By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
"Ann Fox and I looked at each other, and I said, 'Stuart, tell us more, but stay within the metaphor of being at Club Med,' Lipkin remembers. "Ann and I went home and typed it up."
The result, a five-minute monologue titled, unsurprisingly, "Club Med," remains Falk's signature piece. "I find myself in the back of a warm van with a woman in uniform. She says, 'What's your name?' and begins touching me in different places. 'How does this feel? Here? Here? Now, do you have insurance?' OK, so that bubble bursts."
There are about 25 sketches in the repertory that are rotated in and out of commission depending on the group's audience and who happens to be in the current ensemble. "Club Med," for instance, would not be appropriate for an assembly of first-graders (particularly the part where the narrator bemoans his inconveniently timed erections) and most certainly wouldn't be as funny without Falk's New Jersey whine.
"We focus on what everybody can do and not get caught up in what they can't do," says Aarya Sara Locker, the associate director. "The hard part is not to assume what they can't do. It's easy to take people at face value, and everyone in the group is more than their face value."
Two years ago, Lipkin invited Sara Burke, a former dancer with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, to help choreograph a number. "Aren't they in chairs?" Burke remembers asking. "Joan said, 'Yeah.' I thought, 'That shouldn't stop me.'
"Looking at it in terms of dance," she continues, "we couldn't have high-low choreography. Everyone had to stay on the same plane. So I taught them Dunham technique, which has a lot of body isolations. They raise their arms and do rolling of their heads and shoulders. Isolating the shoulders isn't easy. It was an exhausting workout, but it was really fabulous."
The final number, performed to Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It," is called "Gettin' Jiggy" and is an audience favorite. Each dancer has an eight-bar solo where they wave their arms, bounce in their chairs or, in the case of Dianne Falk — whose MS severely limits her mobility — flash the peace sign.
"David [Stech] bounced so hard one day, he almost fell out of his chair," says Locker. "He was cracking up. And we found out exactly how much he could bounce. It's very freeing to find out how far we can go."
Margaret Jorgensen and her fellow thespians have built an arsenal of snappy comebacks for people who treat them like freaks or bombard them with (in Locker's words) "invasive empathy."
Cracks Jorgensen: "People see me in a chair, and my IQ goes down ten points."
"When I was a kid," Reid Williams remembers, "people used to put their hands on me and say, 'Are you OK?' I'd say, 'Are you?'"
Alison Chancellor tells people who stare at her, "Take a picture; it lasts longer."
"One time," says Stech, "this guy at a bar said to me, 'Why are you here? You can't dance.' I said, 'The hell I can't!' 'Venus' by Bananarama was on, and I spun my chair in circles all around the bar."
Twice now strangers at the Walgreens in Kirkwood have presented Williams with hundred-dollar bills. He's still debating whether to use the money to take Chancellor, his girlfriend, out to a fancy dinner or donate it to his church.
A few weeks ago, recounts Chancellor, "I went to Straub's, and this crazy lady gets down on her knees — I kid you not — and says, 'Bless you, woman.' Then she put her hand on my head, pulled out her Bible and said, 'You are healed!' I was ready to run her over with my chair."
Allen turned his own life into a monologue called "Tom's Story," about how his epilepsy and partial blindness, the effects of a brain tumor when he was seven, helped make him a painter. Jorgensen wrote a commercial for the Nitro-Shot high-speed wheelchair ("[Stop] only to watch able-bodied people covet your wheelchair!").
Chancellor has had cerebral palsy since birth. Ana Jennings' spine was permanently damaged by tuberculosis when she was eighteen. Together, the two women developed a dialogue called "You Never Know," in which they debate whether it's worse to have lost the ability to walk or to have never walked at all. They don't actually argue about this in real life, Chancellor says, but the point is clear: "We're not like a blue-light special. We're not all alike."
Lipkin describes the group's writing process as collaborative, but in the end, she's the one who has the final say about what goes onstage.
Because the DP's official purpose — as stated in its mission statement — is to educate and entertain, the collective sense of humor is a gentle one, designed not to offend anyone in the audience. There's none of the equal-opportunity offensiveness of South Park where the two disabled characters, Timmy and Jimmy, behave just as idiotically as everyone else.
Williams loves South Park. "It doesn't make fun of people with disabilities," he explains. "Handi-Boy [on In Living Color] does. He's a superhero with mental disabilities, and it's very, very ignorant."