Theatre Workshop Aids the Handicapped

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- Like a few thousand other theater people, Rick Curry got an invitation to Broadway's coveted Tony Awards ceremony in June. Although he didn't wear a tux, a ring in his ear or nose or even have his hair pulled back in a ponytail, he was easy to spot.

He was wearing black clericals with one empty sleeve in his suit jacket. "No accident. Some reporters get it wrong," the Jesuit brother told NCR. "I was born without a right forearm."

With a comic's quick-draw timing, Curry added, "It's a bizaree disability. I didn't go to a school for one-armed persons. This doesn't stop you from doing anything." He paused. "But it stops you from doing everything."

Nobody knows that better than Curry, 54, who, as a hard-up doctoral candidate at New York University, got bumped from auditioning for a hamburger commercial because he lacked a limb. Dumb-founded at being turned away not on merit, but due to prejudice, he founded the National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped 20 years ago. It is believed to be the only such workshop.

The project will take its most ambitious leap this month when it opens a year-around residential school in Belfast, Maine.

Some 1,000 handicapped students have attended Curry's acting workshops since 1977. Over three years they study music, voice, oral interpretation, movement and dance, writing plays, theater management and technical productions with a staff of professionals. For this they pay $125 per semester if they can.

The workshop runs its own studio in New York's Chinatown. It's the group's sixth address and now its permanent New York home -- a wheelchair's spin from Curry's own loft apartment.

Few have made it into the competitive show biz world, curry admitted. But several work in community theaters or as booking agents. A handful have done commercials and fashion modeling, while a number have garnered small parts in soap operas and even in a segment of "Cagney & Lacy" and "The Cosby Show." Some workshop students also appeared in the film "Awakenings."

"We're great in those hospital and deathbed scenes. We were made for them," said Curry.

Sandi Francis, who directs the NTWH's Children's Theatre Workshop, declared, "We're not a hand-holding school." Listening to her powerful voice in a cabaret rendition of "Don't Fence Me In," spectators are thrilled with the singing and amazed at her footwork. Francis, who recently gave birth to Xavier, the workshop's first baby, wears leg braces -- the result of a bout with swine flu in high school.

No excuses

The National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped is not a therapeutic program, either, she said, though many students -- herself included -- have found their self-esteem and ability to interact in personal situations much enhanced. "We stress that if you want to act, you leave your excuses at the door," she said. "The rules are come on time, learn your lines, never miss a rehearsal or audition."

Workshop training focuses on self-expression. It helps students achieve a feeling of accomplishment, of dignity and fulfillment, Curry said. When an audience laughs, cries or claps, performers experience a sense success, of being valued, he added.

"This theater is about giving to the disabled an education and training to provide for themselves," he said. "The skills one learns in acting are transferable to the marketplace and world of jurisprudence," said Curry, who knows firsthand. His father sent him to acting lessons at age 7 in Philadelphia, in the hope he might become a lawyer. He still counts it as among the best things that has ever come his way -- and Curry is one who tallies his blessings.

For centuries, he noted, disability has been viewed as a negative, and only recently have people begun to speak of it not as a negative but as a way of understanding what it means to be alive. For persons with disabilities, it is better to be alive and different than not alive at all, he said. …