Jesuit Reverend Rick Curry died in late December at age 72 after an extended illness. A pioneer in disability activism (he was born without a right forearm), he blended his faith with a love of theatre, founding the largest and oldest theatre school for people with disabilities, the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped (NTWH).
Rev. Curry believed that Jesus, as a preacher and storyteller, understood the value of stagecraft and would have wanted people to praise God with the bodies they were given. Through NTWH and later the Dog Tag Bakery, where he taught crafts such as Jesuit bread-making, Rev. Curry devoted his career to changing perceptions of those with disabilities.
RD asked one of his students, Gregg Mozgala, now a critically acclaimed actor and playwright, to write about his former mentor.
I was born with cerebral palsy. When I was in school studying theatre, I was the only visibly disabled person in my program. I read no plays by disabled playwrights, there were no “disabled parts” for me to play, and at the time, there were no role models who could reflect my experiences as a disabled person interested in a life in the arts. Rev. Curry, who I met in the summer of 2000 in Maine, when I participated in a two-week summer intensive course hosted by the NTWH, became a role model, a mentor and a source of hope and inspiration to me at a very formative time in my life.
After my time there, I worked with the NTWH as an administrator for a year, during which I saw the work of NTWH—and Rev. Curry—change lives.
I can remember, during one of my first nights in Maine the following summer, a few of us were hanging out in the living room area yucking it up and getting to know each other. A young man with a severe case of cerebral palsy—a wheelchair user who relied on a personal attendant—in the next room overheard us and threw himself out of his chair, dragging himself over to us so he could join the conversation. I saw a man who couldn’t walk without crutches suddenly get up and run to the front of a bar when he realized it was his time to sing karaoke (a miracle?), and I watched people from all over the country and the world sing and perform everything from show tunes to Shakespeare. For many, this was the first time they were in a community of other disabled people like themselves, where they felt valued as human beings and were given the space (literally a stage!) to express themselves.
As a man of the cloth and as an artist Curry understood that attending theatre is not unlike going to church. Many medieval plays were performed in churches and dealt with issues of morality, justice and the human condition. Beyond that, both theatre and religion give one a sense of community. There is pageantry and spectacle involved in both; one dresses up to go to the theater the same way one dons their “Sunday best” to attend services. There is the collective belief in something not seen that is bigger than oneself. Both experiences are ardent practices in faith.
Both theatre and the clergy are also lifestyles one feels called to. Curry’s own personal experiences were filled with challenges as a result of his disability, and those challenges drove him to be a steward for the arts and for people with disabilities. It was he who taught me that disability has no specific culture. It does however, have a specific context. When confronted with disability people see anxiety, struggle, birth and death. This may be our greatest obstacle, but it is also our greatest strength. As disabled individuals, we have confronted death and beat it. Why would we not use theatre as a tool to fully explore and exploit this fact?
Like the live rock concert versus its televised counterpart, theatre flourishes mainly because it pulses with real life. Both the performers and the audience dive into the same story and are swept up in the same whirlwind of feelings and ideas. The theatre’s events are unique and alive, neither digitized in a file nor affixed to a strip of celluloid. Theatre, like the sacrament of communion, is an art of flesh and blood.
Rick Curry will be missed.