By Annette Hinkle
Twenty years ago, Jacqui Leader took over the helm of the East End Special Players.
And her life hasn’t been quite the same ever since.
The Players, as they are familiarly known, are a theatrical troupe made up of developmentally disabled adults. While many of the actors have Down’s Syndrome, there are other physical issues among members — including schizophrenia, blindness and severe learning challenges.
Many of the Players — who range in age from 19 to 65 — have been with Leader for years if not decades. At this point, both Leader and her actors understand things about themselves and one another which perhaps only comes through much time spent with people you have come to love and admire.
That’s obviously the case for Leader, who gets emotional when she talks about how special the East End Special Players are in her life.
“I really treat them with respect,” says Leader who notes how her expectations for what the troupe can accomplish is much different now than it was the day she took over as director of the troupe. “When I first worked with them, they did all their plays in mime. They didn’t talk.”
“But they love to talk and express themselves,” she adds. “I say you never know what you can do until you try.”
Audience members can see for themselves what the actors can do on Saturday when the East End Special Players present their new play, “Gigi,” at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. The production, explains Leader, is a direct result of the 28 current Players giving voice to their own experiences. Things like bullying, illness, body image and love are among the topics touched upon in the piece.
“For this new show, we started by really working on little improvs — which we always videotape — about what they’re feeling and what’s going on in their lives,” explains Leader. “They talk about having boyfriends and getting older. One girl said ‘I got bullied a lot. And [Player] Suzanne Mary Windells is getting dementia now – she’s 48 and is having trouble remembering.”
With the Players innermost thoughts, hopes and fears on videotape, Leader took the footage and started working with them on roles to act out what’s going on in their lives.
“I might ask questions to get them to think about it,” says Leader who often devises improvs in which the person who shared memories of getting picked on, for example, is cast not as the victim, but as the bully. While it may be therapeutic, this is not therapy. Instead, Leader treats the Players as actors and they, in turn, take that job very seriously.
The name of this new production was inspired by Courtney Knox, a Player in her 30s who used to bring Gigi, her doll to rehearsals so she could talk to it. Named after a character on the soap opera One Life to Live, in Gigi, Leader saw a way for the Players to share their stories — through the eyes of the doll.
“That’s how it unfolded,” says Leader who adds that Gigi’s experiences are offered chronologically and portrayed by different Players in different periods of their lives — with the tale of Aurore Berty, who was born with one lung and required major surgery as a child to save her life, opening the show.
“From there, we’re seguing to making friends in school, to meeting boys to having a nervous breakdown,” says Leader. “There’s one part where they wanted to talk about their favorite movies. Tommy Weinberger can do impersonation after impersonation, so we’ve got him doing a western and ‘Psycho.’”
The Players also love music — The Beatles and Bob Marley being two favorites — so Leader notes there will also be a musical component to “Gigi” as well. If it sounds like this play will be all over the place, that’s because it kind of is. But for Leader, that’s OK. The content represents the Players at their best — and most honest.
“That’s supposed to be my job – put this whole thing together to make it theatrically interesting,” she says.
Luckily, Leader recently hired Brigid Leroy and Karen Hendel to come on board as co-producers. Leroy, who is also a writer, helped organize the material into a cohesive script with a dramatic arc.
“I wanted to do justice to them,” says Leader. “It’s their play – they take ownership of it. They’re really proud. They’ve incorporated almost all the songs — from ‘She Loves You’ to Frank Sinatra’s ‘You Make Me Feel So Young.’ It tells their lives from the beginning to the middle and now, growing old.”
And, let’s not forget …. growing wise — something which has certainly happened to Leader by working with this group. Leader admits she’s been under a great deal of stress lately — she’s caring for her grandson during the day and trying to put together the Players production by night (among her many other commitments) and she admits it has gotten overwhelming.
“I had a meltdown, like them,” says Leader describing how some of the Players can fall apart during rehearsals when it all becomes too much. “I called Betsy, who has frequent meltdowns and she said, ‘Calm down this can all be worked out. There’s always a solution. That’s what you tell us.’”
“I almost started crying,” adds Leader. “I do say that. So I just stopped stressing and went to bed.”
Which leads one to wonder what, exactly, Leader has learned in the past two decades from the Players?
When asked this very question, she pauses for a long time, then whispers with tears in her eyes, “I’m just so grateful. I really love them. I’ve been with them for 20 years. I hope I made them proud. One man said, ‘ You’ve made me into an actor.’ I’ve learned patience and that things don’t happen overnight.”
“From the minute I saw them I believed it was destiny — I was meant to be with them,” she says.
The East End Special Players perform “Gigi: The Life of a Doll” at 7 p.m. this Saturday, April 27 at the Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Sets and costumes are by Gabrielle Raacke. Tickets are $20 at the door or visit eastendspeicalplayers.com. For more information, all 678-7560.