Dina Shadwell has a challenging job. The Atlanta theater veteran is getting ready to direct a show with a group of people who are sensitive, vulnerable and at times unpredictable. Or as they’re more commonly known: actors.
“Let’s do some monster work!” Shadwell shouts as her 40-person cast takes the stage at an extended weekend rehearsal for Little Shop of Horrors, opening Thursday through March 9 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. The classic musical marks the 21st production of Jerry’s Habima Theatre, Georgia’s only theatrical company for adult actors with special needs.
Consistently selling out shows, Jerry’s Habima has become the flagship program within the Blonder Family Department for Special Needs at the Marcus Center, in coproduction with the group’s Arts & Culture Department. Lois Blonder, the show’s benefactor and cochair, had already been a longtime supporter of the center’s special needs programs with her husband, Jerry. The couple considered Habima (from the Hebrew word for “stage”) to be the department’s “crown jewel,” and when Jerry passed away in 2006, the troupe was renamed in his honor.
For Blonder, whose granddaughter has special needs, the emotional impact of Jerry’s Habima only grows stronger each year. “I don’t think I’ve seen one performance where I haven’t shed a tear or two,” she says. “But it’s the kind of tears one sheds out of total gratification and happiness that this program exists, and that we could be a part of it.”
The company stages one musical each year with a cast that features performers living with a variety of conditions, from physical impairments to developmental disabilities. But for Shadwell, it’s all about the acting chops. “I don’t know what their labels are, I don’t really care to know,” she says. “I just want to know, whatcha got? What can you bring to the table?”
All shows at Jerry’s Habima feature professional talent behind the scenes, and just because actors have special needs doesn’t necessarily mean they get special treatment. “We’re not hired because we have experience with people with disabilities, we come in knowing how to put on a show,” Shadwell says of the production crew. “We demand a lot from the actors, more than most people probably think they’re capable of.”
Now in his fourth show with Jerry’s Habima, Patrick Robinson, 21, takes the lead for the first time this year as shopkeeper Seymour. Robinson, who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, began acting in middle school and says Jerry’s Habima shows stand out from the rest. “These are some of the most talented people I’ve worked with,” he says.
David Grayson, 33, is in his seventh season with Jerry’s Habima. After his first opening night, a family member told Shadwell he had never heard Grayson put so many words together in a sentence. This year, he’ll be one of the actors portraying giant man-eating plant Audrey II. Arriving for rehearsal, he has the confidence of an old pro as opening night approaches. “I don’t get nervous anymore,” Grayson says. “I just feel comfortable onstage.”
The benefits of Jerry’s Habima extend offstage as well. Actors gain social skills, emotional development and, most importantly, a life-changing boost of confidence. Too often, Shadwell says, people with disabilities are the focus of negative attention — or receive no attention at all. Performing shifts the power to the actors, allowing them to embrace the spotlight. “Once they’ve gotten a taste of the audience reaction, they’re bitten,” she says. “There’s no turning back.”
The same could be said of the founding days of Jerry’s Habima, which started with a scrappy “What if?” spirit back in 1993. The Marcus Center’s existing special needs program often included trips to local theaters to see plays. Those events were so popular with participants that one of the group’s organizers suggested putting on a show themselves. After they raised $4,000 and hired a director, Deadra Moore, the curtain went up on the first show and a new group of stars were born.
“They all had a much greater, more specific sense of self [after performing],” says Moore, now the executive director of the Suzi Bass Awards. She recalls one actor whom she had cast as a lead, but he told her he was too nervous to be onstage. Noting his talent for voice work, Moore put him on a mic backstage to provide sound effects for the show. “That worked so well for him, the next show he was onstage,” she says. “That was big.”
The performances prove to be even more transformative for audiences, especially those who don’t have regular interaction with the special needs community.
“I’ve had people tell me they were initially afraid to come see a Habima performance,” Shadwell says. “They were afraid they couldn’t handle it.” She says audience members worry they will laugh inappropriately or feel pity for the performers, a fear that dates back to the very first show, Tom Stoppard’s comedic 15-Minute Hamlet. Moore remembers some parents even pulled cast members from the production, nervous about how they would be received. But that all changed after opening night.
“The biggest surprise for our audience was that it was funny. Our actors were actually being characters onstage, and the intention was for the audience to laugh,” says Moore. “That first show was the proving ground that these actors are actors just like anybody.”
Jerry’s Habima holds auditions each year to determine lead roles, but everyone who tries out gets a part. As awareness grows, so do the cast sizes. So far, the group has relied on ensemble musicals like “Little Shop of Horrors” to accommodate so many roles, but it’s becoming more difficult to find affordable new titles. Susie Davidow, director of the Blonder Family Department, says the center is considering additional productions or a traveling troupe to meet increasing demand. Jerry’s Habima has even attracted national attention from other Jewish community centers, who have reached out to Davidow about launching their own versions.
Back home in Atlanta, as the crew members put the final touches on the Little Shop of Horrors set, Patrick Robinson’s dad, Tim, can’t wait to see his favorite actor take the stage in his favorite musical. “He’s really put his heart and soul into it,” he says, describing his son’s diligent at-home practice routine. “Any nervousness I have about his performance is overshadowed by how proud I am.”
Patrick smiles. “I love hearing that,” he says.