left to right: Seán O'Boyle, Gillian Stafford, Ann Flynn, Desmond Olahan, Glenda Browne.

Review: Sightless Cinema performed live at the Solstice

The Solstice presented a spectacular performance by Sightless Cinema on the 20th of January, featuring eye masks for the audience and surround sound to create a thoroughly immersive experience.

Sightless Cinema is a group of people with vision impairment focused on creating audio theatre. Members of the cinema include Seán O'Boyle, Gillian Stafford, Ann Flynn, Desmond Olahan and Glenda Browne. Since April 2022, the group has collaborated with theatre director Ciaran Taylor to create audio plays at the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan.

As the audience sat in darkness, each audio play was performed in surround sound. The voice actors showed off their range of talents not just through their impressions but also with sound effects, witty banter and creative storylines.

From a hilarious phone call with Vodafone support services to coping with bad neighbours, the group gave a spectacular performance Friday evening, eliciting many laughs from the crowd.

Voice actress Gillian Stafford was one of the first members to join Sightless Cinema, having been introduced to it by Navan's community youth resource worker. "At first I didn't think this was for me but she said to give it a go and I haven't looked back since.

"We have a great team and we're very close," she said. "This year I haven't been a 100% health wise but I know once I walk in that door they'll give me the support that I need." Gillian was first diagnosed with visual impairment at seventeen but it wasn't until last year when she was diagnosed with a genetic condition that she discovered played a part in her overall condition. "We might all have different levels of vision impairment but we're all going through the same type of disability. It's like a safe space."

The stories told that night were based on true experiences from the cast. "We'd throw some ideas out and sit in front of the mics and see what comes from us. Ciaran would say, 'Whatever comes into your head just go with it' and then he puts it altogether."

Gillian explains how her own experiences had inspired two of their stories; 'Turbulence' and 'Please Choose from the Following Option'. "I was in the middle of doing my masters when Covid hit and we were having terrible problems with our broadband and of course all my classes went online. Every week I was ringing trying to get this sorted."

All four stories were recorded in the Solstice. "We have mics and little sound booths and we just sit there and we record." According to Gillian, Ciaran made sure they were just as clueless as the audience when it came to their final performance. "We hadn't heard the finished versions until that night. And I'm sitting in the audience thinking, 'Oh god is this gonna be good?' But it went really well, I'm really happy with it."

Each audience member was also given an optional eye mask to further immerse themselves within each story. With the other senses obsolete, the focus is simply to listen and watch the pictures that are all in your head.

optional eye masks given to audience members.

Using your sense of imagination is key. With it, audience members have the freedom of conjuring up their own ideas for each character. But with the talent of the voice actors, it's pretty simple to imagine these scenarios in great and vivid detail. From the crashing of waves and grass crunching underfoot, to the recoil of a gun, 'Gull Rock' was a story about a boy hunter where the cast really showcased the span of their audio sounds.

'Where's the Beef?' was another comedy on the current energy crisis, featuring a set of lively characters having Christmas dinner together. With the aptitude of Sightless Cinema, it made you feel as though you were seated at that very dinner table.

The group performed live onstage.

Sightless Cinema went on to perform their final radio play live onstage. There they sat before microphones and told an amusing true story called 'Turbulence', featuring a nervous flyer, a man with the giggles, a sour air hostess and a blind woman who just wants to get to Dublin in one piece.

As an advocate for Fighting Blindness, Gillian had some experience with radio but theatre was a different story altogether. "This was my first live performance. It was very daunting being onstage. We'd never done anything like this before.

"It wasn't until our opening night that we realised we did that, we created that and we put that out there. This is our work," she adds. "It was a brilliant experience."

Sadly one of the members, Mark Farrell, passed away a few weeks before opening night. "He loved it. I remember one Friday he said 'I leave my sickness at the door and have the best two hours every week'." Gillian mentions how many members have underlying health conditions in addition to sight loss, and how supportive the group would be. "It's a community. You could be in the worst mood going in Friday and then you'd leave with the biggest smile on your face." Starring in 'Where's the Beef?', Mark's involvement was commemorated in a way other forms of theatre could not compare, and his family in the audience were able to appreciate his talent and love for Sightless Cinema.

In addition to Sightless Cinema, Ciaran is also the founder of White Cane Audio Theatre, based in Dublin. "We'd be lost without him," says Gillian. "Not many people would have this much patience and compassion." She goes on to emphasise the sense of community to be had amongst them. "It's a collaboration."

Currently they're seeking new members. For those thinking of joining, Gillian has a few words to say about it. "Give it a chance. It was only the third week where I realised this was for me. It's a bit of fun, something different. Mixing with new people, getting out of the house for a few hours a week, it's a new challenge."

With tickets ranging from €5-10, attending Sightless Cinema is well worth the experience. Their next performance will take place in November 2023 and no doubt will encompass a new series of equally engaging and madcap stories.