Seeing the world in a different way with Kim Kilpatrick, Karen Bailey, Tulia and Stanley

Detail from a Karen Bailey painting of Kim Kilpatrick and Tulia in the National Arts Centre.

Kim Kilpatrick’s one-woman play about being blind, Flying in the Dark, has been performed at stages across Ottawa and in countless classrooms and seniors residences.

And now the blind performer, a veteran member of Ottawa Storytellers, is preparing with prominent visual artist Karen Bailey a unique multi-media show called Raising Stanley/Life With Tulia for a run next summer. The independent production will be staged at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.

The performances July 26 to Aug. 5 will see Kilpatrick on stage telling stories about how blind people perceive the world and negotiate their way, often with the help of a guide dog. (Kilpatrick’s animal helper is Tulia, a nine-year-old black Labrador.) Some of the performances will include sign language interpretation for the deaf.

Kim Kilpatrick and Tulia with Karen Bailey and Stanley in this portrait by Bailey.

As Kilpatrick speaks, Bailey’s paintings from a series called Raising Stanley will be projected onto the back wall of the stage. Stanley is a yellow Labrador Bailey trained while he was just a puppy to become a guide dog. A video animating Bailey’s paintings is in the works and will also be part of the stage production.

An audio recording by Bailey, interspersed with Kilpatrick’s monologues, will describe each painting and provide context to help blind people in the audience understand what is happening on stage. The actual paintings will be exhibited, with accompanying audio description, in the Fritzi Gallery in the GCTC lobby.

“The play has to be so accessible that anyone can get something out of it,” says Kilpatrick, who has a regular radio show about disabilities on CKCU, Welcome to My World. She also tutors other blind people on how to use high-tech gadgets for emailing and other tasks sighted people take for granted and is a vocal advocate for the rights of the disabled, especially blind people battling what one of her friends calls “retinal chauvinists.”

Part of the performance may be held in total darkness. But that issue is under discussion. Kilpatrick’s embrace of dark theatres and her disinterest in lighting does not always sit well with her sighted collaborators.

Kim Kilpatrick and Tulia get involved in an early story meeting.

She loves to tell the story about a lighting technician who forgot to dim the lights at a crucial moment during one of her performances. Later, the technician profusely apologized. The sightless Kilpatrick was unaware of the problem and was unfazed. “It didn’t bother me,” she chuckles.

Bailey and Kilpatrick met almost a decade ago through their mutual interest in guide dogs. Bailey was about to start training puppies and a friend, who also knew Kilpatrick, introduced them. Tulia is Kilpatrick’s fourth guide dog.

At one point, Bailey and Kilpatrick began a lively conversation comparing visual art with on-stage storytelling. They discovered similarities in their respective crafts and their creative approach. (Bailey is perhaps best known as the artist who received the commission to paint the official Rideau Hall portrait of former governor general Michaelle Jean amidst a group of soldiers.)

They decided to collaborate on a performance that would include paintings and storytelling. A mini-version of Raising Stanley/Life with Tulia was executed in 2015 at the RIA Salon, a regular artist discussion group organized by Ottawa artists Petra Halkes and Rene Price.

The script for the production is a work in progress. Bailey and Kilpatrick will be workshopping the play in January with their director Bronwyn Steinberg to finalize the script.

The project has received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Ottawa Community Foundation. Bailey and Kilpatrick hope to take the production on tour across the country.

“Our collaboration will establish a model for accessibility in the arts,” says Bailey. Tickets will go on sale this summer.

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