Program Involves Disabled in the Arts

Times Staff Writer

It was an unusual ensemble.

A young black man confined to a wheelchair because someone had shot him when he was 20. A woman whose leg never grew. A construction worker turned actor with a hook for a hand.

They were the Mark Taper Forum's Handicapped Actor's Workshop and they were at the Center Theater in Long Beach to make a point.

"We want to help people broaden their concept of what it is to be human," said Victoria Ann-Lewis, one of the founders of the group.

In the audience of 300 were disabled children, their parents, their teachers and interested members of the public. It was the culmination of a week of special programs designed to get these children involved in the arts. And by all accounts the first annual Arts in Motion festival was a huge success.

Therapy Through Art

"I'm ecstatic," announced Lidia Krzyzanowski, when it was all over.

A teacher at Lynn Pace in Bellflower, a school for mentally and physically disabled children and young adults, Krzyzanowski conceived the program with fellow teacher Troy Botello. The idea is to offer their students therapy through art, to convince them that they too can be creative and to demonstrate that disabled people are as capable as anyone of being artistic, the teachers said.

So working with another school for the disabled and with the Public Corp. for the Arts, the pair put together the weeklong schedule of special appearances and workshops that culminated in the benefit performance Wednesday night by the disabled actors and actresses from the Mark Taper.

"Disabled" Puppets

Also featured were the Long Beach Community Band, comedienne Geri Jewell, who delivered a monologue poking fun at her cerebral palsy after receiving a commendation from Councilwoman Eunice Sato, and "Kids on the Block," a group of "disabled" puppets displayed in the lobby by the Assistance League of Long Beach.

But the stars of the show were the 11 disabled performers who put on a musical and dramatic review based on their own struggles to come to terms with their various disabilities.

"The first thing I ever learned was how to fall," said Shawn Casey O'Brien, reading to the audience from his journal. A 29-year-old Santa Monica City College acting student, O'Brien has cerebral palsy that forces him to walk on crutches. "The second (thing) I learned," he said, "was how to get back up."

R. David Smith, 32, demonstrated his special technique of throwing and catching a baseball despite being born without a left forearm or hand.

Smith, O'Brien, Ann-Lewis and Darryn Brooks, who is in a wheelchair, put on a display of something called "locking"--a disabled person's equivalent of break dancing. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in their respective chairs, the quartet moved their upper bodies in sync and in time to the music.

And using song, skits, poetry and prose, the rest told sometimes emotional stories of their loves, lives and losses as disabled people trying to achieve the dignity and recognition they feel is their due.

"We remind people of the infinite resourcefulness of the human experience," said Nancy Becker Kennedy, a paraplegic, who wrote the show's music and lyrics.

When it was all over the performers got a standing ovation.

"It amazes me how they do what they do," said Glen Steenburgh, 35, a Santa Monica mechanic who had come with a friend who teaches disabled children. "It thrills me to see the inspiration."

For Dana Lance, 5, of Redondo Beach, however, the real action was the "Kids on the Block" show at intermission.

"I've never seen a puppet in a wheelchair," she said.

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