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Cover story

Theatre Workshop aids the handicapped

Special Report Writer
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 bizarre 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. Dumbfounded 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-round 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 of 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.

If artists see the world from a unique perspective, he wonders, isn't the perspective of disabled artists doubly unique? The workshop offers them a chance to showcase and share their perspective, Curry said. Too often disabled students have been excluded from theater programs -- at times because instructors may feel inadequate and sometimes for want of necessary facilities. Theater schools seldom recognize the potential of the disabled, he said.

Curry likes to quote Mother Teresa's line "Come and see" when describing the value and power of disabled performers. He uses that quotation to raise money for the Theatre Workshop, which has a 1996-97 budget of $549,000. The yearly expenditures for the organization will continue to be between one-half and three-quarters of a million dollars up to the year 2000.

He tells potential donors that if they give $1,000 to a university, they'll see it disappear, but if they donate it to the workshop, "$1,000 can change a student's life here."

Curry's lack of a right hand has not stopped him from fundraising with his left.

Help from Albee

Playwright Edward Albee has written scripts for Curry's workshop. So have Mark O'Connell, comedy scribe for David Letterman; Danny Googin of "Nunsense"; Danny Jacobson of "Mad About You"; and Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate.

As the artistic director and board president of the National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped, Curry regularly jets to Los Angeles and other cities where he courts corporations and foundations -- the National Endowment for the Arts among them -- as well as individual givers.

While lunching with Hollywood stars, he serves up his dream -- a year-round University of the Arts for the Handicapped. In 1995 Curry and his board bought for $200,000 the Crosby School in Belfast, Maine, a local high school that had closed. Restoration will cost more than $1.5 million. Last year they dedicated what Curry and others hope will become a year-round residential campus for the disabled, for those interested in working with the disabled and for handicapped youngsters.

On Aug. 1 the school will open a month-long workshop to inaugurate its 35,000 square feet of stage, auditorium, studio and residential space -- enough to sleep 30 students.

Curry is excited at the prospect of diverse handicapped persons coming together: "The blind never get to meet the deaf and those with multiple sclerosis don't know anyone with muscular dystrophy." But they do at Curry's workshop.

Next year the Maine school hopes to welcome writers in residence who will develop new material for the disabled. It plans a celebrity lecture series in which well-known authors, musicians and actors will perform and conduct workshops. It also hopes to launch its Children's Theatre Workshop.

A bulwark of the Belfast project will be The Bakery, an outlet on the premises that will sell baked goods produced by students. The venture will be a first step toward providing training in other arts and crafts, a chance to learn marketable skills and to produce ongoing earned income. Curry, a master bread baker, learned how to bake, weave and sew in the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa., which he entered at age 18 in 1961.

Thirty-five years, many overseas trips and a bulk of correspondence later, Curry produced The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking (HarperPerennial). The international recipe book is raising dough for its author's $6 million fundraising drive -- half of which is needed for capital improvements on the Maine project, the other half for a four-year endowment goal.

This comedic companion of St. Ignatius once, before joining the Jesuits, left his uncomfortable artificial arm on the sofa at a girl friend's house, unintentionally terrifying her younger brothers. He got rid of the arm when he joined the Society of Jesus -- a group he came to admire as a student at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia. What inspired him? "It was the time of John Kennedy, and I saw the Jesuits as a kind of Peace Corps for life," he said.

Ignatius inspires

Still it was Ignatius -- "the guy with a severe limp who used to dance on the hospital table" -- who lead Curry in his own spiritual dance. At NYU he wrote his doctoral thesis on l7th century Jesuit theater. It was Ignatius who insisted that all Jesuit-educated boys learn drama. Why drama in a time of pestilence, and no peace?

"I'll give you five reasons," Curry replied. "It helped the boys learn Latin. Latin empowered them to defend the faith. If they did that well, it brought honor to their school.

"Reason number four: fundraising," Curry said, his face glowing. "Finally, if the dramatic performance was powerful, it could convert the audience to lead a better life. Conversion was the heart of it."

Besides, the Jesuits have trained some of the stage's greatest dramatists: Moliere, Racine, the brothers Corneille, Lope de Vega. What Ignatius inspired with his "Eloquencia Perfecta," Curry's school has tried to offer its students. "I wanted the disabled to become perfected by being able to speak for themselves," he said.

Curry recalled a second model, St. Joseph, patron of religious brothers. He even put Joseph's statue in the Maine school at its dedication last August and told workmen, "Don't move it."

While he admits to "an enormous faith and great love" for the Society of Jesus, "I am not pious," Curry said. Yet two years ago when he revealed his dream of a university for the handicapped to an elderly resident of Belfast and told him he had no money to make the dream happen, the man directed him to make a pilgrimage.

Soon he found himself driving to Auriesville, N.Y., to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs -- six Jesuit priests and two brothers -- and then on to the basilica in honor of St. Joseph in Montreal. It was there that he prayed to his patron, "Joseph, you took care of the Holy Family. Take care of our disabled family."

Curry's blue eyes shine. "I believe this is God's work," he said.

He expresses gratitude to the 6,000 inhabitants of Belfast who have welcomed his project and volunteered to help. "We couldn't do it without them." He awaits the day when the NTWH will be an international theater, noting the great interest that has been expressed by the Irish, the Chinese and the New Zealanders.

While Americans have the technology and the "just do it" drive to make such an enterprise happen, it is the Europeans, he said, who respect and value the arts.

"We didn't invent disability, but one of its by-products in this nation is myopia," Curry said. Yet, some 50 million Americans suffer some disability. "As a culture we don't connect well," he said. "Theatre is a way to connect."

Curry has proven his own equation: that acting is "10 percent skill, 90 percent spirit." No one can take a curtain call without self-acceptance, he said. The theater he founded and hopes to foster into a full-fledged university teaches the handicapped to accept their disability and to celebrate it. "We praise the creator with the face he gave us."

"I'm so uncomfortable with liturgy as a bone of contention," Albarano said. "This is worship of the Father through Jesus in the Holy Spirit. This is the last thing in the world we should fight over."

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997