When legally blind actor, comedian and voice teacher Leslye Orr was growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., she had a near-fatal incident that scared the adults in her life but barely fazed her. As a 4-year-old anxious to play outside, she didn’t look both ways as she crossed a busy street.
“In those days, parents did things, and it was nothing for me to be out by myself,” she said. “There was a red truck coming. I thought it was going to stop, but it didn’t. So I lay down in the street, and it stopped over me. I crawled out from under it, and it was outrageous. The guy ran over my kite.”
Orr, who runs Dreamland Arts with her actor/director husband, Zaraawar Mistry, shares stories of her childhood in “What I Thought I Saw: Random Acts of Blindness,” her one-woman show that plays this weekend only in Minneapolis.
“What I Thought I Saw” kicks off the 26th annual Fresh Ink series of new works at Illusion Theater. Subsequent shows are “Jeffrey Hatcher’s Hamlet,” a one-person memory play sparked by something that happened to him in fifth grade; and an expanded version of “Fruit Fly: the Musical,” a Fringe Festival hit by performers Sheena Janson and Max Wojtanowicz and composer Michael Gruber, about a deep friendship between a gay man and a straight woman.
“We don’t go into Fresh Ink with a theme, but often there ends up being one,” said Michael Robins, executive producing director at Illusion. “This year it feels like all three pieces are exploring early personal histories that became influential to their destinies as artists.”
When she was growing up, Orr, 57, regarded her impaired vision as something other than a disability.
“I thought I was in one of those wacky contests where you’re given a challenge like having a marshmallow hanging from a string with your hands tied behind your back and blindfolds on,” she said. “I wouldn’t tell people I’m legally blind, just that I don’t have any depth perception.”
The subtitle of her show, “Random Acts of Blindness,” allows her to get the most interesting aspects of her childhood in the piece, which is directed by Mistry.
Orr remembers when she turned 14, and got her farmer’s driving permit. “Eleven friends and I went into a two-door sedan, and I just drove and drove around,” she said. And she used to baby-sit for the children of neighbors in Sioux Falls.
“Who lets a half-sighted person baby-sit their children now?”
She moved to the Twin Cities after high school for an apprenticeship at Children’s Theatre. She has called Minnesota home since, even when she left for a spell to study voice in New York City.
“I realized I wasn’t going to be cast in too many things, so I had to find a way to continue to do what I love,” she said. That has included running Dreamland Arts and performing throughout the Twin Cities.
“I wanted to be a ballerina as a girl,” she said. “That was not to happen. But I’ve made a life on the stage.”
Hatcher, who adapts books and writes original plays, has similar threads in his story. He remembers that he was a chubby, bespectacled fifth-grader in Mrs. Smith’s class at Stark Elementary School in Steubenville, Ohio. She was well known for her annual theater productions. One day, Hatcher suggested she do “Hamlet.”
“I don’t think I raised my hand to do a production of ‘Hamlet’ because I wanted to teach people about Danish history,” he said. “I wanted to show off.”
To his surprise, Mrs. Smith agreed. And she put Hatcher in charge of the effort.
The experience more than set his path; it gave him a taste of fulfillment and freedom.
“You know how you go into a room, or a spa or something where you feel free, like all your arms and legs and everything is not constrained anymore?” Hatcher said. “That’s how putting on ‘Hamlet’ made me. I had never been comfortable in that classroom until then. The play made the space feel like a home for me.”
Hatcher has become one of the most visible playwrights in the Twin Cities by working nationwide, doing both original works and adaptations. He just returned from New Orleans, where he has been working on a stage adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” The 1980 novel, which won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously, has bedeviled adapters in the past and is considered something of a cursed project in Hollywood.
“Fresh Ink has been a lucky venue for me,” Hatcher said. “Most of the shows [that began there] have gone on and done very well.” That roster would include “Three Viewings,” which started there, “No Strings” and “Good and Plenty.”
He also gets to be onstage for “Hamlet.” In the past decade or so, Hatcher’s stage roles have been few. He acted in Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita” for Torch Theater back in 2006.
“Theaters are not calling to see me,” he said wryly.
He is delighted to be onstage and to talk about Hamlet, a character he thinks is misapprehended by not just the public but by directors, as well.
“Almost every Hamlet that we can find a photograph of is sleek, slim, blond, lithe,” he said. “The trend has been to cast a Mr. Athlete for the dueling scene, for the fight choreography. But if Hamlet is that powerful and that sleek, why is no one afraid of him?”
Hatcher thinks it makes more sense that Hamlet be played by a pudgy, bespectacled actor, like Simon Russell Beale or himself (from fifth grade and today).
“Hamlet has unseen qualities,” he said. “I say, well, the pudgy kids can do it, too. So take heed, you trim and athletic young people, the fat days are coming.”