East End Special Players: Honesty In The Raw

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The East End Special Players Artistic Director Jacqui Leader was standing center stage on Saturday afternoon, looking over her notes, when Suzanne Mary Windels marched over to her side, head down.
It was the final rehearsal for the troupe’s original spring production, “Gigi: The Life of a Doll,” at the Bridgehampton Senior Center, before staging it at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor this weekend. And the actress had a lot on her mind.

“I’m nervous about doing the play,” she mumbled.

“Why?” Ms. Leader asked, gently.

“I’m afraid,” Ms. Windels replied, reaching for Ms. Leader’s hand.

“Of what?”

“What happens if I don’t know my lines?”

“Well, what do we usually do when you don’t remember your line?”

“I,” she paused, “don’t know.”

“Don’t we cover for you? Don’t we ask the audience, ‘Do you all want to see Suzanne say her lines?’ And they all say, ‘Yes! Suzanne, Suzanne, Suzanne, Suzanne!’”

“Me!” the actress exclaimed with smiling eyes.

“Yes, you,” Ms. Leader laughed. “And then you say your lines.”
Ms. Windels nodded uncertainly, still holding her director’s hand. She has Down syndrome, as do half of her fellow 26 East End Special Players. The rest are treated for a range of conditions, from learning disabilities to schizophrenia to depression, among others. However, each share one commonality: they all want to act. And this weekend, they will.

Written by none other than the Players themselves, “Gigi: The Life of a Doll” is a series of vignettes about the actors’ lives tied together and told through the eyes of actress Courtney Knox’s doll, Gigi, who is portrayed by a number of the Players wearing the same brown wig and schoolgirl costume, and named after a character on Ms. Knox’s favorite soap opera, “One Life to Live,” she said.

“You couldn’t make this up. What they say is so comical,” Ms. Leader said. “It starts with Gigi in the hospital, in France, because she was born with one lung and heart problems, which our actress Aurore really was, and it goes from there to making friends in school, being bullied, growing old together and having fun in your life. That’s the most important thing in one’s life. If you can’t make fun of yourself, you’re kind of doomed.”

Through improvisation and humor, the production transforms negative experiences into positives, allowing for the actors to come out on top, Ms. Leader said, though there is no shortage of dramatic moments.

Twenty years ago, Ms. Leader approached the troupe. She didn’t have a degree in psychology, but she did have a passion for theater. She has since learned how to direct with a stern fist and a simultaneous compassion.

“It was like true love. It was just, that was it. I knew I wanted to work with them,” she recalled of her first session with the actors. “For me, you feel sometimes in your life, it’s meant to be. And that’s why …”

She trailed off. “I get choked up sometimes. I just don’t want anything bad to happen to them. There’s nothing more honest than them. They wear their feelings on their sleeves. One minute they’re happy, one minute they’re sad.”

Before rehearsal, actress Tara O’Donnell was having one of those days. The 20-year-old newcomer tapped Ms. Leader on her arm, scratching at her brown, shoulder-length wig.

“My head,” she whined, looking up at the director over the red-rimmed glasses sitting low on her petite nose. “It hurts.”

Without warning, she suddenly burst into tears and Ms. Leader pulled her into her arms. “Oh you poor pumpkin, don’t cry,” she cooed, stroking the girl’s strawberry blonde hair.

Comedian Tommy Weinberger, dressed as a doctor for the opening scene, playfully sauntered over to the women. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Did you ladies know I lived in Europe for six years?”

Jarred by his non sequitur in regard to the current crisis, Ms. Leader shot him a puzzled look while Ms. O’Donnell peeked out over the director’s protective arm, intrigued. Mr. Weinberger whipped open his white lab coat, showing off a curly wig tucked under his arm.

Despite herself, Ms. O’Donnell dissolved into giggles between teary hiccups. Ms. Leader rolled her eyes, fighting a smile.

Satisfied, Mr. Weinberger walked back to his table and took a seat next to his friends. Ten years ago, he walked into the same room as a clown, a goofball, he said. Ms. Leader has turned him into an actor.

“When I did my first show, it was amazing,” the experienced Player said. “I’m afraid to go to my class reunion because how am I going to explain to the guys that I’m no longer a jock that didn’t learn how to read or write, but now I’m an actor that does performances in front of a live audience with people just like me? Who are disabled, from slow learners to Down syndrome to vision impaired? And it’s an amazing thing. I just fell in love with it.”

And then there’s Betsy. The two actors first met during a Players rehearsal. This May, they will celebrate their seven-year anniversary. After marrying, they honeymooned in Walt Disney World, Mr. Weinberger fondly recalled.

“I’d have to say, the guy upstairs had a plan for me,” he said. “I think working with Jacqui, that is the best thing that has ever happened to me, besides getting married and meeting Goofy in person. There’s a lot of love in this room.”

Almost on cue, actor Ian DuPree half-skipped over to his friend, Nakowa Weeks, just as he was walking through the door and threw his arms around him. The men smiled, hopping up and down in their embrace.

Actress Phebe Rogers greeted Mr. Weeks’s cousin, Lynn Fletcher, the same way.

“Yeah, we’ve all become mushes,” Mr. Weinberger laughed.

Meanwhile, it is five minutes to the official start time for rehearsal and Ms. Windels is still anxious. After a few encouraging words from Ms. Leader, she smiles and swiftly kisses the director’s hand that she is still holding.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Ms. Leader says in rapid succession. “You are ready.”

The director scampered off to tie up loose ends, leaving Ms. Windels with her own thoughts.

“Well, well,” she considered. “Yes, I am.”

She looked up at the ceiling and said, more decidedly with a hard nod, “I am. I can’t wait.”

Beaming with confidence, she marched backstage to stand among her fellow actors. She was ready. Ready for her moment to shine.

The East End Special Players will stage “Gigi: The Life of a Doll” on Friday, April 26, at 11 a.m. and Saturday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $20 and free for students. For more information, call 678-7560 or visit eastendspecialplayers.com.

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