By Fred Dickey 10/26/2015
Stress and tension are normal during rehearsals for a play, but not for this one. Not at this storefront theater on El Cajon Boulevard.
It is not Hollywood. There are no flaring tempers, no hissy fits, no petulant egos. Here, at rehearsals for “Alice in Wonderland,” advice is accepted with grateful nods. Retakes are done eagerly, and any upstaging is by accident. This is exciting and fun.
The cast members take their roles seriously, just as they do life. You can’t pretend not to notice that these actors are not everyday folks. It’s obvious that each is “challenged”— mentally, for the most part. (To me, “disabled” is a dumb word when applied to people to whom “dis” are scarlet letters blocking their access to “able.”) The dozen actors are mostly young to middle-age adults. Some show infirmity by their appearance, others by how they speak. A quality they share is being comfortable with who they are. No, they like who they are.
I watch them read lines with an intense concentration that doesn’t come easy. It makes me happy. I can explain that. It also makes me feel small and a bit unworthy. I can’t explain that.
One of the actors hands me a business card that I later find in my pocket. His name is Alec Schiller. On the card are a Star of David, a Dr. Seuss quote and an email address. Thank you, Alec.
The cast will present “Alice in Wonderland” in November (or when it’s ready) at the North Park Vaudeville Theater. The troupe offers a half-dozen presentations each year.
Summer Golden and her husband own the theater. She is also artistic director of the Stars Program for Talented Actors With Disability. She devotes herself to actors for whom life offers few performances. Summer directs my attention to an actor named Alycia Stice. “She’s so kind and considerate of other people. She works really hard. She’s willing to try any role. A lot of our actors, they’re reluctant to assume the role of a villain. But Alycia is willing to take on any role, nice or bad. She takes her acting very seriously.”
Alycia stands out by her huge smile without end. She is a tall woman of 42 who lives in a group home in National City. She was born two months early and weighed 2 pounds. The result was cerebral palsy. It gave her a labored, stuttered speech and a mind that doesn’t run quite as fast as she would like. The affliction did not, however, mark her movements with the jerky spasticity that’s often the consequence of cerebral palsy.
Alycia greets this stranger as though her life had just been made better. No phony air kisses, just uncomplicated joy at a new acquaintance. She is quick to tell me she loves acting. She says she likes to learn lines because she has trouble reading books, and performing a drama helps her learn the story. It also gives her something to share with her close friends in the acting class.
There is also sadness behind her smile. Alycia has spent months recovering from a devastating blow that pushed her into despair and self-doubt. She lost her job a year ago; actually, she was called in and fired.
For 18 years, she worked part time at a chain officeservices company, mainly helping customers and whatever else they trained her for. She asked me not to use the company name, which is a favor to that business.
The interesting thing— and also the sad thing— is that Alycia went through the same withdrawal agonies of losing her job as a corporate CEO, but without the billowy parachute. Her severance package was $2,000. That’s $111 per year, or $2.13 per week, served.
When the boss let you go, what was said to you?
“She said she didn’t really want to do this, but she was like a messenger. She was upset. She was crying. She said she wanted to keep me.”
Alycia, that’s an unpleasant thing about the business world: People are sometimes put in a position where they have to do things they don’t want to do, because if they won’t, the bigger bosses will get someone else who will.
She doesn’t understand it. “I was a janitor, and they moved me about five years ago to customer service. I was helping customers. I was pretty good at that, but they said I wasn’t fast enough.”
Did you ask for a different job?
“Uh-huh. Yeah, I did. They were trying to teach me how to stock things by numbers. I was doing my best. They thought I wasn’t doing my best, and that really hurt.”
If it makes you feel any better, a lot of people get fired from a job. I’ve been fired. It’s no fun for anyone.
“I bet you cried, too.”
I did, inside.
“I cried. And I had some anger issues,” she says.
How did you resolve your anger? “It was hard. I thought my job was my life, and I didn’t realize that it wasn’t till I got sick.” Summer says that when Alycia was still working, she was a longtime member of the Thursday acting class. It was her primary social activity and she reunited with her friends at each class. Alycia’s company knew her schedule and what it meant to her. But it eventually started scheduling her on Thursdays, so she had to switch to a Saturday class.
“The loss of that class really hurt. It meant so much to her. And then when she lost her job, she was really down,” Summer says.
Alycia suffered a breakdown after losing her job and had to be hospitalized.
However, she gradually recovered. She says at first she believed herself a victim of unfairness, but in the end, she made her peace with it, even concluding that the company had tried to be fair. “I learned, don’t try to keep the job when it’s time for you to move on. There’s always something better out there. It was time for me to do something else better. I decided I’d like to work again.”
Let’s say I’m interviewing you for a job, and I say, “Alycia, tell me: What you would offer this company?”
“I’m good following directions. I show up on time. Everybody likes me, and I like them. They like my laugh.”
Alycia is active in two organizations, San Diego People First and Aci of Chula Vista. The groups work to help her improve job skills and the art of negotiating society as a woman with cerebral palsy.
Was it tough growing up?
“I had a simple life. Yeah, it was a little tough. I was kind of slow and I got teased. People thought I should be faster, like you are, sir. My brain runs in a different way. People have a hard time understanding that.
“Sometimes I’m not able to understand things. I have to think about what I say because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I have a hard time with math. I learn it, but it doesn’t stay with me.
“I stutter a little bit. I was a little bit nervous sitting down and talking to you. Now, I’m not. I’m calm. I stumble sometimes when I try to say something with big words. I get the words in my mind, but they have trouble getting out.”
Looking back on that job situation: Did you fail the company or did it fail you, or was there no failure at all?
“There was no failure at all, because both of us were trying to learn something that was beyond us.”
Ours is a sue-happy society. Did anyone suggest to you that you sue the company that fired you?
“Yeah, but I chose not to do that.”
“I didn’t want to ruin my good name, sir.” Alycia’s immediate goal is a bravura performance in “Alice in Wonderland.” Beyond that, she says, “I want to learn more about life, like why people have problems and why sometimes life is easier for other
people.” Alycia demonstrated her mettle by absorbing the hit of being fired, but holding on to her smile and desire to improve. And the large company that dumped her from that $11 part-time job? Well, it has moved on, too.
Alycia is a willing learner. We can hope her late employer is also.
*** If you take in “Alice in Wonderland” or one of the group’s other performances, tears are optional, but a standing ovation is absolutely required.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.