Rick Curry, John Siciliano,and John Spalla in rehearsal for Siciliano.
Rick Curry, John Siciliano,
and John Spalla in rehearsal for Siciliano.
The desire of human beings to watch others act out plays is both ancient and universal. Good theater rivets its viewers' attention. Indeed, the etymological root of the word "theater" traces back to "sight" and "a thing compelling the gaze; a wonder."

So the existence and the ambitions of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped (NTWH), a nonprofit organization based in Manhattan, should come as no surprise to theater aficionados. Disabled actors such as John Siciliano, who recently starred in a play he wrote and workshopped at NTWH titled Siciliano, command immediate attention by the visible marks of their differences. These differences--in hearing ability, ambulatory ability, etc.--can easily be imagined by those who don't have them. After all, who hasn't experienced and/or witnessed some failings of the body? Drama is inherent in watching talented actors with disabilities perform: Something has already happened, and that previous event is visible in the form of a disability that can suggest loss, pain, or--in the case of physically challenged professional actors--redoubtable victory.

Rick Curry, the actor/director, author (The Secrets of Jesuit Breadbaking) and Jesuit brother who founded NTWH in 1977 when he was 23, has often told of the incident that sparked the company's birth. (Within the last two years, he has told it on 60 Minutes as well as to People magazine, USA Today and other publications.) In 1977, Curry was planning to begin auditioning--with the Jesuits' approval--to earn some extra money to pay for his education. But when a receptionist saw him, she just laughed at him; much of Curry's right arm has been missing since birth. The receptionist would not send him upstairs to the audition for a mouthwash commercial, and so he left. Thirty-six hours later, Curry says, he started the NTWH.

He credits his resourcefulness to his parents. "They trained me to look for options," he explains. "If I couldn't play football, then I could try horseback riding." Also, Curry notes that his Jesuit education was about "affirming life and training the imagination." Considering his family background, his own interest in theater and his experience as a Jesuit, his founding of the NTWH seems to have been inevitable. (Note: There is no connection between the company and the Catholic Church. The company has no religious affiliation and has a policy of non-discrimination; able-bodied actors can also audition for roles at NTWH.)

"There's a Jansenism, a Puritanism which still pervades this country and says that theater is evil," Curry mused recently at the NTWH headquarters on Broome Street, his low-pitched, musical voice emanating as much energy and good cheer as his easy stance and sharp eyes. "There's a fear of the body on display." Curry notes that Ignatius Loyola, who started the Jesuit order, believed firmly in the importance of a disciplined mind and an active, imaginative intellect; Loyola himself had a terrible limp and, according to Curry, saw theater as a cathartic medium.

It has been 10 years since Congress passed the Americans with Disability Act, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled. But arts and advocacy organizations like NTWH and VSA arts have been around much longer. VSA arts is a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith; promotion of the creative power of those with disabilities galvanizes its programs, and one idea grounding the organization is that the disabled can find new freedom in the world of art. Marlee Matlin, spokesperson for VSA arts, recently commented on the pleasure of acting on stage vs. film: "I like the improvisation that is always there on stage," she said. "I sense that I grow more as an artist, and there is more to explore."

The NTWH has spent many years training beginning actors with disabilities in a disciplined, encouraging environment. And though the company has offered very successful cabaret presentations in the past, Siciliano changed everything; now, the focus seems to be on producing new plays that offer parts for disabled actors.

A psychologically layered, unsentimental, 75 minute drama, Siciliano presents its title character as an ambitious, macho, aspiring actor who hangs out with a neighborhood pal. Dressed in workout attire, young John and his friend joke and talk; a contraption resembling scaffolding or playground apparatus comprises the set. Soon, John has an accident that costs him his right leg.

Propped on a hospital bed, the actor faces the audience, clad only in a hospital gown. The absence of his right leg is stark, confrontational, and clearly not the result of any stage tricks. The play connects John's mourning of the loss of his leg to the death of his mother when he was nine; more and more frequently throughout the play, the figure of the mother appears on stage, perched high upon one of the set's edges. Siciliano's well-structured story allows for fear and ambivalence to be expressed by other characters toward John's accident, but it is John himself who changes the most. Having never spoken of his mother until the accident, he now thinks and talks about her constantly, ultimately reaching a redemptive understanding of his life.

Curry, who directed and workshopped Siciliano with its author/star, sees the different elements of the NTWH as feeding each other. Last summer, 157 students signed up for numerous art and performance classes in Belfast, Maine; this year, students will also learn the practical skill of bread making in preparation for the opening of a NTWH bakery there.

Practical and aesthetic considerations never seem very distant from each other in Curry's thinking. "What does the heart tell the mind about the human condition? We're beginning to acknowledge and celebrate the powers of people with disabilities," he says. "It reminds us all of our own fragility. Putting a face on disability removes fear, and theater does so in a non-threatening way. What we're saying is, 'Look at us!' "

The company's work has drawn the attention and support of writer Laura Esquivel and actress Hope Lange. Esquivel, the author of Like Water for Chocolate wrote the foreword to Curry's bread baking book, and is currently working with the company on a screenplay. With the bakery opening in Maine this June and plans for a film shoot scheduled this spring, the NTWH is thriving with all sorts of creativity.

"I'd never made a coconut cake before," Curry says in reference to a tall dessert he's made in the headquarters' kitchen for a staff member's birthday. "It looks like one of Jacqueline Kennedy's pillbox hats."