Justin Brown is a young man who knows exactly what he wants, which sets him apart from plenty of other people his age.
The 23-year-old Southampton resident has put together a resume and portfolio with one goal in mind — a career as an employee of Disney Parks, in Orlando, Florida.
In speaking to him, it quickly becomes clear that he is a perfect candidate for that line of work. Mr. Brown has visited Disney World 18 times, and estimates he has met 85 to 95 percent of the character population while there. When asked what his favorite Disney film is, he lists the 1940 classic “Fantasia,” but quickly adds he has 65 other favorites. Most people probably know that Tom Hanks is the voice of Woody from “Toy Story,” but Mr. Brown will send you straight to Google by rattling off names like Leonard Maltin, a film critic and Disney historian (when you see his picture you’ll say, ah yes, that guy), and John Lasseter, a producer listed in the credits of pretty much every Disney and Pixar movie that exists.
In a recent video interview, Mr. Brown wore a Mickey Mouse Christmas sweater, adorned at chest level with several Disney-themed pins, and shared his feelings about something else that has filled him with excitement recently. For the past two years, Mr. Brown has been a member of the East End Special Players, a theater troupe for adults with special needs. The troupe, led by artistic director Jacqui Leader, has been putting on original plays and musicals since 1985 at various theaters and stages across the East End and even, on occasion, in New York City.
In 2019, Bay Street Theater began discussions with the nonprofit to start a new relationship that would expand opportunities for the actors, and make Bay Street their home base. While the partnership will not prevent the group from staging performances at other locations, it will give the organization some much needed stability and consistency when it comes to procuring rehearsal space and staging performances, particularly when Bay Street opens in its new location at what is currently the Water Street Shops in Sag Harbor Village, tentatively set for opening in 2023. Bay Street plans to incorporate the Players into its cornerstone educational program, Literature Live!, and also wants to have a special performance for the Players, with talkback between them and professional actors both during the process and following the performance.
Being part of the East End Special Players has been huge for Mr. Brown, who has Asperger syndrome. He shared a broad smile as he referred to his troupe as “kind of like a new generation of Hollywood celebrities,” and said being part of the acting group has solidified an important point.
“We finally get to realize that we’re not alone, that there are people out there with sensitivities, but that we’re all human beings first,” he said.
They are also, of course, actors and playwrights with creatively oriented minds, and the desire to express themselves, who deserve the space to pursue those passions to the fullest. Tracy Mitchell, the executive director of Bay Street Theater and a member of the board for East End Special Players, said she came to that realization after attending a performance of “Whimsy World,” an original production of the Players — dreamt up by Mr. Brown and his friend and fellow Player, Timmy Motyka — in the fall of 2019. Watching them perform sparked the idea of creating a more meaningful relationship.
“I just remember watching this show and not only was I moved by Jacqui and her talents, but by the talents of the artists,” Ms. Mitchell said. “The reminder that they were also the playwrights was just overwhelming to me. Everyone has a voice, and just because you have a certain inability doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice and a need to express and a need to have one’s emotions understood and heard. So I just felt, why is our relationship any different with this organization than it is with any other actors we may have here? I just thought if we could give them a permanent home, we could allow them to have more performances here as needed, or maybe more rehearsal time on a stage, and it could lead to some real interaction with our professional actors on the stage and behind the scenes.”
Ms. Leader has been the artistic director for the Players for the last three decades. The group had humble beginnings, when Helen Rudman gathered a small group for a Saturday program and decided to base it on theater, often performing simple games of charades with them. Since then, the troupe has grown, now counting 26 members, and under Ms. Leader’s guidance has put on 15 productions, including five originals like Whimsy World, over the years, performing at Guild Hall in East Hampton, Bay Street, the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center and other locations.
Ms. Leader said she was thrilled when she heard about the partnership, calling it a dream come true. She explained the kind of difference it would make for the troupe. The Players have been meeting over Zoom since the pandemic began, but Leader described the challenges not having a regular home base has presented over the years.
“We were meeting every Saturday at the Bridgehampton Senior Center, and it was fine for rehearsal space, but the dream was always to have a black box theater and to be in a space that we didn’t have to keep moving around,” she said. Ms. Leader explained the many difficulties and logistical hurdles associated with rehearsing and performing in different spaces. One woman, who is no longer part of the troupe, would suffer from stage fright on an elevated proscenium stage, like the one at Guild Hall, fearing she would fall off.
“It took hours for her to get comfortable and feel confident to walk around on new stages,” Ms. Leader said, adding that constantly adjusting to new rehearsal and performance spaces wasn’t just a challenge for the actors themselves, but created extra work in setting up lighting, sound, and other technical elements of the performance.
Having Bay Street as a consistent home base will certainly help alleviate some of those issues, and both Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Leader are excited at the prospect of the other expanded opportunities the partnership will provide for the Players. They expect the new relationship to really take off when in-person rehearsal and performances are safe again, and when Bay Street expands into its new location. They had hoped to put together a small performance including the Players and several of Bay Street’s regular professional actors for the annual summer gala, which of course was canceled due to COVID, but collaborations with those actors is something they hope is on the horizon. For members of the troupe who may be nonverbal or don’t want to be on stage, but are associated with costumes and set design, the partnership will provide avenues for more exposure and mentorship in those areas as well.
“The idea would be that they could come in and see how rehearsals work, be introduced to each other, have the [professional actors] talk about character development, themes, and to form relationships,” Ms. Mitchell said. “There’s no reason why relationships can’t be formed between the people we have on stage normally and the East End Special Players.”
Getting to know the big-name actors who typically grace the Bay Street stage is certainly exciting for Mr. Brown. He is thrilled at the prospect of meeting and interacting with Julie Andrews and Alec Baldwin, and expressed particular affinity for Richard Kind, a Tony Award nominee and member of the theater’s board of trustees, who has voiced many Disney characters, including Molt from “A Bug’s Life” and Bing-Bong from the popular Pixar film “Inside Out.”
Mr. Brown also hopes the partnership between his acting troupe and the well-respected theater can open doors for him, both now and in the future.
“It will help me get more experience,” he said, adding it would bolster his resume and even increase his chances of landing his dream job, maybe with the help of a recommendation from a new mentor or friend.
It will take time for the partnership to reach its full potential, but once the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, and the theater moves into its new and more spacious location, Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Leader hope the Players can expand their reach in the community, and continue to be embraced in return.
“If anyone comes to see one of their shows or watches their videos online, you’ll be struck by how heartwarming and beautiful and talented this group is,” Ms. Mitchell said, pointing out that, as a nonprofit, East End Special Players is always looking for new board members to help guide the group and make it the best it can be.
Mr. Brown expressed his gratitude for the partnership and what the future holds, and is excited for the day it can start coming together.
“I’d like to say thanks to my friends at Bay Street Theater, for welcoming me to be on stage,” he said. “I had a lot of fun working on ‘Whimsy World.’ And I really hope I get to be friends with Richard Kind and Alec Baldwin and Julie Andrews.”