Real Drama

Debra Lombard and the kids of the ETC can tell you a thing or two about motivation

The Exceptional Theatre Company is the largest theater company in South Florida, but you've probably never heard of it. It's got more than 200 actors on the books, three dozen unpaid assistants, a board of directors, three employees who draw regular paychecks (or could, in theory, if they'd ever submit their invoices), and an executive artistic director who often works 70 hours a week. Her name is Debra Lombard. "I honestly don't know why people haven't heard about us," she says. "That's your job. Tell them!"

So I'm telling you. Check them out. You may have to wait until after summer — Debra's not going to put on many shows until fall. She spent all spring running herself ragged, in one notable week putting on three separate shows with three separate casts. But still. Mark your calendar.

Gaw and David: Smoke gets in your eyes.
C. Stiles
Gaw and David: Smoke gets in your eyes.

It's damned good theater, but maybe not the kind you're used to. All of the actors in the Exceptional Theatre Company have been diagnosed with mental retardation, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, or some other developmental disability. At a typical show in April — of a pseudo Grease-type musical, called A Little Dab of Grease Will Do Ya — a leading man was having an onstage meltdown before the show. Maybe it was stage fright, maybe something else. It was hard to tell from the audience. Lombard rushed the stage, pow-wowed with the actor, got him laughing, and then had to dash back into the house to find a couple of actresses who had wandered away from their positions. She found one of them, Janine, standing off to the side of the house with some friends. Janine was to play a cheerleader that night, and she shrugged off Lombard's entreaties with a doleful wave of a pompom and a quick bat of the hand that seemed to say "Shoo!"

"C'mon," said Lombard, "You want to be in the play, right?"

Shoo!

"All right." The director walked away. "She'll get up there," she said a moment later. "When she sees the audience. It'll click."

Indeed it does. Fifteen minutes later, the house is full of 200 of the actors' friends and families. Some are wearing evening dresses. Some are wearing bicycle helmets. When Debra gets up to do her pre-show announcement, Janine appears suddenly at her side, smiling. She's got an amazing smile — a huge smile with a bit of tongue tucked mischievously between the teeth; a smile meant to befriend all 200 theatergoers at once.

Tentatively, Janine raises a pom-pom in the air. A few people applaud, so she does it again with a little more verve. The applause is louder. Lombard pats her actress on the back. This is dramatic success, of a certain kind, and the show hasn't even started.

The Exceptional Theatre Company, or ETC, has been around since 1992, but it was a lot smaller in the beginning, and saddled with the unfortunate name "Drama Class for Young Adults With Special Needs." In those days, the company existed primarily for kids who'd graduated from the high school program at the Quest Center in Hollywood and were suddenly left without a social outlet.

Until last year, its growth was small — it split into two classes in 1994, due to increasing demand, but didn't develop much beyond that until the beginning of 2007. That's when ARC Broward (a huge center in Sunrise offering day programs to hundreds) and United Cerebral Palsy came calling, and Lombard realized she couldn't treat ETC as a hobby anymore. She quit her 50+-hour-a-week day job, and soon there were more people clamoring for ETC's services than the company could handle.

In April, I spent four weeks huffing after Debra as she went from class to class to performance. She's 53, blond, and blessed with a sexy, conspiratorial little rasp of a voice that she is always — always — using. She may have more energy than anybody you've ever met. Outside the classroom it appears almost unnatural, like she's a sped-up videotape of a woman. She speaks in great, unselfconscious floods of words, always seeming faintly out of breath, as though just returning from a vigorous run. She seems to harbor some barely controllable force that's perpetually spurring her to action.

It's only when she's surrounded by her kids that she seems entirely in her element. She takes a step across, say, the stage at JARC — the Jewish Association for Residential Care in Boca — and there's an actor with a question about his character. She is interested in this question: She smiles, answers, and makes a small joke that makes both her and the actor laugh.

But before she's rightly begun this process, there's another actor with an equally pressing question about his costume. Before she can even look at that actor, one of her shadows — one of dozens of high school kids who provide onstage assistance to the ETC company members — is wondering whether he's using an up-to-date version of the script. Dealing with all of these distractions while simultaneously getting 30 or 40 rowdy thespians to settle down and create something resembling drama would be almost impossible for any ordinary person. Debra, alas, is a little weird. Though she is more than twice my age, I found that I couldn't keep up with her.

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