school by overcoming her disability of sight, starting school at a much later age, and the ridicule of her classmates. She overcomes the negative judgment of Captain Keller when she finally teaches Helen how to connect the world with what she is spelling. Motivation is a reoccurring theme throughout this play about a strong and determined woman. I was moved by this performance and by the story of Anne Sullivan’s life, a life we all could strive for.

Jeff Gibson

Interim Chair
Department of Speech and Theatre
Middle Tennessee State University

The Hands of my Friend

During my latest visit to South Africa, I reunited with my friend Martie who was my roommate at Helpmekaar, a performing arts High school for girls in Johannesburg. We reminisced over our time there and proudly reminded each other that even the New York Times once proclaimed our school as the best in the country.

The requirements for university were a science and three languages. English, Afrikaans, and German were my languages and Math instead of straight science or biology. For the life of me I don’t know how I ever passed math with my failing eye sight.

Martie came to my aid with the three languages. She helped me matriculate by reading all our prescribed literature aloud to me.  Martie read to me Macbeth, the Merchant of Venice, Othello from our English syllabus and many other scripts in Afrikaans and German.  Some  works I’ve remembered, others  have flown the coop of my memory. However, I’ll never forget how we sat together in the branches of the mulberry tree after school with our books.

The mulberry tree grew in the garden of Fredora, an old mansion that housed the boarding girls of our school. I listened intently to Martie’s rich alto voice and concentrated to keep the information in my mind for the upcoming written and oral exams. Martie had the habit to twist the hair of her bangs with the fingers of one hand as she read. From time to time I interrupted with a question. She patiently re-read a passage and patiently spelled words I was unsure of. We discussed the play plots, the characters, the settings, and guessed at the questions we might get during the exam.

One never knows during the carefree high school years where one’s paths would lead. We set goals and hoped to reach them.  My goal was to pursue a career in   theatre arts and Martie’s a career in    voice and music. during my visit in January 2010  we reflected on where our life paths led us from      the mulberry tree reading till now.

Martie said “you prepared me for my future.  Helping you when you were losing your sight taught me perseverance, patients, and endurance.”

“Because of you“, I responded gratefully, ”I graduated from High school and went to the University of Pretoria to study theatre arts. Thanks to you reading aloud to me and to Professor Botha who believed in me I reached my goal.”

Later on in my career I became totally blind. Though blind today and after all those years,  I still perform either as a keynote speaker, story teller or actress  in one of a variety of my own one woman shows.

After graduating from university Martie also pursued her career of teaching music, voice and directed choirs and operettas. She got married to Dirk Uys and started a family. They have four children.  Martie’s  life changed when her youngest  daughter Ellim at the age of seventeen  had a brain injury during an horse riding accident and became wheelchair-bound.   Martie’s other three children grew up and followed their own dreams but Ellim is at home with Martie and Dirk in their farmhouse adapted for the wheel chair.

During our visit Martie handed me a jar of preserves  she had made from apricots she picked from her trees on her farm  near Bethlehem in the Drakensberg.

“Something to remember me by there in America,” She said.

How could I ever forget her? The one who was patiently reading and spelling to me while I was silently losing my sight due to Retinitis Pigmentosa.  How could I ever thank her enough as we sat there in a court yard of a South African restaurant. We sat side by side under a tree like so many years ago. We were together as if the more than forty years didn’t pass like the blink of an eye. I lifted my glass of wine in salute to her.

Daily in rain or thunder, in sunshine and starlight Ellim is always dependant on Martie’s hands. Martie’s hands that massaged the useless legs, the injured spine. Those same hands cooked the apricot jam and brought it to this place to give to me. Those hands that have to lift her daughter of nearly 30 years of age from her wheel chair into a bath, onto a toilet seat or into bed. Those hands who picked her daughter up for dead but persisted with rehabilitation when others thought it was in vain. Martie’s hands guided Ellim’s, taught Ellim to re-learn and regain the use of her hands. Ellim can knit and sew today.

“Walk away” they told Martie and dirk at the hospital after the accident. “Forget you had her, she’ll never recover and if so she’ll be a vegetable.”

The hospital personnel didn’t know my friend like I did. Martie stayed at Ellim’s bedside for months and    sang and talked to her while she was in a coma. When Ellim finally came out of the coma she couldn’t speak. Martie brought a flute to the hospital and held it to Ellim’s lips and thus   embarked on restoring Ellims speech.     Her knowledge of voice   production as a voice coach served her well. She encouraged Ellim to breathe out through the flute. This was a slow and difficult process. Hour after hour, day after day week after week Martie encouraged exhaling through the flute. Eventually Ellim produced a small sound in the flute with her out coming breath. This was the first positive sign the diaphragm and muscles in   Ellim’s lungs and throat were strengthening.  By using this technique Martie eventually coached Ellim to turn sound into words.  It was an uphill battle and long and drawn out process to reawake the speech faculties of the brain as well, but today Ellim can speak.

I took the apricot preserves from Martie’s hands  with so much admiration and respect .  I know when I’ll eat it in Nashville I won’t share it with anyone for it is precious, almost holy. When I eat it will be on special bread in celebration of my friend Martie’s hands.