Tuesday, December 1, 2009

California acting coach trains the next generation of intellectually disabled performers

From The Burbank Leader in California:

People say Tom Burke (pictured) has a gift of working with people who are developmentally disabled, but he believes he gets more in return from the experience than his clients do.

The Burbank resident has been sharing that gift for more than 23 years at BCR. — a place to grow.The Burbank center provides day programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities, including mental retardation, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral-palsy and others.

Clients come to the center from Burbank, Glendale and neighboring communities.

Burke started at the center as a volunteer and, for the last 13 years, has been a lead teacher of the afternoon program, working with clients who mostly range in age from 18 through 25, he said.

Burke attributes his success working with the clients to having a lot of patience and treating them as equals, he said.

“I’m one of the most patient people, and that’s what you need,” he said. “I get them. I understand them. I can get into their mind.”

Burke looks at them as people first, then he sees their disability, he said.

“They are just like anybody else,” he said. “Everybody is different. Their issues are out in the open for everyone to see. Our flaws are hidden.”

An actor, Burke has also been a script consultant and disability acting coach for movies about the developmentally disabled.

He worked for five weeks this summer in Canada on the Hallmark Hall of Fame film “A Dog Named Christmas,” which will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS.

Burke was the perfect selection for the assignment, said BCR Executive Director Lonna Grant.

“He has great insight and sensitivity to people with developmental disabilities and his natural creative talents have enhanced BCR’s programs tremendously,” she said. “He is a great role model and has a special connection with our clients.”

When he came to Los Angeles 23 years ago, he was a busy working actor, he said, but something was missing from his life. So he started a nonprofit organization, Actors Sharing Love, a group of 20 actors that once a week would entertain at convalescent hospitals and schools throughout the Los Angeles area.

He started volunteering at BCR and then did substituting for the center.

“And the rest is years and years of history,” he added.

On “A Dog Named Christmas,” he coached actor Noel Fisher who played Todd, a 20-year-old developmentally disabled man living with his parents who wants to adopt a dog from the shelter over the Christmas holiday.

“I was worried about working with him,” Burke said. “He was a 25-year-old Hollywood actor and I thought ‘What am I up against.’”

But he turned out to be an amazing guy, Burke said.

“He was totally open to everything I said,” he said.

“He wanted to get it right.”

Fisher called Burke an amazing resource and person to work with.

“I can’t thank him enough,” Fisher said. “I don’t know how I could have done justice to the part without him being there.”

Burke and Fisher developed a close bond and spent many hours together on and off the set, Burke said.

They even went to a Subway for sandwiches, with Fisher in character. The employees bought it, Burke said.

“It was so great,” he said. “They were asking me questions like I was the father. When he was paying, they handed me the change, which happens when I take some of the guys here around.”

That experience helped Fisher understand how the world responds to developmentally disabled people, Fisher said.

“It really helped me appreciate parents like those in the film,” he said. “I have respect and admiration for parents and loved ones who have these people in their lives.”