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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

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.

Running on the lip of the ocean.

I’m running on the lip of the ocean, between the lisp of the waves and the silence of the sand. My feet crunch over crusty shells and coral. I feel free, so free.   I swing my arm, pumping hard with elation. …but I feel unbalanced.  I lift my knees,  lean into the breeze … yet  I feel unbalanced.

I remember my days on the track flying between the white lines listening to the applause when I was our school’s champion short distance runner. My friends said I ran like a gazelle. But that was long ago before black blindness came and this is now and I feel unbalanced.

Suddnely I realize why. Only one arm pushes.  Only one hand strokes the wind.  My other hand is in my pocket keeping my arm still by my side.

For all the many years of blindness I’ve walked with a white cane or a sighted guide, holding my cane or  holding onto an arm or hand. Both arms had forgotten how to work together while running and walking. I pluck my hand from my pocket and throw my arm out. I windmill my arms and skip  with happiness at this realization.   At last I’m in balance! I run and run on the lip of the ocean, between the lisp of the waves and the silence of the sand. My ears are in tune with the eb and flow of the waves.  My heart speaks deep wishes for many more unencumbered runs on isolated beaches towards the laughter of my husband.

Estelle...Untethered on the beach
Estelle...Untethered on the beach

Eluthera  09

Art for the soul and finger tips

For the ninth year I was privileged to attend the Rendezvous Royale art auction and show at the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre in Cody, Wyoming.  I was allowed to touch the selected sculptures while my husband had the challenging task of describing the paintings to me.

The sculptures for the auction were ingeniously arranged among the paintings for their dramatic impact on the sighted visitors, but for me the exhibit unfolded inch by inch as the mystery of the pieces were revealed through my hands.   My hand-eyes interpreted the eye-hand creations for my mind’s eye.

At the entrance to the gallery I heard water. My husband guided my hands around a container.  I hugged the container to gauge the size of it, put my hands inside and found the water. With my wet hands I trace the figure.  At first I have no concept of the piece, but slowly my fingers found a life size grizzly bear sitting with one leg inside the water and the rest of him on the rim.  “Reach” said David and like the bear I was after the trout.  I had to stand on my toes to reach the tail of the fish. I explored the bronze grizzly who had plucked a trout from the stream by the Honored artist, T. D. Kelsey.  Just like the old instant photographs an image of the whole slowly developed under my hands.

As we wandered through the art, my fingers rolled over the finely executed shapes of man and beast.  I delighted in the contrast between the most subtle features and the bold, dramatic actions. The theme in the museum is western and, under my hands, bronze cowboys herded cattle, broncos bucked, a fawn galloped, steer, elk, and goat horns pricked my palms.   I could smell the metal and distinguished between rough and smooth surfaces.  I explored sculptures of Native Americans  in full regalia. Dainty bronze details of buttons on coats, the weft in a woven blanket, fish scales,  eagle feathers and wind in a horses main.  I’m overwhelmed by the precision and balance of the figures full of action and purpose.  Abstracts in marble wood, bronze and   glazed clay stirred my imagination. Such was the interaction I’ve had with the art during the festival.

Behind every piece is a story. Discovering the sculptures is like reading a book. My fingers start at the beginning of the book not knowing the ending.  As I touch along the plot develops into a surprise ending. The story book event sculpted by Vic Payne, called “train wreck,” affected me in this manner.   David placed my hands on a bear standing at attack. At first a bear on his hind legs is all that’s there for me.  Gradually I traced along a tree, then…oh my, a cowboy on a rearing horse trying to get away from the bear.  That is not the end yet!  Behind the cowboy is his pack mule loaded with the spoils of his hunt, elk meat and the trophy. Each detail acutely shaped to tell the tale. Though the bronze was cold under my fingers, the heat of the conflict was tangible. I imagine this scene could have taken place in the Thoroughfare, the wilderness outside Yellowstone, where I myself have ridden on a narrow mountain trail. Goose bumps spread over my arms and my scalp began to tingle as I remembered the narrow passage where no horse can turn around and flee leave alone with a pack mule in tow.

A scenario sprang to life as I caressed the delightful piece “And then what…?” by Charlie Ringer. Through the vitality of one of the cowboy figures I perceive a yarn is being spun and the reaction to the tale is conveyed in the body language of the listeners.  I stroked the dwarf-sized cooking utensils and other cowboy paraphernalia which surrounded the tiny campfire. If I could, I would have shrunk myself, climbed up to sit and listen to the tale and of course take a sip from the teensy bottle.

The task of describing the paintings rested on David’s shoulders. He painted with words what he saw on the canvases. A mountain lion ready to pounce, a laughing cowgirl introducing a little red hen to her horse. A rainbow colored grizzly bear, a trapper with his canoe…on and on he translated shape color and pictorial instance while I experience the paintings through my ears.

Usually art is inaccessible for the blind visitor, but during the art show and auction I’m allowed to touch the selected sculptures. In the galleries as well touch is welcomed for the visually impaired.

In sue Simpson’s gallery I touched work by T.D. Kelsey inspired by his latest trip to Africa.  Sue herself guided my fingers over three bronze Masai boys standing on one leg in a yoga-like position. These three comrades had their arms around each other, perhaps   talking or telling a tale or watching over their cattle. While probing     a stately  Masai warrior with his spear delicately balanced I listened to the voices of customers, excited over the display of art and I felt grateful for the inclusiveness of this exhibit.

My favorite touch experience in the Simpson gallery named “Field Trip” was of a female lion carrying one cub in her mouth while the other little one was following behind her. I immediately connected with my roots through the sculpture for, as a child in South Africa, this kind of scene was described to me in the Kruger National Park where when a cub gets tired the cub’s mother will carry it in her mouth for a while as they trekked from an old den to a new one.

For me, to experience art is to connect with art, and to connect with art is to experience art.  That is how it was again at the Rendezvous Royal art show and auction late September of 2009.