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.

But it was fun trying. At her Tuesday night class at Cooper City High, I met Heidi Gaw, a small woman with chestnut brown hair and the kind of perfect porcelain skin you see in an Almay commercial. She is 31, and by her own reckoning has been with the company since 2002. She cannot rightly say how many shows she's done with ETC, but she recalls one with particular mirth. "We did one a couple of years ago," she says, laughing. "I was a Sponge Bob character. I really can't explain it, but it was pretty funny."

When Heidi Gaw first came to her adopted mother, Karen Gaw-McCauliffe, as an infant in 1977, she did not seem destined for showbiz. "She was a vegetable," Gaw-McCauliffe says. "When we got her home, she could do nothing. Couldn't make a sound, couldn't cry, couldn't roll over, couldn't hold a ball." The state assumed Heidi would remain in a permanently vegetative state and intended to keep her in Gaw-McCauliffe's household only until a proper facility could be found. But with a little TLC — and thrice-weekly visits from a physical therapist — Heidi went from vegetative to talking in 13 months.

She discovered a love for showbiz when, at age 3, she took to the field during her older brother's football game and declared herself a cheerleader. An outfit was made for her, and she stayed on for the season. She hasn't had many performance opportunities since then. Heidi harbored a long-running fascination with the work of Bette Midler, but her reinterpretations of Bette's oeuvre were mostly limited to living room engagements in front of Gaw-McCauliffe's video camera. Heidi has Asperger's Syndrome, a type of autism, which makes casting calls difficult. She currently works as a lunch lady.

In April, though, for the first time in her life, Gaw took the stage as a leading lady in front of 300 adoring fans at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie (to keep the copyright-crazy litigators at bay, she played Cindy from Boca instead of Grease's Sandy from Australia). The show was not your average musical. As per the wishes of the cast members, music from the Beach Boys and Michael Jackson sat side by side with "Summer Nights" and "You're the One That I Want." Crazily, this actually worked out pretty well.

It's easy to get cheesily misty-eyed over a project like ETC's — it's almost too easy to say, for example, that the show was brilliant and that the actors were, you know, exceptional. The actors in the company love what they do so much, they're such divas and respond so powerfully and guilelessly to an audience's applause, that one is tempted to pile so many facile encomiums on the company that they cease to mean anything. Before every show, Debra leads her actors in a chant of "I am, at this moment, all that I need to be." To be moved by 30 kids joining an affirmation like that can make you wonder if you're being sentimental.

But you're not. Sometimes, those cheesy, lovey-dovey feelings are entirely justified. When Heidi Gaw began singing "Hopelessly Devoted To You," I immediately felt terrible that, until that moment, her voice had been confined to living room performances of other people's records. Her voice was pure, tuneful, and crystal-clear, and hearing it pouring out of her was a moment of drama real as any you'll find on a stage.

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