Person of the Week: Rick Curry

Aug. 5, 2005 — -- Rick Curry is the founder of The National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped. The company is rehearsing for a variety show premiering next week in New York City.

"A lot of people think that becoming an actor is costuming and makeup, a hiding behind things," said Curry, "but the disabled have an even greater difficulty because to expose themselves as exactly what they are in -- their own brokenness -- is something that's an extraordinary opportunity for them."

Like any other theater workshop, Curry's group teaches acting, voice, writing, improvisation, comedy and even dance.

"If you look upon dance as something Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers do, well, then we wouldn't be included in that," said Curry. "But if you think of dance as moving your body to music, hey, we're in. Not only are we in, we're going to show you how we do it."

How does someone have the foresight to found a theater group for the disabled? Curry always saw his handicap as a blessing, one that led him to the theater.

"I think the greatest gift that I've ever been given in all my life is that I was born with only one arm," he said.

Curry's Early Beginnings

Curry, who grew up in Philadelphia, was never coddled by his family.

"It was an Irish Catholic family, and there were many topics that we didn't discuss and me being born with one arm was one of them," he said.

Curry's father kindled his love of the theater and the healing power of performance when he enrolled Rick in the Bessie V. Hicks School of Drama.

"When I got into improvisation classes," said Curry, "I realized that I really could become anything that I wanted to become. I was able to speak, and to get people to react to me in a positive way. I was smitten for life."

Because of his upbringing, Curry hadn't dealt with discrimination. But that changed when he went on an audition while in graduate school.

"I showed up all revved up to do this audition for a mouthwash," he said, "and the receptionist thought I'd been sent up as a practical joke. She kept pointing at my arm and laughing hysterical. When I realized that she wasn't kidding, that she was dead serious, that I'd met this blatant form of prejudice, this kind of ignorance, it absolutely threw me for a loop. I was so angry and so hurt."

That anger and hurt spurred him to action. Soon after, he started the workshop. For 28 years, he has been teaching, directing, and helping the disabled. Curry says that part is a joy -- the difficulty is convincing the able-bodied of its value.

"It's a struggle to convince the giving community that the arts are absolutely imperative for the disabled person to be able to speak for themselves," Curry said. "That's what wears me out. "

Gratitude Yields Opportunity

Not one to give up, he started baking bread as a thank-you gift for donors. Many of his students began helping, and so was born the Benson Bakery, which now supports the workshop.

"We opened a bakery, where we now do a mail-order bread business," Curry said. "But we're now starting to bake dog biscuits because dogs serve the disabled so well. I think it's time the disabled give back."

For Curry, it is about giving and getting, about teaching and learning.

"That barrier that's always been there between the disable-bodied and the able-bodied is now being removed by me. I'm removing it," Curry said. "I'm breaking down that wall and letting the able-bodied know, 'I'm just like you. Not only am I just like you, but I'm in. I want to be in your life. I want to let you know that my life and your life are something to celebrate. My life is not any less than your life.'"

ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas filed this report for "World News Tonight."