Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Renegade Garage Players put diverse talents into musical

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For the Renegade Garage Players, an eventful summer is nearing a climax.

The local nonprofit theater group offers people with and without disabilities the chance to perform in three to four plays a year. This Thursday and Friday, the group will present Anne of Green Gables: The Musical at the Pendleton Heritage Center in the East End.

It's the first time the group, founded in 1993, has staged a musical. And it comes just a month after their first-ever attempt at a Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing. One of the lead actors dropped out two days before opening night, but the show went on.

"I had people say to me, 'Don't you think Shakespeare is too hard? People with average cognitive capabilities have trouble with Shakespeare. Why are you doing it with this group?' " says Jamie Lewis, assistant summer theater director.

"They don't understand we're trying to get past that. We're trying to make this accessible to everyone."

The Green Gables cast of 21 includes people with visual impairments, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and various learning disabilities, as well as students from area colleges and the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Ages range from 15 to 74.

Dennis Runyan, who has been blind since birth, has one of the lead roles. He plays Matthew Cuthbert, a kindly farmer with a heart problem. Matthew and his sister Marilla think they're adopting an orphan boy to help with chores at Green Gables, but are surprised when a girl shows up.

It's Runyan's first Garage Players role in several years. He works full-time for the Cincinnati Association for the Blind, part-time as an announcer for radio station WTSJ-AM (1050), and plays drums in a four-person band, Blue Millennium.

"I have to identify with a character," the 50-year-old Roselawn man says. "When this came up, the character of Matthew looked like a good one. I felt I'd be able to contribute."

His wife Monica, who also is blind, is a Garage Players veteran and also has a role in Green Gables.

In early rehearsals, Runyan and several other blind actors struggled with bulky Braille scripts. Such challenges don't go unnoticed by the nondisabled actors.

"This (group) might help the average nondisabled person see people with disabilities in a different light," says Joe Link, the founder. The former high school teacher, now working toward his doctorate at Indiana University, devotes summers to the Garage Players.

In addition to theater productions, each year the Garage Players involve themselves in a number of service projects and educational activities. Their final play this summer will be Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, with a five-person cast, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28-29 at Pendleton Heritage Center.

Coming in September: The Enquirer takes readers inside the Renegade Garage Players production of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, from first rehearsal to final bow.


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