Leslye Orr brings the senses to life in ‘Hand in Hand’

St. Paul artist Leslye Orr is finding new life for a show she created thirty years ago, thanks to the U.S. State Department.

Right now Orr is in Israel, where she is to perform “Hand in Hand,” a production inspired by the stories of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.

Earlier this year the State Department brought Orr to Lithuania and Latvia.

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Leslye Orr has the people in her audience close their eyes and learn to ‘see’ with their other senses

Image courtesy: U.S. Embassy – Lithuania

Back in 1981 Orr was the first legally blind person to perform the role of Sullivan in the play The Miracle Worker, even though Sullivan herself was legally blind. Orr says on closing night, a woman in the audience stood up and spoke after the show.

“She said, ‘I’m 35 and legally blind and seeing you up there made me believe I could do something myself.’ Now up to that point my whole mission as an actor had been to acclimate myself to people who have vision – to look like I’m a seeing person. But this completely changed my tune – it inspired me to be an advocate for people with disabilities.”

Orr created “Hand in Hand,” the story of what happens to Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan after The Miracle Worker, based on letters and lectures. Part performance, part workshop, audience members are asked to close their eyes and learn to ‘see’ using their other senses.

Orr says she’s trying to open people up to the “possibilities of disabilities.”

“I’m not going to say limitations aren’t hard… but what we have to enjoy is just as good as what we’re missing. To me – witnessing people overcome these limitations to reach out to one another – it’s the coolest communion of humanity you could ever imagine. It’s Helen Keller’s gift to me.”

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A performance of Hand in Hand in Lithuania, hosted by the U.S. State Department

Image courtesy: U.S. Embassy – Lithuania

Orr has performed Hand in Hand for numerous schools and other organizations across Minnesota, but now it appears her message is finding new audiences on the other side of the globe.

U.S. Ambassador Anne E. Derse introduced Orr’s performance in Lithuania this way:

“Through the intimacy of her play and the power of her personality, I believe that Leslye carries a very positive message of tolerance and understanding. Humans are much more similar than we realize. Though some might not see or hear or walk as well as others, we all have similar thoughts and dreams. And we all have the right to realize our full potential and live an abundant life.”

Orr says she’s thrilled to be celebrating the 30th anniversary of her production with a new slew of performances abroad. But she says people with disabilities here in the U.S. are still far from being accepted in mainstream society.

“We still live in a world where E.T., Edward Scissorhands, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame either have to go home, or have to live far away in a castle, but god forbid they should integrate into society.”

When she’s not traveling, you can find Leslye Orr at Dreamland Arts, a theater she runs with her husband, performer Zaraawar Mistry.

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