In the movie Coming Home, Jon Voight played the part of a paraplegic Vietnam vet confined to a wheelchair. In The Miracle Worker, Patty Duke was the young Helen Keller, blind and deaf since infancy. Throughout the world of the dramatic arts—onstage, in films or on TV—roles portraying the handicapped are almost always performed by able-bodied actors. But consider this possibility: Couldn't they be performed with even more sensitivity by actors who are themselves disabled?

Answers to that question may be forthcoming from a unique experiment in New York City called the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped. Founded in 1977 by Jesuit Brother Rick Curry, NTWH seeks not simply to give the disabled a chance to perform in special theaters restricted to the handicapped. Far more ambitiously, it aims at preparing its students (about 150 to date) to become fully qualified showbiz professionals.

Of late the theater school has shown the first signs of modest success. Eight students have gotten small parts in TV soaps; another is up for a one-shot role on The Cosby Show. And NTWH's reputation is expanding beyond its Manhattan base. Three weeks ago it received a $20,000 grant from the Dole Foundation for Employment of Persons with Disabilities. It was among the first gifts from the foundation set up by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, himself a wounded World War II combat veteran, who retains only partial use of his right arm.

Brother Curry's understanding of the problems of the handicapped is also personal. A native of Philadelphia and the youngest in a family of three children, he was born without a right forearm. Yet he remembers his childhood as "absolutely blessed." His was a devoutly religious and supportive family, and he attended Jesuit schools in which cruelty would not be tolerated. "A lot of my students," he says, "tell me they were mocked as children because of their handicaps. I was never teased." As a confidence builder his parents sent him at age 7 to an acting class. His dentist father hoped it might help Rick to become a lawyer.

Instead, influenced by his teachers and an older sister who became a nun, Curry, now 42, eventually took his vows in the Society of Jesus. Still he never lost his interest in the stage. He was an English major at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University and received a master's in theater from Villanova. After teaching high school in Baltimore and at St. Joseph's, he earned a Ph.D. in theater this year from New York University.

Meanwhile he experienced full force the prejudices of an appearance-conscious theatrical world. Curry recalls one stage role that required no particular manual dexterity. But because he is one armed, he was refused even an opportunity to audition. Such rebuffs stiffened his resolve to be an agent for change. Largely through donations of both money and facilities ("We do beg a lot"), he established NTWH, which now has a six-person staff in addition to himself: a musical director, movement coach, voice and diction coach, acting teacher, business manager and secretary.

Tuition for each 12-week workshop, with two evening and weekend classes, is kept at a modest $100. But Brother Curry doesn't attempt miracles. Students must be able to read scripts—in Braille, if necessary. They must hear and have some mobility—with the help of crutches or wheelchairs, if needed. They must accept risks. "Many of the disabled have felt we should kind of stay in the background," says student Jackie DiLorenzo, a suburban mother of two and a post polio victim who has been wheelchair-bound from childhood. Now, says Jackie, who has gone on camera for a still-to-be-aired McDonald's commercial, "We're putting ourselves out there to be seen and to be judged."

NTWH's teachers and students do not delude themselves that future victories will come easily. But Brother Curry believes the future is bright. "A few years ago we were trying to persuade the industry to at least give the disabled a chance to audition," he says. "Now we're getting lots of calls." Adds DiLorenzo, "When you see a performance by the violinist Itzhak Perlman, you don't focus on his crutches or his braces. That's because of his magnificence as an artist. It's a long way in front of me, but now I'm reaching for it."

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Vespa.