HEBER CITY — Bright stage lights often blur the audience, cocooning actors in their own little world. But one local actress can’t see the stage she’s performing on, let alone the audience.
Eleven-year-old Mia Walker has been blind since birth, the result of an inherited retinal degenerative disease, but that didn’t stop her from landing the role of Miri, the lead in “Princess Academy,” Timpanogos Valley Theatre’s upcoming production.
Mia said she resonates with the show’s message and the girl she portrays.
“Miri is physically different and I am too,” she said. “Miri is a skinny girl in a village where it’s important to be muscley. I love the message that she doesn’t really care; she’s confident and not afraid to say how she feels to other people.”
Andrea Scott, who is co-directing the musical with her daughter Maggie, said that Mia is not only talented but also humble, gracious and incredibly hardworking.
“As soon as we considered Mia for the role of Miri, it was like the pieces of the puzzle fell together in how we should cast all the characters,” she said. “She memorized most of the show before we even started rehearsals.”
Mia, a sixth-grader, used BrailleNote, a computer with a braille keyboard and speech synthesizer, to listen to and memorize her script.
The story itself made it easy to have Mia move onstage naturally.
“It’s convenient that in the show the villagers hold hands — it’s their tradition,” said Mia, who performed in her first school play as a second-grader. “Sometimes I hold on to someone’s arm to guide me, and sometimes I don’t need help.”
The set was constructed with Mia in mind, with a rail she can hold. She also uses people’s voices to guide her.
Acting can be a challenge for someone who’s never seen an expression or mannerism or to mimic, but that’s where Mia’s imagination comes in.
“Blind people don’t show much expression in their faces,” she said. “I think of an emotion and imagine. If I think of a sad moment, it usually comes out on my face.”
Sixteen-year-old Maggie Scott, co-director, said directing Mia is easy.
“I love the way Miri’s story becomes her own when she performs,” Maggie said. “Throughout the show, Miri struggles to prove what she can do to the people around her and eventually moves past her physical limitations to save the day. Mia has proven herself time and time again and has been a huge inspiration, proving that limitations only hold you back if you let them.”
Maggie knows what it takes to play Miri since she took on that role in the musical’s premiere in South Jordan in 2016.
“Miri is such a huge part of who I am today, and thinking about letting someone else take the reins with her character made me pretty nervous,” she said.
Those fears, however, gave way to excitement when Maggie was watching some girls sing during callbacks.
“I’m not a super emotional person, but this show hits me so hard every time I do anything with it,” said Maggie, who was bitten with the theater bug as a kindergartener. “My hope is that I’ve given the cast the same amazing experience I had.”
Based on the fantasy novel of the same name, “Princess Academy” was written by local author Shannon Hale. It received a Newbery Honor Award in 2006.
Hale said that seeing her story come alive onstage is a gift.
“I work on a book so long with so many revisions, I don’t get to read it fresh like a reader does,” she said. “Watching it come alive in a performance is like getting to experience the story for the first time.”
Hale said that she hopes each audience member takes away whatever message they need.
“That’s the magic of stories,” she said. “They speak to each individual in different ways.”
For Mia, stepping into the role of Miri has been an opportunity to make new friends, stretch her skills and enjoy her time onstage.
“I like singing her songs because they’re really powerful,” she said. “Pretending to be other people is fun for me. Miri is strong and spunky, and it’s fun to say her lines.”Comment on this story
Mia, the youngest of five children, also has an older brother who is blind. She said she hopes that if other people with disabilities come to the performance that they realize they shouldn't let their disability limit them.
“I’d want them to learn to not let a physical disability get in their way,” she said. “They can stand up for themselves and say, ‘I can do this too.’”
If you go …
What: “Princess Academy”
Where: Timpanogos Valley Theatre, 90 N. 100 West, Heber City
When: Feb. 23, 24 and March 2, 3, 7 p.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee on March 3
How much: $6-$12