Marilee Talkington: I’m curious about how we work. Why we’re here, what we’re doing. What we’re doing to each other with each other. And I know on a fundamental level, that I am so much more capable than I can possibly imagine.
Helga Davis: There’s a special kind of exhaustion that comes from constantly having to educate people on who you are and how you are in the world. I’m Helga Davis. Actress and Disability Advocate Marilee: Talkington joined me to talk about her passion for theater, for actor, and for her community and for her desire to just do the work.
This is my conversation with Marilee: Talkington.
Helga: Oh, wow. And good morning. good morning. Good morning. Good morning.
Marilee: Good morning.
Helga: Oh, so good to be here with you this morning.
Marilee: I'm feeling that it feels good to be here with you
Helga: Tell me where you are.
Marilee: I am in my office. But the other thing I want to say is where I am is actually kind of feeling good in my body too.
Marilee: I did some nice stretching this morning and, uh, breathing.
Helga: Yeah. It's incredible how important it is to get that connection back. Isn't it. To get connected before we go out and do anything or start trying to read anything or be anything or see anything or walk anywhere or do anything. And it's one of the first things we let go of.
Marilee: And yet when I do do it time dilates. So, I end up feeling like I actually have more time in the moment.
Marilee: And that I can actually do more with my day too, because I'm now more present and intentional. I hear that. Oh, I hear that.
Helga: And it sounds so crunchy. I know it's like, “do you understand what's going on in the world?” and people are, yeah, yeah, I sure do. And I bet those people are also searching for their breath so that they can find their next moment and to take their next breath so they can take their next steps. And so, we who have the luxury of being able to really, as you're saying, be intentional about what we do with our breath, it feels like a thing we just ought to do.
Marilee: You know, it's interesting that you brought up that, um, the luxury of it. Cause I feel like. It's true. I have privilege in my schedule to carve out some time. And when I didn't, when I was working three jobs it was those moments where I would kind of move into a closet and literally take 30 seconds and just get into my body again.
Helga: What three jobs were you working?
Marilee: I was waiting tables. I was in an enormous amount of debt. This is such a wild story. I actually never tell the story. I moved to LA right after I graduated from undergrad with one intro to acting class under my belt. And I moved to LA thinking I'm going to be all that.
I was so young and I just, I have to hold my heart when I talk about this story, because I was young. I was naive, but I had a lot of passion and, um, I have a lot of compassion for her now, but I got hooked up with a couple, uh, con men, producers. I didn't know they were con men.
And gave them my time, gave them my money, gave them other things. And I was just raked over the coals for almost a year. And ended up moving back home and then just had to repair myself; my finances. And I worked three jobs for a long time.
I stopped waiting tables many years ago just because my vision was progressing.
But yeah. Those were times when I, when I really started to just take a moment in the, uh, in the back where the dishwashers were and just breathe for a second. And go okay, Mer. You are not your mistakes. You made some. You're learning. Take a moment, get present, and get back out there.
Helga: I think it's so important. To know this and to, to hear this. We’re allowed to fall. We're allowed to make those mistakes. We're allowed to be young and vulnerable because usually the vulnerability comes from a place where we're, we're trying to do something good. For ourselves or for someone else.
I also had one of those experiences. I think I was still in high school. And I had on my hands, my grandmother's engagement ring. And I had, my mother had bought me this amazing velvet suit for Christmas and I was gonna wear that to church. That was my, my Christmas outfit for church. So I had my bags. And I had my, my stuff.
And I met some men outside of McDonald's, who asked me if I knew what time it was. And, um, I said yes. And then he gave me the long story about how something had happened.
He was with another man asked me if I would go inside McDonald's and figure out how to help them. And I said, “Of course I will.” And so we're in there, there, and they're talking and talking and talking and talking and convinced me to give them my bags and my grandma's engagement ring and it was, let's put our things together.
Marilee: Oh gosh.
Helga: And so I put my stuff in there and the guy said, I have to go to the bathroom. He went to the bathroom, he came back, he handed me the bag that I had put my things in. And, um, and they walked out.
And I don't know whether to laugh or cry. And then when I opened the bag, of course, there was nothing in there but paper and I realized that everything was gone.
And I'm glad that you took a moment to have compassion for your young person. I've never told anyone that story either.
But, you know, Marilee, I saw that guy on the street many years later and I just stopped and looked at him. And it was good to see him again. And, though this may not be very correct of me, it was good to see him not doing well.
Marilee: Oh, wow. Okay. You know, I love the honesty. Tell it, tell it, tell it.
Helga: But I did look at him and he did look at me and I hope that he knew that I knew exactly who he was.
Marilee: Who he was. Oh, oh!
Helga: Yea, which is different than who I am.
Marilee: Yes. Yes.
Marilee: Wow. You know, I've never bumped into either of those folks, um, since, and I don't want to spend a lot of time thinking about it, but once in a while, I'm just like, what would it be like if I did. And, I think I'm just might not have the time for them.
Marilee: All right. I'm stretching my arms right now because I feel like some of those experiences, when we- when I talk about them, I have to like move. I have to like, let it flow through my body, so it doesn't get stuck again. Yeah.
Where are you? I'm sorry, I didn't ask where you are.
Helga: I'm in Harlem. And I took my first walk this morning as a fully vaccinated person without a mask.
Marilee: How did that feel?
Helga: It freaked me out a little bit. Because it's all in the body. What we're carrying as well. And so, this was the first walk I was taking without a mask. And having removed it, feeling all that I've been carrying for the last year.
So ,who am I now, if I let go of the mask? If I let go of having to hold, protect, fear.
Marilee: You know, I have a similar experience, but a different experience. Because I'm legally blind, it was hard for me to tell if other people were wearing masks because I can't see their faces. And so, I was always in kind of a really defensive position, because I wouldn't be able to, I would have to assume that all people were not.
Marilee: You know, touching items, having to get close to things. Because, I'm not totally blind, I'm legally blind. So, I often have to lean in.
And, I found that when I was talking to people in my tendency to kind of lean in, I had to resist that and just trust that I'm going to absorb what I need to absorb in the way that I absorb information.
But now, my husband and I have been taking walks again and I'll take my mask down and I feel that sense of freedom. And I'm trying to retrain my brain into not trying to figure out if everyone else is or isn't.
Helga: Yeah. Tell me about the ways that you take in information.
Marilee: I think that over the course of my life, um, It has evolved. And, you know, people say, “Oh, your hearing must be excellent.” And I have to say it has nothing to do with my hearing. It does have to do with how I listen though. Because that is a primary source.
Now, I still have a lot of vision, so I still take in a lot of information visually. But I find that even in dialogue with people, even if I can take in information visually, I will often close my eyes because I trust my ears more than my eyes. They can hear things that I just, I think even folks with full vision probably can't see.
You know, I can't see people's faces until they get super close and even then they're blurry, but I can see how people move. And how I move. And so, um, if you and I were walking down the street, um, well, one, you have a very distinctive voice. So if you, if you said, “Hey, Marilee!” from down the street, I'd be like, that's Helga.
But if you didn't speak, I would take in, in our first encounter, how your body moved. How your energy is in space. And then I would be able to, um, figure that out when I saw you next.
But, for me, it's auditory and, uh, visceral my body.
Helga: Yeah. One of the things that I'm always interested in is, is the paths that people that we take, we humans take to get to where we are. And so, I'm always interested to know a little bit about the family dynamic… What, role did that family play in your continuing to discover yourself and to able yourself? Yeah.. Let's do that first.
Marilee: My mom's blind and I think I kind of have to start there. Um, I have what she has and my brother and sister do not. So, I was born totally blind, centrally, so I've never had straight ahead vision. I had peripheral vision. I still have peripheral vision, but that's blurry.
I didn't get my, my civil rights as a disabled person until I graduated from high school. But having a parent that is fighting their own questions of self-worth because of their disability and the fear that she had, about my survival, communicated to me in various ways. And yet she was an extremely strong woman.
So, when I think about, you know, the beginning of carving a path, her teaching me that I needed to code switch in fifth grade. I needed to pretend that I could see so that I wouldn't be treated differently, and that I also should find somebody to marry really quickly, (which I didn't do) to help survive. And that my brother and sister never had those conversations.
And yet I, I think because I felt the container around her. Hmm. A container that society gave her an, a container that she gave herself. And I, I knew that I didn't want that. So, although I did follow some of her advice. A lot of it, I just pushed against and flew in the opposite direction.
You know, I battled with her a lot and it wasn't until I got married hat we finally sort of came to a place where we can talk. And also, I'll say to that because she was blind, um, disability was normalized in my family. It rarely was actually talked about. It just was.
But, I think about my brother and sister. He was the first born. He was male. He was, the favorite grandchild. He went out and, did exactly what he wanted to do. And I felt like I was reactionary.
I was pushing off of. And then I had to go figure out what I wanted to do with my mother really trying to tether me to a safe place. Keep me tethered to what she knew, saved her. What she knew, helped her survive.
And then my sister was sort of gentle. She wasn't going to get into the fights. She was the one that would curl up. But I will say I don't think I would have had the same path if my mother didn't push me the way she pushed me. If I didn't react. I try to live from a place of response rather than reactivity, but it's in my body to react.
Helga: Your father.
Marilee: He was, and is, the town doctor. “Hello, Dr. Talkington. Nice to see you.”
A very good ma and alcoholic. And, complexity of that, I understand it now. So, the words “I love you” in our family didn't exist. And there was a lot of people protecting themselves. He is a good soul. Two survivors found each other. My parents. Two survivors.
And as I talked to my parents these days about this. And how do we move from surviving to thriving? And I ask them those questions too. And I feel like there's a lot of places in my life now where I can say I'm thriving. And a lot of places, I still feel like I'm holding on. Do you know what I mean, Helga?
Helga: I do. I do. I do.
Marilee: My mother, was and is, but for most of her life, she led a nonprofit organization, and groups for other blind and low vision folks. And I remember thinking that that was not the path I wanted, but it's the path that I'm on.
Marilee: It happened almost I think, almost despite myself. Where I got into a business of acting arts and entertainment, and there was no one like me. And I was constantly having to advocate. Learning how to advocate. Learning how to speak up in every single environment that I was in.
And after many years of this, I realized that I needed to offer what I knew, what I had learned to other blind, low vision folks.
First, it started with me just coaching, uh, acting, coaching, other blind folks, you know, starting about 15 years ago. And then I started consulting at universities and acting programs and talking to teachers about how do you work with blind and low vision folks? How do you change your belief systems?
And now I have my own, uh, access acting academy that specifically for blind and low vision actors. And I'm still innovating, figuring out how to work with my own community? How can we thrive? Um, dismantling, uh, you know, the performing arts techniques that are full of visual bias! How can we create all these different entry points to acting training so everyone can get in touch with their creative capacity.
And in fact, it's interesting as I talked to my mom these days. She so didn't want me to be an actor, but that's who I am. And now when we talk about advocacy, I'm able to teach her. Which is really powerful and how even at 80 years old, she can own just a little bit more of herself, her experience, her body in this world.
Oh, it makes me a little emotional. Well, I've gotten a little emotional a few times. No one told me about that. When I agreed to this! I want my money- No I didn’t buy this.
Helga: But the thing is that everything that you're saying is also everything that every person must face.
Helga: Do we react or respond? Who are we in our families? What are the things that we get from our parents that are our wounds and our gifts. And as a therapist once told me they are two sides of the same coin
Marilee: You know, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist, actually. I was interested in how people worked. It was a fluke actually, because, uh, I needed some credits to graduate and every other elective was full and my friend said, take an acting class. And I'm like no way- and nothing else was open, so I took the class.
By the second class. Literally was like uhh. This is it. I couldn't deny it. I could not deny it. And, uh, I changed my entire course after that.
And after that one intro to acting class, I was like, “I'm an actor I'm ready for Los Angeles.” Of course. I'm going to make it. And I just got creamed.
Marilee: God bless her.
Helga: God bless her.
Marilee: Yeah. God bless her.
Helga: The other thing that I'm loving about you is that you're doing so many things. So, you are a writer and an actor and a director. You started a school. You're a motivational speaker. So that you're taking this seed of a career, but also so using it or having it help you understand how else you can be effective in the world.
And I think that's, that's another thing that you're saying. That you are resisting the kind of cage that your mom was in. But talk a little bit about how it is that you came to be doing all of these things.
Marilee: It’s all curiosity.
Marilee: It's I mean, it's steeped in curiosity. I just, I just happened to be an extremely curious person. And I'm curious about how we work. Why we're here, what we're doing, what we're doing to each other, with each other, uh, with ourselves.
Whatever medium of art form I can get more information, then that's where I go. If it’s drawing, I’ve started drawing. Um, on huge, uh, like, um, I've got, uh, I've got a big paper over here. I use big backdrop photo paper. It's ugh, foot by eight foot and I get these big, huge pens and I go into meditation and I start drawing.
I'm doing theater piece, which I'm also acting in which I'm also designing, which I'm also, uh, writing. Helga, I’m curious about things, but I'm curious about what I'm capable of.
And that fuels me and I can feel it right now, even just talking about it. My voice starts to pick up. I know on a fundamental level that I am so much more capable than I can possibly imagine. And I'm interested in expanding in all different directions and going, what can I do here? What can I do here?
I started doing solo films. As a sighted person, it's hard to do solo films. As a legally blind person am innovating every way I go. How to film myself. It’s really hard but at the end of the day when I finish a film, I'm like, okay, what did I learn? I just expanded tenfold.
For me, it's curiosity about the world around me and curiosity about the world that lives inside of me.
Helga: [And so, you've already named a couple of practices that you employ. And it sounds like you do these things everyday. So, you are first connecting to your breath.
Marilee: Umhmm. Breach is universal.
Helga: Then, you ask a question and you start to draw and you find something out.
Marilee: Yes. And I think what's fun too, is that my questions are getting more sophisticated and nuanced. And granular. That's exciting too.
Helga: I think that's a great practice to ask a question every day. Wow.
Marilee: Rather than having an answer every day.
Marilee: Because then I'm constantly in learning mode.
Journaling is hugely important. And often I will ask my questions in the journal. When I journal, um, uh, two different voices come out, um, that are much wiser and more compassionate than me. And so, they often will guide my questions.
And lately too, uh, I've gotten back to moving. Knowing that I have privilege in that, right. I can move fully and there's privilege in being able to move fully.
So, I'm using that privilege and really just taking time to be inside of my body and thanking my body for being with me on this journey. Yeah.
Helga: The other thing that I love that you talk about in your work is how important it is for you. To move beyond the, the, kind of the tropes of what it is to, to be a person who has low vision. What is it then, to be on a set and to be a beautiful, fierce woman and show up in your quote unquote disability, to give voice to the complexity of every life.
And are you, are you tired?
Marilee: That's where that big sign came from.
Marilee: Um, I'm proud to be a disabled woman. It took me a long time to come to that. To be able to say that because of how society views disability. I should not be proud. I should want to fix myself.
The industry, the entertainment industry in particular is saturated has been marinating in, uh, belief systems that certain bodies are better than others. Certain, uh, lived experiences are more valued than others.
So. when I'm on a set, um, I feel my otherness profoundly. Because more often than not, I'm the only one that has a disability. And often I'm playing a character with a disability, which is wonderful. I'm deeply proud to authentically represent. And I should be playing any and every character.
Marilee: So a lot of time on set I have to spend teaching instead of just doing the art.
Helga: I'm giggling a little bit because you're speaking…
Marilee: Your language, you understand?
So that, um, labor and distraction from. Art is exhausting. And at the end of the day, I have to go home and go, okay, the world is not- it's just not fair right now. And the only thing I have control over is how I bring myself to the world.
So, when I get asked to do a panel, when I get asked to consult, I have to go in the room and I have to prepare myself to be inundated with deep ableism, deep belief systems that I'm not a value that people like me are not a value aren't capable, aren't worthy.
I used to go into a space trying to prove them wrong. It doesn't work. Now, I go into a space and make offerings about where did they get that belief system? What do you really believe? And then offer to them that this is not actually just you. Just our culture. Just the United States. Just the world and the time we live in.
This is actually historical belief systems that go back thousands and thousands and thousands of years. It's literally in our DNA.
So, to be quite frank Helga, I've been saying no more. Because, I know going into some rooms the exhaustion is going to be at a point where it's too much and somebody else will be a better service to that community.
But then there's other areas where I'm like, “Absolutely. I can do something in that room.”I can be of service to them and I can do some healing for myself.
And, you know, this was not your question, but I want to set this vision and intention right now is that am hungry for, and I do believe it's possible that I can be on a set and I can just do the art.
I know, I know it's possible. I know it.
And I'm going to hold that space for you too.
Helga: And I'm going to hold that space for whoever's listening and needs to hear this right now.
Thank you very much.
Marilee: Thank you, Helga.
Helga: And that was my conversation with Marilee Talkington. I’m Helga Davis.
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Helga: The Armory Conversations is a co-production of WNYC Studios and Park Avenue Armory. The show is produced by Krystal Hawes- Dressler with help from Darian Suggs and myself. Our technical producer is Sapir Rosenblatt. Original music by Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran. Avery Willis Hoffman is our Executive Producer. Special thanks to Alex Ambrose. Citi and Bloomberg Philanthropies are the Armory’s 2021 Season Sponsors.