“Nerdy. You’ve got to act a lot more nerdy,” director Jim Gill tells Charlie Miller, a Winnetka teenager, at rehearsal. “You’re walking onstage too cool. So there’s not enough contrast when you walk off really cool. Do something like this: put your hands in your pockets, head down, and take these really nerdy itty-bitty steps as you walk onstage. Think nerd. Got it?”

Gill is critiquing a satirical sketch in which Miller visits a shoe store where each pair of new shoes sold by another actor radically changes the buyer’s personality. Sort of a spoof on people who put too much emphasis on just the right kind of shoes. So Mr. Despair turns into Mr. Optimism, Ms. Clumsy turns into Ms. Graceful, and Mr. Nerd turns into Mr. Co-o-o-o-ol Rock and Roll! Got the picture?

Not quite yet. Because Charlie Miller and a dozen of his fellow cast members have Down’s syndrome, the form of mental retardation that has given them the characteristic Mongoloid appearance, speech and language difficulties, and other health problems.

A generation ago, in the standard heart-to-heart between doctor and parents after the birth of a Down’s syndrome child, the family was encouraged to institutionalize their child soon after birth–for everyone’s welfare. Today people keep their kids at home and want the same kinds of self-esteem-building school and extracurricular activities for their disabled children that other kids have. But even given the standard of care that’s now available for these children, Jim Gill has still accomplished the inconceivable.

As a teenager, Gill got a job as a counselor at a camp for disabled teenagers in his hometown, Rockford, Illinois. By the time he was 19 he was running the place during the summers. After getting a degree in elementary education at the University of Illinois, he worked up a popular one-man show for groups of kids with special needs and worked as a play therapist at a toy-lending library for handicapped children. He says something draws him to young people with disabilities, but he can’t describe what it is.

“The energy at the camp was very high,” he says. “It was almost like a daily rock concert. And it taught me that anyone can become involved in arts and theater activities. Every activity I still do has to be accessible to people of all abilities.”

Gill, who is now 25, believes in “reverse mainstreaming,” making activities for the disabled attractive to “normal” people–enough so that they want to participate too. Friday night, after months of practice in a Second City-style workshop, Gill and his “actors with special needs,” as he refers to them, will present Talk Show, a comedy and improvisation revue. The show is nearly sold out, and not just to friends and relatives of the cast, who are known as the Elaine Settler Players’ North Shore Drama Circle.

It has taken great imagination and dedication from Gill, who is now a drama specialist in the Illinois Arts Council Artists-in-Education program, to pull it off. “I just thought this was very possible,” he says. “I was used to teaching therapeutic drama, which deals with how people feel. There’s an overwhelming use of mythology–everyone thinks folks with disabilities need lots of arts programs based in mythology. But I thought it’s a hell of a lot more therapeutic to entertain people. It’s more therapeutic to get applause than to learn about how you feel.”

It’s ironic that Gill chose the Second City format, even the live piano accompaniment and the unrehearsed improvisations based on audience suggestions at the end of the show. Improvisational satire takes intelligence, probably superior intelligence. Yet Gill–using short sketches, narration, and five “normal” Evanston high school drama students to round out the cast–has taken a group of young adults and teenagers with very limited intellectual ability and has given them the opportunity to perfect seven exceedingly entertaining skits. “They’re not natural-born actors,” he says, “but they have a good sense of themselves.”

Diane Saxonberg, Gill’s directing assistant, says, “Comedy expresses the most basic human feelings. These actors aren’t intimidated or inhibited, and that’s where comedy derives from. In improvisation, sometimes actors think too much and too hard, and they end up not knowing what they feel and their expressions aren’t sincere. They are sincere in this show.”

“By dealing with the actors’ emotions, and encouraging ‘overacting,'” says Gill, “we have made the most of the actors’ sense of humor. They fully understand what we came up with together, and we haven’t underestimated their interest or excellent sense of humor one bit. This show will be as entertaining as any well-written show with an energetic cast. It just so happens that most of the cast members have a disability.

“I’m not the only person who is involved in arts for people with disabilities, but what’s different about this is that I don’t stress the disabilities of the cast members. Most people look at an individual and see the disability first. But let’s make a point of looking at the individual. Look at the theater project first, look at the performance first.”

Gill gazes at the actors with pride as they rehearse their “Cocktail Party” and “Trophy Factory” skits. He gently reminds Sari Still, 15, that she’s doing great in her role as a just-manufactured tennis trophy–much better than last rehearsal.

In exasperation, he puts his hands on his spiked hair as the blocking gets a little jumbled during the cocktail-party scene. “Good, good,” he says of the stereotypes that are being created. “Be more obnoxious–you just can’t be obnoxious enough,” he encourages the boor. “And I’m having a little trouble hearing you, business-deal makers,” he says to another couple of young men. The wallflower, the drunk, and the impolite smoker are sort of blocking each other out, so he changes their positions slightly.

A smile spreads across his face. “You probably never noticed,” he says, “but ten years ago, people with Down’s syndrome hung their heads. They never looked you in the eye. They were ashamed of their limitations. But these kids, just look at them. They have great self-esteem.”

Nicole Embry, 19, says she dreams of being on TV someday because of this experience. “I used to tell some people I have talent,” she says. “And now it can’t be taken away from me. My dad told me, ‘Think of a goal, dream of what you want to be and go for it.'”

Talk Show will be performed Friday, March 30, at 7:30 PM at Northwestern University’s Wallis Theater, 1979 Sheridan in Evanston. Admission is free, but donations are welcome at the door. For reservations and information call the box office at 708-491-7282, or Jim Gill at 764-4732.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.