Reaching new heights
Journalist Vicky Edwards talks to actress Karina Jones about equality, life on the high wire and her involvement in the play version of one of the scariest films of all time…
Smart, talented, funny and gorgeous, Karina Jones is an impressive lady. Registered blind at the age of thirteen, she has never let her lack of sight get in the way of, well, pretty much anything.
Studying ballet and acting, a thirst for adventure has taken her to Egypt and Istanbul, where she trained as an authentic belly dancer. She is also a trained circus performer and is one of only a handful of successful visually impaired and classically trained actresses to have a parallel career as an international aerial circus performer – a skill set that saw her perform as part of the Paralympics Opening ceremony team.
“But it’s still not a level playing field for disabled performers,” she tells me, as we settle down for a chat during the lunch break of a rehearsal for the play Wait Until Dark, a gripping thriller by Frederick Knott (best known for Dial M For Murder) in which she plays Susy, a blind women.
“It’s 2017 and yet I am the first blind actress to take the role of a blind person in a play that has been around since the 60s. Why? She exclaims.”
She’s got a point. She is also gracious enough to acknowledge that this ‘first’ is a real step forward.
“Producers and directors should give disabled roles to disabled actors. A blind person wouldn’t be auditioned for, say, Desdemona – we’re not there yet – but with roles that are written as disabled or impaired I think it is only fair that they should be played by disabled actors.”
Another good point. Why hire someone to act the disability when there are talented disabled performers who can give an absolutely authentic performance? Karina nods in agreement.
“In this play I’ve totally got an advantage [over a sighted actress] because I’ve got a lot of shorthand. I’ve got a head start because I have real insight into the character.
“When acting visually impaired lots of [sighted] actors overdo it,” she says, conceding that Audrey Hepburn did a great job with the role in the 1967 film, for which she won several major award nominations.
“I saw the film when I was very young and I was still sighted. I do remember being really, really scared,” she confesses.
Almost always featuring in polls of scary movies, Wait Until Dark is set amidst the social turbulence of 1960s London. Susy, a blind woman, falls victim to three conmen and a scam that entails drugs being hidden inside a doll. With the tension being cranked up to near-snapping point, Susy outwits her tormentors, ultimately forcing them to learn what it is to be in darkness.
“The role of the blind person is really empowering. The conmen think she’s going to be a complete pushover and she’s not. Her character goes on a massive journey and she grows in strength throughout,” says Karina.
Asking her about her circus skills and what, in particular, motivates a visually impaired lady to do crazy things on a high wire, she pauses briefly before saying: “Apart from my parents, all my life everyone has gone around telling me what I couldn’t do. I’ve got a stubborn streak and so perhaps it was bloody mindedness, but the world expects so little of people with disabilities when we are capable of so much. Circus school changed all that for me and it was so liberating. They just said ‘yeah, it might be 12 meters off the ground but up you go!’”
Supported by Graeae Theatre Company, champions of D/deaf and disabled performers, Karina continued her training as an aerialist. When the Paralympics started and they needed disabled performers for the opening ceremony, she happily agreed to take part.
“From there I completely fell in love with the freedom that it gave me and so went on to do more training on a professional course in Sheffield with Green Top Circus. I came to aerial later than most people, so I feel really lucky.”
But being all that way up and not able to see! Terrifying, surely? Grinning, she admits that actually it’s a case of ignorance being bliss.
“I don’t know any different. The only time I got a bit scared was at the opening of cerebral palsy games when I knew I was high up because it took a long time for them to winch me into place. I asked them not to tell me how high I was,” chuckles Karina, who in 2016 was a guest artist with the world-famous Circus Oz in Melbourne.
As for her acting career, as well as many stage credits, Karina’s TV work includes The Bill and the groundbreaking and hugely popular Off Their Rockers. But it is the tour of Wait Until Dark that she is focused on at the moment, and she is especially excited by the tour schedule.
“I am really looking forward to visiting Exeter. I can’t wait to discover the town and to share this incredible play with audiences there. It is going to be a brilliant and thrilling production.”
Saying our goodbyes, Karina sums up her thoughts about playing Susy.
“Playing this part is, for me, an amazing thing; a real push forward for equality. It’s brilliant.”
And so is she.