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'Storm' Cuts Through the Clouds of Disability : Theater Group Integrates Disabled, Non-Disabled

April 03, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One look at Neil Marcus, with his labored, nearly unintelligible speech and the muscle spasms that confine him almost exclusively to his wheelchair, and you'd think he'd be the last person to write and star in a play.

But then, that's exactly why he's there on stage in Access Theatre's "Storm Reading"--to make you take a second look. And in the process, re-examine some assumptions about the participation of the disabled in the performing arts.

Still, no one appreciates his unlikely opportunity more than Marcus himself.

"I am really lucky to be on stage talking about what's important," he said during a recent rehearsal in Santa Barbara. "I feel it's a great honor."

A 39-year-old writer from Berkeley, Marcus wants to teach the world about reading storms--recognizing his humanity beneath the physical turbulence wrought by dystonia musculorum deformans, a rare neurological disorder with symptoms similar to cerebral palsy. The irreversible condition crippled Marcus when he was 8 but had no effect on his mental development.

In 1987, Marcus' humorous and often poetic autobiographical stories about living with his severe physical handicap were adapted for the stage by Marcus and Rod Lathim, artistic director for Access Theatre, the Santa Barbara-based touring company nationally recognized for its ground-breaking integration of disabled and non-disabled performers and audiences.

In "Storm Reading," which opened Friday for a five-week run at the Tiffany Theatre, Marcus' two non-disabled co-stars (Matt Ingersoll and Kathryn Voice) supply the interpretation and various supporting characters for a peek at life through the eyes of an outsider and the reactions he evokes--from oversolicitous offers of help, to people pretending he's not there, to authentic human contact.

In Marcus' world, the simplest encounters--placing an order at a drive-through burger joint or making friends with a pretty girl--become heroic quests. Seeing the humorous side helps him get through it, like the times he's asked "Aren't you using your disability as a crutch?"

"I think people can see themselves in my little stories and they realize that we're alike," Marcus said. "I think that's a big step for a lot of people because the world thinks I'm really different."

"Storm Reading" performances will incorporate the company's trademark audience accessibility services: signed performances, wheelchair seating, Braille programs, an assistive listening system for the hearing impaired, and audio descriptive headsets with live commentary for the blind.

But Marcus and Lathim are also hoping to attract non-disabled audiences as well.

"I'd like to reach a lot of people--maybe it'll open a lot of doors," Marcus said.

They know it won't be easy. "We're not an easy sell," Lathim said with a laugh. "If you ask someone if they want to go out on a Saturday night and see a play that has a disabled actor in it, chances are they'd rather go see a 'Lethal Weapon' movie--or anything else--than be confronted with something that might make them uncomfortable. We'll always fight that, and so our best weapon is our work and the word of mouth."

Lathim admits even he had some reservations early in the development of "Storm Reading." "We (Access) had never had a show that focused the spotlight for two acts on one individual with a serious disability, where even his speech was affected," he recalled. "People would ask, 'What are you going to do with him? Is he just going to be a prop sitting there while you have people running in circles around him?'

"The only reason I went ahead with it was because I was convinced that Neil had an incredible presence. And I was right."

"Storm Reading" went on to become the most successful production in Access Theatre's history, touring at more than 60 locations in the United States and Canada, including an appearance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Lathim attributes this popularity to the honesty and reality of Marcus' performance. Even though the work's loosely linked episodes have little in common with traditional dramatic structure, he said, it's an authentic theatrical experience that leaves audiences transformed.

"The one word that comes to mind is liberation ," Lathim said. "When people leave, they leave baggage behind."

Marcus said he can even sense the transformation happening from the stage. "At first there's a lot of fear and a lot of doubt," he said, "but by the end that's totally gone and I feel a lot of joy from the audience."

The hard part is getting them into the theater.

"People's prior expectations of our work are usually different from what they get when they do see it," Lathim said. "We're always fighting that label of being a 'handicapped theater.' We don't want to be seen as a social service agency or a charitable do-good organization--we exist to create good theater."

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