It was a surprising comfort—this smoothed fragment of terracotta pottery in my hand. Each member of the audience is offered one upon entering the space for Perceptual Archaeology (Or How To Travel Blind), presented by Crow’s Theatre and Fire and Rescue Team. Alex Bulmer’s unconventional travelogue is an act of blind imagination—accessible to blind and sighted audiences, encouraging us to contemplate and transcend the boundaries of sighted imagination.
Those fragments of stone in our hands are a token of that invitation—to redefine our notions of what it means to know something. Having lost her sight as an adult to a degenerative condition, Bulmer found ways to live and thrive without it, but realized that her mind’s eye was still grounded in the visual—shape, colour, light. In her development as a blind travel writer, she sought to overcome this barrier.
And with this show, she does!
Based on a series of blind travel essays, she takes us with her on a journey through space, sound and psyche. This is, in part, her salute to the blind British adventurer, James Holman, and a deconstruction of his mythos. Known for his feats of daring-do, he is a solid role model, but ultimately, he’s a springboard for discovery—she seeks out her own mode of blind adventuring.
Bulmer is a warm, charismatic, and whimsically unpredictable presence. Her dynamic with line feeder, Enzo Massara, is my favourite aspect of the performance. A real charmer himself, he provides assistance as a prompter, scene partner, prop-fetcher, and confidante. The mechanics of the production are on full display. The theatrical devices they employ, cleverly incorporating visual descriptions into their interactions with us, simultaneously engage the visually impaired and playfully re-contextualize the experience of sighted audience members.
Director Leah Cherniak helps maintain a seamless, fluid blend of visual and auditory elements. The soundscape, designed by Deanna H. Choi and Thomas Ryder Payne, is—crucially—nuanced and evocative. Victoria Wallace set and props are a collection of mundane objects—a trunk, a stepladder, some chairs and a sofa. As these items stand in for elements of the story, Bulmer and Massara acknowledge their duality explicitly. Any object, movement, or sound is celebrated for both its immediate manifestation and narrative purpose.
A lot of humour comes out of this tension between what things are and what they represent. Bulmer, using humour and the inherent intimacy of the venue, acknowledges the artifice, draws our attention to it, yet the environment she establishes never feels contrived. We are always fully there with her; our imaginations soar as she conjures a thrilling, formidable, hilarious experiential landscape.
We are encouraged to respond. At key moments—often after some noteworthy spectacle—she’ll ask us for applause. This helps keep energy and engagement up, but I also found myself deeply moved by these moments of audible audience appreciation. She’s told us—and this idea resonates throughout—that she feels most real, most present and grounded, when the places and people around her are perceptible.
Taking us with her through Europe, the southern United States America, Toronto and rural villages of Portugal; there are moments of exhilarating human connection and artistic ecstasy, but also dark, harrowing descents into fear and self-doubt. A scenario where she is almost separated from her traveling companion on a chaotic, crowed train platform is particularly terrifying.
I miss Alex and Enzo already. Being in their company was such a delight. Bulmer hates the term “inspiring” and seeks to have us engage with her in ways that are less… exceptionalist. She aims to empower us and offers tools to unpack our own perceptual obstacles. Conditioned as we are to see the whole picture, she nudges us to explore the small yet vitalizing details we take for granted.