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Legally blind actor from Arlington makes the world his stage

Posted 8:23am on Tuesday, Apr. 20, 2010

ARLINGTON -- The world beyond Robby Storey's outstretched arms is mostly a blurry place.

But on a recent evening, with the help of the large silver screen at Angelika Film Center in Dallas and a little squinting, Storey, who has been legally blind since childhood, watched himself play the lead role in a movie premiering at the Dallas International Film Festival.

The high-profile debut of his movie Hold was the biggest break so far for the aspiring actor and writer, a 29-year-old Arlington native and resident who copes with an inherited eye disease called dominant optic atrophy.

Storey and his film colleagues stayed quiet about his disability before festival reviewers picked the film, despite the buzz-creating potential of such a human-interest angle.

"We just didn't think to mention it," said Storey, a University of Texas at Arlington graduate. "Independent filmmaking has its own built-in struggles, and this just happened to be an additional one for us."

The movie, which Storey also wrote, appeared to have plenty of buzz already. One of 160 films chosen for the festival, it was one of six in the Texas Filmmaker category to sell out before its April 10 premiere.

Different perspective

Hold is a drama that explores the struggles in a relationship after the wife -- played by Fort Worth actress Stephanie Rhodes -- is raped by a home intruder. The director is fellow UT-Arlington alum Frank Mosley, and the executive producer is Farah White, an Arlington actor and Martin High School graduate.

Storey came up with the idea after hearing a news report about a similar rape.

"I put myself in that situation. What if I was married and something like this happened? What would I feel? How would I cope with that helplessness, that anger?" he said. "I wondered how that might affect the relationship between those two people."

He fleshed out the story line and characters with Mosley and then wrote the screenplay.

The acting required some special adaptation. He plays a sighted man, which means he had to study his walking paths in scene rehearsals, and he had to pretend to drive, which he did in a car being toted by a trailer. His actual driving in scenes was limited to pulling in and out of a driveway.

"It's rare to see a crisis like this played out largely from the male perspective, with the male being as much a victim in a sense as the woman," said John Wildman ,the film festival's media and public relations director. "I found it fascinating. Then when you find out about Robby's condition, it doubles or triples the amazement at the work itself."

That's what attracted White to the project. After seeing the script and learning about Storey's disability, she said, "I just couldn't not help."

Early challenges

Story learned about coping young. Storey was diagnosed with dominant optic atrophy, also known as Kjer's optic neuropathy, which causes vision to decline in childhood. There is no effective treatment, but in lucky cases -- Storey's apparently is one -- the decline levels off in adolescence. He said his vision is about 20/200 in his left eye and 20/400 in his right and is not correctable because of the optic nerve damage.

He can't clearly see much beyond several feet away, although he can recognize friends and familiar objects farther from him.

As a kid, taking notes was a chore.

"When I was in elementary school, they gave me a telescope for looking at the board," he recalled. "After that, teachers would write the board notes on paper for me."

He developed an early passion for writing short stories and poetry, but he was well on the way to earning his psychology degree at UT-Arlington, with tuition help from the Texas Commission for the Blind, before he decided to be an actor. He said he had an epiphany at church.

"The sermon was about being true to your heart, following your passion," he said. "I realized that while I was interested in psychology, I wasn't necessarily passionate about it. I felt I had another calling in my life."

He went ahead and secured the psychology degree, but since then he has eked out an existence in the film industry. He's acted in and produced several short films and taken a variety of arts-related jobs to supplement his small monthly disability payments and occasional checks from his parents.

He can't drive, so he has to get rides to where he needs to go, including auditions. And since cold reading of scripts is difficult, he has to get his lines in advance and memorize them before reading for a part.

Hurdles, maybe. But not barriers, he says.

"My mentality is, it's not so severe. I keep it under wraps as much as I can, to live a semblance of a normal life as I can," Storey said. "What I've been doing the past several years is embracing it as part of who I am."

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