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‘Blind actor’ is a role he shuns

Blake Stadnik hugs Lizzie Klemperer during a recent rehearsal for “Les Misérables.”  Director Marc Robin is at right.
Blake Stadnik hugs Lizzie Klemperer during a recent rehearsal for “Les Misérables.” Director Marc Robin is at right.Joe Tabacca for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

BEVERLY — An actor’s life is one of auditions and rejections.

But what if — because of a disability — you feared you’d face rejection before you ever sang a note, danced a step, or uttered a line?

That’s the reality of Blake Stadnik, 23, of Ellwood City, Pa., who plays Marius in the North Shore Music Theatre’s production of “Les Misérables,” which opened Tuesday and runs until Nov. 16.

He suffers from Stargardt’s disease, an inherited form of juvenile macular degeneration, and has been legally blind since he was 7. That hasn’t stopped him from embarking on a promising career as a professional performer.

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While in high school and at Penn State University, everyone knew about his condition. But what to say — or not to say — as he went to professional auditions became a concern.

He decided that if he were going into an “open call” — a large group audition with many actors — he wouldn’t mention anything about his impairment. Opening an audition by announcing “I am legally blind” would be, he said, “jarring” and “off-putting.”

“I didn’t want them to think of me as a blind actor. I wanted them to think of me as a performer,” said Stadnik during a break from rehearsal at the Beverly theater.

Marc Robin, the director/choreographer of “Les Misérables,” also directed Stadnik in several shows at the Maine State Music Theatre in 2013, including “Mary Poppins.” “You’d have to be a pretty discriminatory person to not use someone who’s as talented as Blake because they have something you don’t understand and you’re afraid of it,” Robin said.

It wasn’t until the second time Stadnik auditioned for him in Maine that Robin noticed “he wasn’t looking me in the eye. But that happens a lot in auditions for many reasons.”

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But eyes focus on what they can see, and Stadnik cannot discern faces clearly, so he cannot focus on them.

It wasn’t until another performer casually mentioned to Robin, “You know he is legally blind, right?” that the director learned of his disability.

That led to conversations with Curt Dale Clark, the artistic director of the Maine theater, who told Robin it didn’t matter to him as long as Stadnik was the best fit for the role. Robin said NSMT owner Bill Hanney had a similar reaction. “This is what I want,” Robin said Hanney told him. “I want the best. Blake is the best.”

Robin said Stadnik has handled everything he’s asked of him as a choreographer, including jumping over brooms and having brooms thrown at him during the “Step in Time” number in “Mary Poppins.”

Stadnik’s vision is wavy and blurry; he has blind spots, impaired color vision, and difficulty adapting to dim lighting. His peripheral vision is better, and he is able to discern shapes. Stadnik’s father also has the disease.

Failing a vision test in school when he was 6 led to a visit to a pediatric ophthalmologist, who suspected Stargardt’s because of the genetic link to his father. Kate Stadnik, Blake’s mother, set up an appointment with Dr. Eliot Berson of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, who confirmed the diagnosis.

Along with the diagnosis, Berson had advice, which Kate Stadnick recalled in a phone interview. “He said, ‘Blake won’t be a pilot or a surgeon, but don’t let this define him. I have a Stargardt’s patient who’s in law school. Don’t let him use this as an excuse. It’s going to be hard, but you have to push him.’ ”

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With sports not an option, Blake excelled in dance — especially tap — and began acting soon afterward. He continued his theater training at Penn State.

At NSMT, he has the added obstacle of acting on an in-the-round stage for the first time and entering and exiting the stage via the theater’s aisles.

Robin said he took some precautions with blocking for the show, keeping Stadnik away from the open orchestra pit or the elevator that rises from beneath the center of the stage.

For “Les Miz” — which is sung through with no dialogue — he memorized the symphonic soundtrack, and is tweaking what he had learned in rehearsals because the music on the soundtrack isn’t exactly what’s written in the score.

“I always try — when I come into a rehearsal process where I have lines — to come in with my lines memorized, because I don’t have the luxury of walking around with my script while we’re blocking the show,” he said.

While performing in “Mary Poppins” in Maine, he escorted a blind 4-year-old boy behind stage and around the set, sensing his wonderment.

It made him think about another role he could play.

“I hope if there is someone out there like me — legally blind, playing a newsboy in ‘Gypsy’ at the age of 9 — that they read this article, or have someone read it to them, and that they then go out and follow their dreams.”

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Rich Fahey can be reached at fahey.rich2@gmail.com.