On the early morning of August 25th, 2020, I woke up and began my morning routine, which (like most Americans') usually consists of briefly scrolling through my Instagram feed.
Naturally, as someone who heavily supports and is involved in the arts (with writing as my dominant practice), I follow a plethora of recognizable theatrical, literary, and artistic pages as well as many actors, artists, and writers accounts. The New York Times, Stephen King, Juilliard, Ringling College of Art and Design, to name just a few. And, like many (who lived through 2015 when Lin Manuel Miranda's ground-breaking musical that re-imagined history and the future of theatrical music swept all corners of the globe from its stage all the way in Broadway, NY), I follow the Hamilton official Instagram page.
But on the fateful morning of August 25th, 2020, I would find something besides raving reviews for the (then newly-released) Hamilton film on Disney+ awaiting me on the critically-acclaimed musical's profile. I dare say that that morning, I was welcomed to watch history in the making.
Meeting History in The Making
As I continued my regular, more-than-likey-extensive Instagram scrolling, something on the official Hamilton Instagram page caught my eye. Especially since it's release to the public on Disney+, the Hamilton official social media pages have reposted an abundance of fans' appreciation posts, including multiple works of original artwork, candid covers of the musical's songs, even a video of Christian Williams of the Miami Dolphins absentmindedly humming scores from and discussing the exulted musical with his teammates.
But what made me momentarily hesitate my absentmindedly scrolling was a post that looked, at first, seemingly normal: a smiling girl with frizzy, light brown hair striking a pose in front of a pale green background and an electric piano. Then, the Hamilton ACT I song Wait For It spilled through my earbuds. I watched as the young girl spun around to the lyrics, slowly folding a white guide cane over her head while smiling. In one synchronized movement, she let her cane dramatically unfold and snap to the floor with the chorus 'CLICK! BOOM!'
Shayla, typing using a braille device
In my mind, I registered the video as an affirmation video for the blind or visually impaired, and it was striking.
I instantly felt involuntarily compelled to reach out to the young, radiant girl and learn more about the obvious and abundant ambition I could already predict she undoubtedly had. Seeing as how this was a reposted, fan-made video, I decided to look to the caption under the post for guidance. There, I discovered that the original poster's name was Shayla (Instagram handle @sopranoshayla), and the Hamilton official Instagram page quoted the original caption Shayla used for the momentous post on her Twitter account that would eventually catch the eyes of the esteemed musical: “I used to feel so insecure about using a white cane, but then, I realized that every time I unfolded it, I felt like it was that epic moment at the end of room where it happens and now ever since whenever I unfold my cane I just think, click boom”.
Shayla in August of 2019 with her "beautiful, intelligent hard-working angel", Libi
I decided to proceed to Shayla's account via the convenient tag name that the Hamilton official musical included as credit in their subsequent post.
As soon as her feed flooded onto my screen, I was greeted by what can be most-accurately described as a gallery—of Shayla singing (mostly songs from other Broadway musicals), 'dueting' with popular singing accounts on TikTok, playing piano, and dancing both elegantly and rambunctiously in her bedroom. Her bio, chock-full of emoji, reads simply and sweetly, "Singer |actress |dancer💃🎭🎼❤️ fill the world with music, love, and pride❤️💛💚💙🏳️🌈", but the "simple and sweet" bio is quickly juxtaposed by her fervent posts relating to advocacy for minorities, those who identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, blind and visually impaired actors/actresses and singers, authentic casting, and progressivism as well as diversity in the arts.
When she is not rallying for important and often-overlooked causes, Shayla gives some insight into her personal life: she is openly-lesbian, dreams of being an accomplished actress and singer, she has a loyal and loving guide dog that she was paired with through the Mira Foundation (a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation dedicated to pairing eligible blind children between the ages of 11 and 16 with reliable, furry companions), and she idolizes Renée Elise Goldsberry and Billy Porter (amongst other actors and actresses). In addition to all of this, she also just happens to be blind due to a condition known as retinopathy of prematurity, "a potentially blinding disease caused by abnormal development of retinal blood vessels in premature infants" that affects about 3.9 million infants born in the US annually. While the static appears staggering, only 400-600 infants annually are pronounced legally blind do to ROP (Retinopathy Of Prematurity). Her own medical uniqueness may contribute to her fierceness when it comes to advocating for inclusiveness in the theater, authentic casting, and allowing disabled actors to play "fleshed-out characters" rather than token disabled characters.
Intrigued by everything I had seen so far, I decided to ask Shayla for the chance to interview her, and graciously, she accepted.
If my interview with the budding actress, singer, and Hamilton fan taught me anything it is that Shayla is bound to pave an undeniable, ground-breaking path in the world theater. As such, I feel compelled to ensure that (to borrow a line from the beloved musical) "the world's gonna know [her] name!".
Welcome to "the room where it happens"....
Shayla dressed as 11 from Stranger Things for Halloween 2017
Shayla's Sight and the World's View
Almost immediately after I inboxed Shayla with a request to interview her (introducing myself as a contributing writer and a fellow Hamilton fan), she responded receptively and enthusiastically. After a brief exchange expressing my gratitude, she introduced herself as a currently-seventeen-year-old singer, actress, and dancer from Ontario, Canada, who (in her own words) "just happens to be blind".
It was apparent to me (even prior to the commencement of our interview) that Shayla was not afraid to break barriers—for herself or for others' sake.
But I wanted to explore deeper into the cause of the advocacy and persistence that I saw from her. Evidently, based on her Instagram and Twitter feeds (which I may have ventured through via my excessive scrolling), she is an ardent (but sadly largely-dismissed) voice for anti-typecasting and theater inclusivity. But I wanted to gain her unrestrained perspective—I wanted her to define her fight and ambitions.
I wanted to know: What inspired her to initiate her journey into the steam-lined, rigorous world of theater? What obstacles has she overcome, what obstacles are still in her and others' way, what is the solution to those obstacles, and what obstacles does she forsee? Is being a blind aspiring actor difficult in a market that seems to be only skin-deep and superficial? Does she feel as though the "career" of theater is rigged against her and others presented with "challenges"? What future does she envision for other minority actors and actresses as well as blind youth?
Shayla, backstage with a fellow friend and cast-mate after performing in a production of 'The Little Mermaid'
To answer these questions (and to define exactly what her "fight and ambitions" were) I first had to know what made Shayla feel personally inclined to break barriers within the world of theater.
It is a common fact that the world of theater and film-making often struggle in the diversity department. In a report published in September of 2019, Dr. Stacy L. Smith (Associate Professor of Communications for USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative), as well as her team, revealed that representation for racial/ethnic groups within the film industry increased significantly from 2017 to 2018, jumping from 29.3% in 2017 to 36.3% in 2018.
While the increase is phenomenal news, it is still standardly low, especially given that the 2019 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report found, when analyzing films from 2011-2017, that racial minorities made up just 19.8% of leads in films, while white actors and actresses still dominated lead rolls in film productions with a whopping 80.2% of lead actors and actresses in 2017 being white. While Shayla may not be a racial minority, she is still legally blind and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, both of which come with their own sets of struggles within the film industry.
Joel Michaely, known prominently for his role in But I'm a Cheerleader confirmed in an interview with The Advocate (an LGBTQ-interest magazine founded in 1967) that throughout his time in the film industry, he has regularly witnessed the roles of gay characters given to straight actors rather than LGBTQ+-identifying actors; he even went as far as to compare the observance to blackface, stating, "All these amazing gay actors out there are not having the same opportunities that heterosexual actors have...That is not fair. That is not inclusive. That’s mocking our people. It’s an affront. And I’m over it."
As for the blind factor of Shayla's identity...unfortunately, the number of recognizable visually-impaired actors and actresses is slim to none, and those who have made their entrance into the industry recount it as a difficult experience.
Marilee Talkington, for instance, has been a professional actress for nearly two decades now. She appeared as Annie Barth on NCIS' 350th-anniversary episode, she has "originated over 80 characters including lead roles at Tony Award Winning theaters in world premieres by Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) and Lauren Gunderson (most produced playwright in the US, 2017)", holds an M.F.A. in Acting from the prestigious American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), has been advocate for Performers with Disabilities for more than twenty years, is currently developing her own TV Pilot, and...she just so happens to be legally blind. In a speech, Marilee recounts a personal story involving the difficulties she experienced as a blind actress: before attending her first theater audition, Marilee had no choice but to dash into the first place she could find with a photocopier and enlarge the script as much as she possibly could.
When it came time for her audition, she discovered that the print on the script was still too small for her to read. Consequently, she held the paper close to her face and began reading to which the director impertinently interjected, "If you can’t read this script, you don’t belong on stage" and excused her from the audition.
Shayla herself recently spoke very sonorously on being both a blind and lesbian actress in a post made to her Instagram in honor of Billy Porter's birthday subsequent to our interaction. Amidst a spool of admiration for Bill Porter's confidence as a gay and black actor, Shayla wrote, " Being a visually impaired aspiring musical theatre performer was hard enough. Being a lesbian aspiring musical theatre performer was hard enough. Put both of those things together and Yep, that’s me, making my chances of seeing myself reflected in a character slim at best...I’ve learned from [Billy Porter] that I might have to make my own way, if people don’t want to put me in the story, then I might have to create the story myself... thank God for putting [Billy Porter] on this earth. Happy 51st birthday."
Shayla obviously requires a lot of pent-up resilience in order to enter the seemingly-impenetrable world of theater and film-making, and it is clear that she has a multitude of it. However, to better understand why her persistence is so vital, I wanted to learn more about her specific blindness, Retinopathy Of Prematurity, and how it affects her personally.
Shayla, on stage in April of 2018, preparing to sing a solo
I sent a courteous message to Shayla, asking, "Could you tell me a little more about your specific type of blindness? With science, we know that there are different variations and levels of blindness. Were you born blind or was it something that developed over time? I see from your page that you still retain some sight? Could you tell me a bit about that?"
Shayla quickly and receptively responded, "Of course, I was born prematurely with...retinopathy of prematurity... My right eye has a completely detached retina, so therefore I can’t see anything out of it. My left is not completely detached. So I can see through it, not enough to read, but enough that I do get some use out of it. This vision has always been stable and will most likely remain that way."
Now equipped with knowledge of Shayla's specific condition and what it entails for her, I decided to proceed with the interview by asking about Shayla's experiences and observations as a blind actress, beginning with stigma and prejudice she has faced or witnessed during auditions or in the industry.
" I notice from your videos and highlights that you discuss blind and visually- impaired actors, actresses, and singers being included in authentic roles and the music industry frequently. What are some things you have noticed when it comes to film and music and the portrayal of people who are blind or visually- impaired? What, if any differences, do you think need to be made? And have you witnessed or experienced stigma yourself surrounding inclusion in the theater?"
Shayla in Blind Tech class, using braille devices with her friend, Antoinette, in 2017
Shayla diligently responded to my question with a well-versed and eye-opening paragraph: "That’s such a good question. In this industry, blind people are often used for only that reason, they can’t see. That is their reason for being on the project. I believe that we deserve the opportunity to play fully fleshed out characters with interesting stories..."
Indeed, Shayla isn't wrong in this statement.
Many blind and visually-impaired actors and actresses (for the few that have recognizably entered the industry) will land a role as a blind or visually-impaired character at some point in their careers. Marilee Talkington herself played a blind character in her "breakthrough" role as Annie Barth, a blind witness, on the critically-acclaimed show NCIS. Additionally, shows such as Apple TV Plus' new series, See (a series that takes place in the future when blindness is standard and sight is rare and punishable by law) and The CW's In the Dark star blind and visually-impaired cast members playing blind characters. While most of the actors and actresses report relentlessly positive experiences on set, and the employment of blind and visually-impaired actors is a stride in and of itself, and it is fantastic to see authentically blind actors playing blind roles (much like how it is fantastic to see authentically LGBTQ+ actors receive LGBTQ+ roles)—it is understandable as to why Shayla and many others in the "blind community" wish to see blind/visually-impaired actors and actresses star in roles that deviate from their disability.
Thus, it would seem that blind actors and actresses (as well as the blind community in general) face two sets of contrasting—yet equally important—social issues. They want to see blind characters represented authentically by blind actors, and they also don't want to see blind/visually-impaired actors and actresses continually employed simply for their blindness.
When asked about the matter, Shayla responded with this: "Another problem is authentic casting. Sighted people are often cast as blind people. This, to me, is not right. They might be great actors, but they will never understand the struggles blind people face on the daily, and it’s insulting to watch them try to pretend when there are fully capable blind actors around if you look for them. I myself have auditioned for things, felt really good about it, knew that the director liked it, only to find out later that the only reason I wasn’t cast was because of my blindness."
Shayla, preparing for a Christmas party in 2019
When it comes to directors' hesitation to employ blind or visually impaired actors, their apprehension may come down to what they anticipate to be "unnecessary" and "costly" accommodations.
In a post published by Perkins School for the Blind in 2017, Veronica Lewis, a visually-impaired college student, lists several accommodations that directors and crew may need to make for blind actors and actresses, including: enlarged scripts, leniency with improvisation, acceptance of tinted glasses, limiting "sharp" lighting, and verbal stage cues.
It is obvious that the theatrical world is undeniably astronomically exclusive rather than inclusive— but that should not inhibit them from making changes, from accepting wonderful, talented young men and women into the spotlight. Directors, producers, and crew have to be willing to make those accommodations, and they also must learn to not underestimate the blind community.
But this is not an easy thing to wish for. Employment for those who are blind/visually impaired is already a struggle...entering the world of theater as a blind actress or actor is thus a feat.
Shayla acknowledged this when I asked her about the inspiration she drew from Hamilton: "These people who built a country from nothing, the story told by people who have not been allowed to make a difference. We weren’t seen as anything useful, we weren’t allowed to work. We still have trouble with employment, what if we got to tell that story? I think it would be really special".
Shayla notes the profound inspiration she received from Hamilton again by stating, "I think that was why Hamilton was such a game-changer for me. Seeing these actors of all different backgrounds, who so often are shoved into playing stereotypical roles, coming together and playing these people who have flaws, who did amazing things, regardless of what they look like. I think that people with disabilities should be cast as authentically as possible, if not, the project shouldn’t be done at all. I think that people with disabilities should be involved in the writing of the character, rather than have people who don’t know what they’re talking about right us into another stereotype, and I think we should be allowed to play real, interesting characters".
In a resounding conclusion to her response regarding my question about the portrayal of blind/visually-impaired characters and the treatment of blind/visually-impaired actors, Shayla writes: "Lastly, I think that people are nervous to bring us into the room where it happens—if you’ll let me make that reference. And I would like to reassure them that we are very open-minded people who are willing to try. If you are willing to be adaptable, we will be to. Forget all your misconceptions that have been made about us, and let us show you that we are powerful, independent people who can tell stories."
She is not throwing away her shot
Shayla in February of 2020, enjoying herself after making her first "class honors with distinction" with a 90 on her Royal Conservatory of Music Level Six Voice Exam
Despite her age, disability, freshness in the theater, and directors typical hesitation towards casted blind actors/actresses—Shayla has already made massive strides in her personal journey in the world of theater, strides that will inevitability affect the course of other blind actors/actresses paths if she continues with her relentless velocity.
Aside from her immense involvement with local theaters, choir, and productions—Shayla has been on the "big screen" before, albeit for a few seconds. In August of 2017, Shayla managed to receive a part as a background character in Fahrenheit 451 (2018), a dystopian film based on the eponymous 1953 book by Ray Bradbury. In the months proceeding filming for the film, Shayla made a post to her Instagram, commemorating and celebrating her time on the set. In it, she shared a blurry snapshot of herself extracted from the film. Underneath it, she wrote, "I have two seconds of screen time but that doesn't matter to me, it was such a cool experience. I learned so much and met so many amazing people".
While a two-second appearance may seem insignificant, it is anything but. Any stride is still a stride—a launching point for the rocket that is Shayla.
Even more astounding, it is not Shayla's first time receiving "screen time" or recognition. In 2019, she was included in a documentary featuring Fondation Mira ,the program that paired her with her current guide dog, for a few brief seconds.
While it may take time for Shayla to gain public recognition as an actress, there is one noteworthy person in particular whose attention she has gained—none other than Molly Burke. Twenty-six-year-old Molly Burke is a blind YouTuber and advocate, bringing a plethora of education and awareness about the blind community to the internet since she first started her channel in 2014 (which has now amassed over 2 million subscribers. Molly, who was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at four-years-old, is beloved by blind/visually impaired and regular viewers alike, Shayla included. Shayla even made a post to her Instagram account in admiration of Molly Burke's 2017 commercial promoting Dove Shower Foam for Dove Canada. Imagine the pure amazement and shock Shayla must have felt when one of her idols (not to mention an idol that could closely relate to her experiences as a blind woman) began frequenting with her Instagram profile and interacting with her posts.
One of the many posts from Shayla's Instagram profile that Molly Burke has interacted with
Indeed, Molly Burke has liked and commented on several of Shayla's Instagram posts, and (as of 2020) still follows Shayla's account!
With so much accomplishment and recognition already under her belt, I decided to ask Shayla what she envisions for her future—what she (the girl with a multitude of ambition)'s next stride will be.
" First of all, I have to become a better dancer," she responds when asked how she intends to make her goals in theater a reality, "I’ve definitely posted videos of me dancing, learning routines and taking opportunities that I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the pandemic, but I need to get into more classes, integrate more styles into my life and then hopefully be ready for college auditions in the next two years".
At the mention of college auditions, I decided to ask Shayla what she anticipates for her academic career after grade school. She told me plainly that she intends to apply for colleges that focus "specifically on musical theater".
However, Shayla does have a few concerns (though no room for fear) when it comes to pursuing an education. Stigma and the stress of depleted or nonexistent accommodations extends well-beyond the stage. As Shayla writes in one of her messages to me:"Stigma and accommodations are things that I do worry about. However, my experience with the professionals who work behind the table in casting and auditions, they all seem to be aware that a change is happening. My vocal coach, Julia...often tells me whenever I get worried about... stigma or rejection...“the time is now for actors like you,” and she’s right. People aren’t looking for that flawless [five-foot-three] soprano anymore. They want to see themselves on that stage. They want to see humans with differences and diversity. My job is to tell the truth, tell the story of the character that I am playing, and reflect an image that people can relate to."
The phrase "reflect an image that people can relate to" intrigued me. It makes it appear as though Shayla shrives to be an admirable role model, which (as anyone can realize) she is fully capable of doing. The phrase made me ponder the influence she desires to make publicly as she pursues a career in musical theater and continues to gain recognition—specifically, I wanted to gain a better understanding of intentions for her social media profiles, her "social media influence" as she continues with her journey into the theatrical world, potentially gaining prominence.
Shayla, smiling in her 2017 "grad photo"
How does she intend to frame herself? What content does she want to showcase for the world to see, and how does she define her presence on social media as a blind actress? Would she ever want to be defined as a "blind influencer", or would the title make her feel as though she is being characterized and glorified solely for her blindness?
Shayla resolved to my pondering by replying,"- I think that blind people have mixed opinions on being referred to as blind influencers. Personally, for me, I want to be known and for my talents primarily, and with that people will know that I’m blind, but I don’t want it to be my defining feature, as there is so much more to me than that. My dream obviously is to be a musical theater performer, and I do want to inspire the next generation of blind youth because I have been told that my dream is crazy and that I won’t be able to do it, which has taught me resilience".
Resilience and persistence are perhaps the most apparent qualities about Shayla. But after learning about Shayla's visions for the future of theater and the blind community as well as her personal goals and ambitions and her plans to make both a reality, I wanted to learn more about her perspective on a key inspiration in her life—the very thing that lead me to her...Hamilton.
History Has its Eyes on Her!
Shayla and her guide dog attending a performance of Billy Elliot in Stratford in 2019
Even though she has made immense strides and achieved many spectacular accomplishments, Shayla—much like Lin Manuel Miranda's portrayal of the aberrant founding father, Alexander Hamilton—does not forget to reflect on her "humble beginnings". It is clear that she will not neglect her fight or dreams; it is clear she constantly reminds herself why she started and why she will finish.
Perhaps that is why she cites Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton as such a vital inspiration—it is not merely the production whose social media pages reposted her fan-made video; it is a component, fuel, in her relentless battle for acceptance and representation. It is a shining example of what she would like to see on stage and on screen for the blind community. Shayla is one of thousands to recognize and admire the ground-breaking change that Hamilton initiated by casting minority actors to tell a story that, in reality, suppressed minorities.
As Shayla puts it: "I have always thought, what if people with disabilities were cast in these roles. These people who built a country from nothing, the story told by people who have not been allowed to make a difference. We weren’t seen as anything useful, we weren’t allowed to work. We still have trouble with employment, what if we got to tell that story? I think it would be really special".
But Shayla doesn't just love Hamilton for the game-changing representation; she also appreciates the Broadway hit (rising-classic) because an element of the play resonates within herself. " I would love to be in a similar production," She tells me,"....I dream of telling Eliza’s story. She has always inspired me. Maybe that will happen, maybe it won’t. But Lin-Manuel Miranda has inspired me greatly, he showed me that anyone can be in the theater, regardless of who society thinks they are".
But not only is Shayla inspired by the musical, the man wrote it, and the story it contemporarily retells, she credits it as a reason she gained and continues to maintain persistence for a career in theater. " My friend, Tiana, kept trying to get me into [Hamilton], at first, the words moved so fast and it was so different to what I was used to that I found it hard to follow, especially since reading the lyrics while listening wasn’t really an option. So I sat down with a plot summary and went through it song by song as I listened and that’s when it resonated with me. That was in 2017 and I’m so grateful that she kept pushing it on me, I think that’s when I really thought, what if I could do this, not just in the community, but as a career".
Shayla relaxing on the beach with her two dogs, Kalluk and Frison
Elaborating further on her fascination with Elizabeth Hamilton (AKA "Eliza" and Alexander Hamilton's wife)'s story, Shayla wrote, "Eliza speaks to me because she was also in a time where she really wasn’t allowed to make a difference, as a woman. And she did everything she could regardless. She founded the first private orphanage in New York. She did everything she could to make sure that her husband‘s legacy lived on. She gathered all of his writings, gave it to the right people so that there could be books written about him. She advocated for the end of slavery and raised money for a monument to be built in George Washington’s honor. She did this, all while raising seven children of her own and struggling with debt in the wake of her husband‘s death. I see myself relating to her because I also do what I can to make a difference in spite of my disability and in spite of society being hesitant to let me be a part of a change. I admire her hard work, determination, her kindness and her willingness to forgive. She was extraordinary for her time".
Given her reasoning for admiring Hamilton, it is obvious that Shayla not only wants to attain her own dreams—but that she wants to ensure that others' dreams are attainable as well. She wants to see change in this world for a suppressed minority (much like Alexander Hamilton did in his lifetime). She wants to tell "the stories", but she also wants to see other unconventional and authentic voices tell "the stories". When asked for a final remark for other blind youth and disabled actors/actresses, Shayla responded by writing, "I would tell them to not be afraid of being a part of that change. Men and women before us have had to stand and fight for equal rights in their line of work, in the world in general. It is an ongoing fight and we all should do our part. For actors specifically, I will carry this quote with me from Leslie Odom Junior‘s book, as he inspires me, and has taught me a lot about The true definition of success and how failure helps to shape you and helps you grow.. “every audition brings you closer to the place you desire to be. Every no you’ll hear is a no on the way to your ultimate yes,” Regardless of what line of work you choose to go into as a person with a disability, you will Face rejection. It will hurt, but it will make you stronger and more resilient and every time you hear the word no, it will help you grow as a person so that you are ready for your reward when it comes, and it will".
Shayla's fight for acceptance and representation continues, but her vibrancy, fervency, ambition, resilience, and persistence do not waver. If there is one thing that was confirmed for me with certainty prior to our interview—and one thing that hope to have made apparent—it is that Shayla was born to make history. Her journey to becoming an accomplished actress will not be an easy one, nor will asserting that blind actresses/actors should be given theatrical opportunities—but Shayla has all the confidence in the world to pursue such a fight. She is a game-changer, ground-breaker, barrier-smasher. We have all been invited to The Room Where it Happens—all we can do now is watch in awe...as Shayla happens.
Socials- Keep Up!
This concludes my interview with the stellar aspiring actress bound to change the world for the better, Shayla! I would once again like to extend my gratitude to Shayla for agreeing to share her story, thoughts, and mission publicly!
If you have not seen Shayla's video (reposted by Hamilton on both Instagram and Twitter), you can watch it below or here.