Brightening Hopes of Disabled Actors : Laguna Playhouse Provides Training for Movie and TV Roles in Sessions Co-Sponsored by County Department of Education

Times Staff Writer

Audiences didn't see young Scott Warneke in "Gorillas in the Mist." His small role in the movie ended up on the cutting room floor. But that's OK with Scott. The red-haired, freckle-faced 11-year-old from Dana Point got to fly to England with his mother for filming, met actress Sigourney Weaver and toured some real live castles. And he got an edited version of his cut scenes for his burgeoning portfolio.

The unusual part of the story is that Scott, who played a young man with severe rheumatoid arthritis, suffers from the debilitating disease himself. Often, Scott said, casting agents call on non-disabled actors to portray disabled characters in films and on TV. The agents say there is a lack of trained young disabled actors, according to Jody Davidson, general manager of the Laguna Playhouse.

It's a situation that Davidson is hoping to change. The playhouse is in the midst of an intensive weeklong acting workshop for disabled budding actors, 7 to 18 years old. The 45 participants represent a wide range of physical and learning disabilities, including cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, blindness, deafness, orthopedic disabilities, autism and spina bifida.

On Monday, the first day of the workshop, the youngsters broke up into three groups and rotated among three teachers. In a dressing room, Davidson led a session on memorization. Youngsters paired off and made up a conversation, then performed it for the class--twice. The point was to match the two renditions word for word.

The students, some with the aid of sign language, discussed such subjects as favorite hobbies, pets and the relative merits of Debbie Gibson and Michael Jackson.

In the theater's green room, Joe Lauderdale acquainted his students with the essentials of pantomime and improvisation. Members of the older group often broke into nervous laughter as they passed an imaginary ball around.

Later, the group progressed to an imaginary "magic bag." Each student pulled out a mimed "object" (they ranged from a guitar to a radio to a video game); the others tried to guess what it was. In the lobby, Scott Davidson, Jody's husband, taught some essentials of movement and "body awareness." Students stretched out on the floor and tensed different parts of their bodies, on cue.

After this week's sessions, 30 of the youngsters will be chosen for a yearlong program that will meet twice a week for 30 weeks, then five days a week for a month. The program will conclude with a showcase production in Hollywood for agents and others in the industry.

In narrowing the group to 30, Jody Davidson said she and other teachers are looking chiefly for desire: "If desire is there, everything else can be taught."

They're also looking for "how much (the students) use the things they have."

If the actors are asked to sneak across the stage, the direction applies equally to those in wheelchairs. "I want that chair to sneak across the stage," Jody said. "I want to see 'sneak' written on their faces."

Co-sponsored with the Orange County Department of Education, both the one-week and yearlong programs are free to participants. This week's sessions were underwritten by the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts, while the longer program will be paid for with a $16,000 grant from the California Community Foundation and pending grants from two other organizations.

Before she came to Laguna, Jody Davidson led the Rainbow Company in Las Vegas, which she said was the first integrated disabled/non-disabled children's theater company in the country. At Laguna, she has worked with the Youth Theater program, which has mounted several productions featuring disabled performers.

Now, because of her background, casting agents in search of young disabled actors call her "two or three times a month," she said. "They'll say, 'Do you have a blind 10-year-old boy,' or, 'Do you have a deaf 16-year-old girl.' "

There are not enough trained actors to fill the requests, so roles are often cast with non-disabled actors or rewritten. "We want to provide that training," Davidson said. The focus of the program, Davidson emphasized, is occupational and not therapeutic. She wants the students to see acting "as a potential way to make a living."

Arletta Proche is an agent who represents several young disabled actors, including Scott Warneke and Jade Calegory, a Dana Point youth who starred in last year's feature film "Mac and Me" and who must get around in a wheelchair. She has used Davidson as a contact since Davidson's days at the Rainbow Company.

Proche agreed that there is a need for more young disabled actors but noted that obstacles exist beyond the lack of training. Some producers, she said, are concerned that a set, with its many cables and moving cameras and other hazards, may be a dangerous setting for a disabled youngster.

Still, she said, there are casting directors who go out of their way to hire disabled actors. She singled out Marvin Page of the daytime soap opera "General Hospital."

"It's tough for (young disabled actors), I'll tell you that, but I think it will get better," Proche said.

Frank Hayes, 16, a student at Fountain Valley High School who uses a wheelchair, relayed his growing enthusiasm for acting during a break in Monday's classes: "It's fun. It's just lately that I've really gotten into it and said, why not?"

His face brightened when he was asked if he would like to move into movies or TV. "I'd love to," he said.

Warneke, at 11 a veteran of commercials and TV roles, was enthusiastic about this chance to further his training, and especially to perform before Hollywood casting agents. "This is a really, really neat opportunity," he said.

Jody Davidson, meanwhile, is looking forward to the challenge of the coming year. "The yearlong is a really intensive program," she said. "By the end of it we should have some damn good young actors."

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