Special Director for Special Players

Putting together theatrical productions with a group of adults with learning disabilities
“It’s so nice to see that there is a place in this world for everybody, on stage and off,” said Jacqui Leader, who is directing the East End Special Players in “Gigi, the Life of a Doll” this weekend at the Bay Street Theatre. Morgan McGivern

    Twenty years ago, Jaqui Leader, artistic director of the East End Special Players, hesitated before calling Helen Rudman to apply for her current job. She was an actor, not a trained therapist.
    “I thought, I don’t have a degree working with people with learning disabilities,” she said Friday.
    Then she came in and met the group.
    “I realized I didn’t need a degree in psychology. Twenty years ago, and I’ve been doing it every Saturday since. We are getting old together,” she said, laughing.
    “It” is putting together theatrical productions with a group of adults with learning disabilities. Their newest production, “Gigi, the Life of a Doll,” premieres at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor tomorrow at 11 a.m. It will also be staged on Saturday at 7 p.m.
    The company faces a wide variety of challenges, from schizophrenia to Down syndrome to dementia. “I work with them as a director, not as a therapist,” she said.
    Some of her actors need to be prompted with their lines, while others can remember them, but all of the actors love what they are doing.
    A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Ms. Leader went on to study privately in New York with Jack Waltzer before moving with her first husband to England, where she formed a children’s theater company.
    Three years later, they moved back to the states, settling down in East Hampton. Though the marriage didn’t last, her desire to do theater did, and she became part of the East End theater community in the 1990s, acting whenever she had the opportunity. She began working with Glyde Hart and her Dark Horse Productions.
    “She was the first to do theater out of Stephen Talkhouse,” Ms. Leader remembered. It was Ms. Hart who encouraged Ms. Leader to contact the then-artistic director of the East End Special Players, Ms. Rudman, who was looking for someone to join her in working with the learning-impaired. At the time, the company was emphasizing mime.
    Since then, the company has expanded its theatrical focus, taking on classics as well as creating their own theater pieces.
    Ms. Leader encourages her troupe to explore the world theatrically through its improvisation at their Saturday sessions, which she videotapes. She slowly builds characters and scenes for each performer.
    Ms. Leader credits Bridget LeRoy, a communications consultant with the East Hampton School District and former staff writer with The East Hampton Star, with “cobbling together” the latest theatrical piece from the various scenes and vignettes the company had worked on.
    The performances are very much an interaction between the players and the audience, Ms. Leader said. “I tell the audience, ‘You never know what’s going to happen.’ ”
    She describes one of her performers as the company’s diva. Suzanne Mary Windels has Down syndrome and is experiencing the onset of dementia.  “She will stop the show,” Ms. Leader said. “She’ll say, ‘I can’t do this.’ ” But, with the audience’s encouragement, Ms. Windels continues.
    “It gives her a sense of self-worth,” Ms. Leader said.
    She cited her staff as being instrumental in the success of the theatrical program. Among them is Gabrielle Raacke. “She is our set and costume designer. One of the players had breast cancer. She saw that woman all the way through.”
    Recovered, the woman still participates in their weekly sessions.
    The players, who reside in various group and private homes across the East End, have become a very close-knit group, Ms. Leader said, developing friendships, romantic relationships, even getting engaged and married.
    “We all have challenges in life,” Ms. Leader said. “It’s so nice to see that there is a place in this world for everybody, on stage and off. You need to know that you’re wanted and needed.”
    Her point of view on the people she works with has evolved over the years. 
    “I used to feel sorry for them,” Ms Leader, who now lives in Amagansett, said about the 28-member company. “I don’t anymore. They are really cool people.”
    Tickets to the production cost $20. Students will be admitted free.