Israel Antonio is a playwright, screenwriter, actor, and triathlete. He also happens to be blind. He is a seven-time Boston marathon qualifier and a Paratriathlon USA National Champion. He is an inspiration and fantastic storyteller. Pinnacle Performance Company co-founder G. Riley Mills first met Antonio while teaching his screenwriting class at the now defunct Actors Center Chicago. Pinnacle Performance Company is has proudly sponsored Antonio’s athletic pursuits since 2012. We sat down with Israel and asked him about his respective playwrighting and athletic careers and what’s next.
When did you lose your sight?
IA: I lost my sight overnight when I was fourteen years old.
What prompted you to look into running after losing your sight?
IA: Growing up, I wasn’t good at sports, but I was always the fastest one in the league, school, or neighborhood. When in high school, I told one of my teachers that I would tryout for track if they let me. The track head coach heard me and invited me to join the team. I lettered in track my senior year of high school.
What do you love about running?
IA: I love running fast. I feel sighted. I feel like a tremendous machine.
How does it feel to run now vs. when you first started your return?
IA: After high school track, I didn’t run for a couple years. In college, I met a gentleman who had trained with college track stars who went on to become USA Olympians. He also trained with one or two blind men who became Paralympians. He guided me for a couple runs. He insisted I had natural talent and should aim to compete at an elite level amongst blind athletes. I opted not to do that and took a few more years off from running. During those years, I bulked up by 40 pounds, figuring women would be more into me if I had a bodybuilder physique. Several women friends insisted that the way to make them swoon was to get a lean physique, like Bruce Lee. I lost 50 pounds and started running again. The most shocking was when I tested my mile time with an all out sprint only to discover it took me over 10 minutes to run a mile. I use to be able to run a 6:30 mile without even trying. That was the most frustrating thing. Nowadays, when I take some time off, I get a bit out of shape, but I am able to get into shape fairly quickly.
IA: Because of Paula Radcliffe. I grew up watching Chicago, Boston, New York Marathon TV coverage. I never dreamed of running one until Radcliffe ran a world record 2:17:18 in Chicago then followed that with a 2:15:25 in London seven months later. With those performances, I was inspired to run a marathon.
Will you compete in more triathlons?
IA: I hope to race more triathlons. I am so strong in the bike and the run, but I expend so much energy being anxious about the swim. If I can ever get comfortable in the water, my cycling and running would be even stronger.
When did you start writing plays?
IA: I started writing plays while taking acting and movement classes at the Actors Center Chicago.
Why did you take Gary’s screenwriting class?
IA: I never had any intention or desire to write a play, but the Actors Center Chicago offered a Playrighting For The Actor class so I asked, Pinnacle Performance Company co-founder and CEO, David Lewis, “Would I learn storytelling techniques or writing skills which I could apply to my screenwriting?” David encouraged me to take it and find out. Gary was an award winning accomplished screen writer, so I figured he could teach me to write.
What’s one thing you remember from Gary’s screenwriting class?
IA: On my first day, Gary said my goal should be to write a 10 minute play by the end of the eight week term. Each week, I rewrote the same three or four pages. Meanwhile, the other two playwrights, Kathleen Jackson and Elizabeth Ellis, were bringing in forty pages a week. Wanting to impress Gary, Kathleen, and Elizabeth, I spent the five days leading up to the last session of the term writing a full length play. I walked in with 67 pages. I remember Gary saying, “Congratulations. You did what most people never do. You finished a play. You are now a playwright.”
What do you love most about storytelling?
IA: I like to evoke a response. I love hearing people laugh when a joke lands. I love people telling me that my story inspired them or made them cry.
What makes a good story?
IA: Complex characters experiencing conflict while on a journey.
Notice you’ve been doing some open mics. Tell me more about those experiences. What prompted them? How’s it going? What do you hope to achieve?
IA: On my last long run weeks prior to Chicago Marathon in 2015, I met Jeff who told me he’d seen me running with friends along the lakefront several times. He’d wanted to tell me that I inspire him, but he wasn’t sure how I’d react. Jeff expressed an interest in guiding me. During our first run, I told him I was a storyteller. Jeff said so is his wife, Suzy. She organizes the live lit show, Is This A Thing? I reached out to ITAT and was placed on their list for future performances. Jake, one of the co-organizers, told me of Serving the Sentence. I contacted STS and was added to their list. My friend Cynthia and her friend, Kyna, started a variety showcase called This One Woman. I joined that list.
I performed at This One Woman, Serving The Sentence, and Is this A Thing? in consecutive months. I get the best feedback when my stories are filled with drama, yet for This One Woman, I opted to write and perform a comedic piece. I had them roaring from the opening line. Experienced comedians complimented my timing and delivery. For Serving the Sentence, I did a dramatic piece, but I didn’t connect with the room so for Is This A Thing?, I went the comedic route and I killed again! Kendra of Serving The Sentence invited me to perform Timeline Theater’s annual Fillet Of Solo Festival. I went the comedic route. Kendra told me I crushed it, which meant plenty because she is one of my favorite storytellers, comics, and rappers.
What’s next running-wise?
IA: In 2017, I am running Ragnar Relay. It is a 200 mile relay race done by teams of either six or 12 runners.
What’s next writing-wise?
IA: By being in Open Space Theatre’s Bleacher Bums at Pride Arts Center in fall of 2016, I was offered a slot in Victory Gardens Artist Development Workshop facilitated by award winning playwright, Calamity West. A group of playwrights get together weekly to workshop pages. Every other week, Victory Gardens has working actors/actresses come in for table reads. Pages from one of my scripts will be included as part of a showcase at Victory Gardens in June. As a result of being in VGAD, I was encouraged to apply for Neo-Futurists writing workshop, which concludes with a performance in May. My schedule didn’t allow it, but I’m now on their radar. The folks at VG keep me up-to-date about opportunities to submit a play for production consideration, development, or fellowships.
What’s next acting-wise?
IA: I’m not sure. I’d like to audition. I want to submit to an agent. I feel like I lucked out with Bleacher Bums. The character I played was blind. Nich Radcliffe insisted on casting a blind actor. I might have to wait for another opportunity like that one or I might have to write characters for myself in my own work. The good news is I’m now back on the radar for my theater friends. I also now have new friends and contacts in the theater world who can give me advice on how to build on the experiences I gained over the last six months.
What’s next storytelling-wise?
IA: I will continue performing at This One Woman, Serving the Sentence, and Is This A Thing? I hope to branch out and introduce myself to more live lit groups.