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How Theatre Changed My Life With Cerebral Palsy

Three weeks after my 10th birthday, I had an experience that would be the beginning of a change in the way I see myself. I walked into the Dayton Jewish Center multipurpose room, hit a button on a CD player, sang my best “Colors of the Wind,” and went home. There was no way I’d get to hear the word yes. No way the kid who looked like me would get a shot. Two days later I got the phone call, informing me that I had been cast into the ensemble of a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The seemingly impossible had happened: I was being told yes. After what seemed like a lifetime of being told I couldn’t, I was being given a shot. That was when the theatre bug bit – hard and fast.

Richard and Jamie in "Fiddler on the Roof."
Richard and Jamie in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

My name is Jamie. I’m 29, I live in Ohio, and I have spastic hemiplegic cerebral palsy on my left side. I am a daughter, sister, friend… but perhaps most importantly, I’m a singer and actress with a fierce passion for musical theatre, mostly because I was given the opportunity to feel equal onstage instead of constantly feeling “other”-ed and stigmatized. My whole life – my family life, my personal life, my interactions with people in the healthcare world – up to that point had been defined by what the CP prohibited me from doing or made complicated. But I walked into that first rehearsal at 10 years old and instead of being “the girl with the arm,” I was just Jamie.

Suddenly I mattered. Suddenly I wasn’t able to use the CP as an excuse. Suddenly there was an adult in my life who saw right past it. How refreshing that was! My limits – what I thought I could do – were pushed progressively further with each passing year, but they were taken to a whole new level my final year in the theatre program, which was eighth grade. It was the year of “Oliver,” and it brought about another big change. That show had a set that was anchored by two large platforms, each of which were about eight feet high. Our set designer for the show was also our music director for three previous shows, including that first production of “Fiddler,” so I knew him. But I was afraid of heights.

Unfortunately for me, however, spending the whole show on the ground was not an option. I approached the set designer and said something to the effect of, “I can’t go up there, there’s nothing for me to hold onto. I’m going to fall.” There was no bar on the back of the platforms. He looked me directly in the face and said something I will never forget. “Jamie, don’t tell me you can’t. You were told four years ago that you do not get to make excuses. I will not let you fall. Now go. Put your microphone in your hair like we showed you and go. And I better hear you sing!”

The set designer and previous music director was a guy named Richard. He was about 25 when I met him. He came back into my life in June 2016 when we were both cast in another local production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” He played my father.

Since that show, he has taken me under his wing and developed me as an artist in ways that no one ever has. As of this writing, I have assistant directed two of his productions, and I am getting ready to stage manage a production for him in the spring of 2018. He is also my best friend. He pushes me to my limit and then a little further, just because he taught me that I do not get to make excuses. I am not defined by my disability in his eyes. He sees me as a full, complete, talented, beautiful person and just by being in my life, he reminds me that I am loved.

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Originally published: January 24, 2018
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