Thursday, January 13, 2011

Disabled actors shine in Sacramento theatre productions

From The Sacramento Press in Calif.:

When Brian Hillebert was 7 years old, he was hit by a car and left in a coma. His awakening was considered a miracle, but doctors said he would never walk again.

Today, the 40-year-old not only walks, but is a lead actor for a local theater company.

The Sacramento-based Short Center Repertory is a theater company working mostly with disabled actors, and Hillebert – whose mobility on his right side remains impaired – is one of the stars in “Extensions,” which runs through Jan. 30.

“I originally wanted to be a professional wrestler, but that was too much,” Hillebert said. “I got started in stand-up comedy, but I got tired of the rotten tomatoes, so I started acting.”

He attributes acting jobs he’s gotten outside of the organization as being direct results of the training and experience gained in the repertory.

“It’s all because of the Short Center Repertory,” he said. “I am disabled, but I’m not going to let that slow me down and keep me from acting.”

He’s been at the Short Center Repertory since 1995, and the group’s founding director, Jim Anderson, said his attitude is typical of all the approximately 75 disabled actors who have held roles in its plays.

Founded in 1988, The Short Center Repertory was inspired by one of the numerous advocacy groups for the disabled started by Mary Short, who was the wife of a California state senator who co-authored the Lanterman Act. That legislation, signed in 1969, gave disabled people the same rights to services as non-disabled people, Anderson said.

It is affiliated with the nonprofit Developmental Disabilities Service Organization, according to Anderson.

“Our basic mission is to get actors with disabilities into the mainstream as much as possible,” Anderson said. “There just aren’t many opportunities for actors with disabilities.”

Anderson said the most rewarding aspect of working with disabled actors during the past 23 years has been watching the actors develop their skills and stand behind the repertory’s mission.

“The arts make people grow, not just intellectually, but in the breadth of their personality,” he said. “People develop confidence in themselves.”

And according to Ray Tatar, artistic director of the California Stage Theater Company, that confidence is well-founded.

“The acting is always professional,” he said. “I’ve seen their shows for years, and they tend to do challenging play choices. The last show I saw of theirs was an adaptation of a book called ‘Gilgamesh.’ It’s a 5,000- to 6,000-year-old story. The adaptation that Jim (Anderson) and his folks did was terrific.”

Tatar added that Anderson both mentors and directs the Short Center Repertory actors, which is unusual in a professional theater company.

“In most professional companies, the actors are already trained, but Jim (Anderson) does a lot of training, too,” he said.

The current play, “Extensions,” is a two-person play with Hillebert and Regina Brink, who has been blind since age 3.

“If I could make money doing performing arts and not doing a day job, that would be great,” Brink said. “It’s really hard to get auditions and opportunities, so it means a lot to me to get to perform here.”

Brink said she has been performing since age 2, and in “Extensions,” she plays a person with sight.

“I walk the stage before we start so I know exactly where everything is,” she said. “When you see me, I’m up and about and looking around. You wouldn’t know I was blind.”

She said playing cards – used as props in the play – have Braille writing on them so she knows which ones to use.

“It’s about two old Vaudeville actors waiting to get a call from an agent,” Hillebert said. “It’s comical at the beginning and heartwarming at the end.”

Anderson said the play, by Murray Schig, is a dark comedy about aging and isolation.

Showings of the play are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 30 at the California Stage, 1723 25th St, where most of the group’s performances are held.

Admission is on a sliding scale, $5 - $20, depending on what people can pay.

Anderson said he prefers to let theatergoers decide for themselves what they can pay rather than come up with several different discount levels.

“We don’t want to turn anyone away,” he said.