By Kevin Zimmerman
Rachel Handler grew up in southern New Jersey, but with dreams of becoming an actor she always had her sights set on the Great White Way.
She eventually got to New York City, even making it into the cast of an off-Broadway children’s show.
It appeared she was on her way—then tragedy struck.
A car accident took Handler’s left leg below the knee. While she lay there awaiting the ambulance’s arrival, she could think of only one thing.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m never going to be on Broadway,’” Handler said.
But next week, she’ll take a step back toward a life in the theater when Nicu’s Spoon’s production of “Richard III” opens at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City.
In Stephanie Barton-Farcas’ version of the Shakespeare drama, the director flips audience expectations by making the hunchback, deformed and unfinished Richard the only character without a disability.
And Barton-Farcas takes it one step further by utilizing 11 differently-abled actors, out of a cast of 15.
Actor Joe Genera had a thriving TV and film career in his hometown of New Haven, Conn., when an accident left him confined to a wheelchair.
“A car fell off a lift that I was standing under,” Genera said, “it broke me in two.”
Shortly after that his daughter was born, and he figured it was time to settle into a corporate career to support his growing family. But the acting bug never totally left. About six years ago, Genera decided to give it another try.
“I figured it was now or never,” he said.
Genera portrays Catesby, one of Richard’s thugs, who gets to do a little conniving and murdering of his own.
At one point, Catesby is required to chase after the character of Hastings.
Barton-Farcus suggests Genera, dressed like a ‘50s mobster complete with thick black gloves, watch Hastings flee, then spit into his hands and rub them together before rolling off the stage.
It adds a subtle twinge of humor to a serious scene.
“I love this kind of work,” Genera said. “I like being cast as just another cast member and not somebody in a chair. The more we are out there, the more we are going to be seen.”
As Nicu’s Spoon begins its 15th season, the director discusses how the group was formed to be an all-inclusive company rather than just one that pays lip-service to the idea of diversity in casting.
“This was built out of frustration,” Barton-Farcus said. “I was sick of hearing about all these groups that were ‘inclusive’ that really were not.”
She wanted actors of every age, color and physical ability to have a spot on the stage.
Theater should be a reflection of society, Barton-Farcas said, but at the turn of the 21st century she did not see much of that happening on the New York stage.
“When I walk around New York City, I don’t just see white people,” she said. “Theater was not reflecting life. And in a city like New York—the city that theater takes its cue from—for shame.”
Although Genera’s wheelchair and Handler’s prosthetic leg make it clear what physical challenges they are dealing with, other cast members’ disabilities are not obvious.
At first blush, Ian Gregory Hill appears to be one of the four non-disabled performers in the show. But for Hill the challenges are internal.
The Cincinnati native suffers from sensory processing disorder, which means his nervous system is unable to interpret messages received through his five senses.
Unable to understand what was going on around him, Hill would often completely shut down. He did not master the English language, he said, until he was around 12.
Without the ability to communicate, Hill was thought to be deaf and was taught to sign.
Once it became clear what the issue was, Hill’s parents decided to enroll him in a musical theater program as a type of therapy. When he was in the eighth grade he landed a part in a school production of “Honk Jr.” That was all it took—Hill was hooked.
“Being on stage and being able to play somebody else is the most thrilling thing for me,” Hill said. “I’m a normal person. I just think differently.”
If You Go
When: Sept. 29 through Oct. 11
Where: The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City
Contact: (646) 491-0643
Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimm