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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

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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