By Michelle Trauring
“In the arts, there are no disabilities, only abilities.
– The East End Special Players motto
Shortly before noon on Saturday morning, Justin Brown burst through the door of the rehearsal room of the Bridgehampton Community Center — unknowingly, and unwittingly, tardy.
“I got my costumes, I got everything you wanted, but I’m sorry I’m late,” he said to his group of friends and fellow actors, clutching their own costumes. “I didn’t know I was late!”
The group acknowledged the lead actor with lighthearted murmurs, leaving no room for distractions for the task at hand: preparing for their upcoming benefit performance of “Whimsey World,” the newest original work from the East End Special Players. The troupe of actors from age 19 to about 60 all have developmental disabilities of varying degrees, among them Down syndrome, autism, bipolar disorder, and hearing and sight loss.
But from the fertile, eccentric imaginations of these seasoned actors come the stories they bring to life on stage — and with them their dreams, worries, fears and insecurities, according to the Special Players longtime artistic director Jacqui Leader. She teaches them to enunciate, memorize and improvise, to search within themselves for emotion and inspiration, while challenging them to reach the uppermost levels of their abilities.
“They can get really negative and I say, ‘Listen, I’m not a therapist, I’m here to direct you and that’s my job, and your job is to act. I understand you’re having a hard time with this, but deep breathe, meditate, and then let’s get back into the scene,’” she said. “And that seems to work. The more I don’t dwell on it with them, the better they respond.”
When Leader first considered helming the Players over 25 years ago, she was unsure whether she was qualified to take the reins from founder Helen Rudman, who began the Saturday program for the developmentally disabled, with a focus on the theater, in 1985.
“It’s pretty much like you walk through the door and everybody just came up to you and the actors were so friendly. And I more or less fell in love with them, and we’ve had this little family ever since,” Leader said. “We’re up to 30 actors now; we really can’t take any more. It’s hard to do a production with 30 actors because they all want equal lines, they all want to be on stage just as much as everyone else.”
Outside of hitting a capacity number of members, the troupe has also evolved into a full-fledged creative think tank. Gone are the days of playing charades and miming lines. Now, the troupe members are not only acting with words and music, but writing the plays themselves.
“A lot of people don’t really expect to see them on stage and being able to carry out a production,” Leader said. “We make it very safe for them. It’s not an embarrassing situation, it’s an empowering situation. And we make sure there’s humor, that all of their insecurities become secure in the play and that they are real actors. We treat them as real actors, we don’t treat them with a disability. I hardly ever use the word.”
Two years in the works, “Whimsey World” follows the story of a pair of brothers — acted by 21-year-old Brown and 23-year-old Timmy Motyka — who set their sights on a trip to Whimsey World, a fictionalized version of Disney World, where they expect their dreams of independence and adventure to come true.
The reality is anything but. After a series of roadblocks — from hitchhiking gone wrong to a standoff with Whimsey World President Mr. Lump — the brothers must make a decision: to stand up in the face of evil, or let it prevail.
“It’s really about working toward your dreams and whatever roadblocks you may stumble upon, get up and keep going,” Leader said. “The play has a very positive reinforcement, but there’s a little political twist in there, too, which they wanted. It’s slapstick, tongue-in-cheek, but they’re very aware of what’s going on in the world, some more so than others, and they’re allowed to say what they feel.”
While the plot shows a certain depth of awareness about current events, the Players also explore themes that feel more personal, especially for Motyka, who has dreamed of working in the entertainment industry since he was a boy.
“In real life, I felt like I had been held back from pursuing my dreams for too long,” he said. “I had times in the past about misbehaving because I’m autistic and, mostly since I started high school, they kept on denying me anything outside special education.
“I just felt like…”
He trailed off, working through his thought by repeating himself. Gathering his words, he said, “I couldn’t break their logic. I tried to find ways to break their logic, but I really couldn’t think of anything because they were just too good at telling me why it wasn’t a good idea to do the school talent show and all that other stuff.
“I made some opportunities, but it was just like,” he sighed, “I don’t know exactly. I felt like I’ve been held back. I haven’t been that much involved for the past 10 years. I felt like I had to go with what they were saying and just keep quiet and just hush up about it.”
But since joining the Players, he feels recharged, he said, and ready to fight for his dream.
“I’m doing a little bit better with Players, but eventually I’m going to have to be in the mainstream. I can’t let my autism — the excuse of me having autism — stop me anymore,” he said. “My parents want me to succeed, but because of all this stuff, I get a lot more discouraged maybe nowadays than I did over 10 years ago. I’m just used to such disappointment. I’m just so used to disappointment because there are some requirements that I strictly need for me to pursue this dream, and it’s extremely important for me to pursue these dreams of entertainment.”
As a 17-time Disney Parks guest, Brown aspires to work within the company someday. In the meantime, he will continue to love Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto and “all the princesses,” he said, and act with the East End Special Players.
“It’s just my life. I don’t know where I’d be without it,” he said. “I also want to be a historian and I want to be on television. I have some ideas. This journey through high school and the East End Special Players and making new friends has been so wonderful.
“East End Special Players is the kind of company that is so open-minded. I want to leave it as a legacy, to when I have a family of my own.”
The East End Special Players will present a benefit production of “Whimsey World” on Saturday, September 21, at 6:30 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. A wine reception and silent auction will be held at 5:30 p.m., followed by a live auction after the performance at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 or $75 for VIP. For more information, call 631-953-3078 or visit eastendspecialplayers.org.