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The play’s the thing: Shelter Islander working with performers with disabilities

Think you have busy Saturdays? Then Islander Jacqui Leader Sedlar can relate.

One Saturday recently, she had a rehearsal of the East End Special Players, where she serves as artistic director, working on a new play, putting players through acting exercises and improvisations. And then she went from the rehearsal space that afternoon for shopping and cooking chores and a guest who came for dinner and stayed overnight.

“Well,” she said, the following morning, “my weekends aren’t aways like this, but sometimes …”

The East End Special Players are a nonprofit troupe of actors who write their own material for the stage, as well as perform the work of others. The company is made up of adults who include people with learning disabilities, autism, Down syndrome and other cognitive or physical challenges. The Players is a program sponsored by East End Disabilities, a nonprofit based in Riverhead, which provides services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

After the Saturday rehearsal at the Southampton Arts Center, Ms. Leader had an “overnight respite,” another program of East End Disabilities, which provides, as its website says, relief from “the stress and strain that caring for a loved one with disabilities presents. Overnight Respite is a scheduled, proactive experience for adults and children aged eight years and older who live with their family in Suffolk or Nassau County. It focuses on providing a recreational experience for program participants to make a place people want to stay and a place families feel comfortable leaving their loved one.”

Ms. Leader said these visits are much more of a joy than a burden. “We figure out what we want for dinner and then we shop for the food,” she said. “Then we cook and have a movie night. It’s always fun. We learn how to cook new meals, and it gives a nice break for everyone.”

Life-changing Results Every Day

The Players aren’t an amateurish charity project, but a serious company. They’ve put on productions of “Cyrano De Bergerac” and plays by Moliere at the prestigious Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, and have been on the boards of East Hampton’s Guild Hall. There’s also talk of a production in the future at Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater.

Many of the productions have come from the Players themselves, an idea Ms. Leader put into practice. Doing exercises in the rehearsal room, learning to be more confident on stage, Ms. Leader encourages them to open up and do improvisations, stretching their sense of creativity. She records the improvs and the troupe then builds vignettes and finally whole productions.

“These are learning techniques that result in feelings of empowerment,” Ms. Leader said. “And they’re really very good. There’s lots of talent. They sing and dance. And they’re really funny.”

Ms. Leader sees the positive, life-changing results every day, and scholars who have looked into people with disabilities having access to the performing arts agree. A study published by the National Library of Medicine in 2021 found that, “While their experiences are diverse, and their impairments are unique, contact with the performing arts supported social and economic inclusion, and triggered empowerment of youth with disabilities. Insufficient accessible and available transportation is the most notable barrier to accessing development opportunities.”

An Honor From Albany

For her work over the decades, Ms. Leader was recently honored by Shelter Island’s representative in the State Senate, Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R,C-New Suffolk), who named her the 2023 New York State Woman of Distinction for the 1st Senatorial District. On May 16, Mr. Palumbo and the entire New York State Senate in Albany recognized Ms. Leader for her many contributions to the 1st District, including working with The Players.

The citation naming Ms. Leader noted that the program offers the opportunity “for people whose lives are often without color, to gather in an exciting social setting, share a meal, and work together toward a common goal.”

Mr. Palumbo said, “Jacqui is an extraordinary woman whose brilliance, resilience and boundless spirit have carved a path of empowerment and inspiration for all. Her unwavering determination, compassionate heart and remarkable achievements make her a true beacon of strength.”

Love At First Sight

Originally from Michigan, Ms. Leader studied acting in New York City and performed there, and lived and worked for a time in England. She married and had two children. Back in New York, she needed a change of scenery. “With two kids, I decided I didn’t want to live in the city anymore,” she said, and moved to Amagansett.

Three years ago it was time for another move, she said, to somewhere more quiet and with less bustle than the Hamptons. Her husband — Peter Creggan, a builder with his own firm based in Bridgehampton — suggested Shelter Island.

“A week later, he said,’I found a house,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”

When she saw the house with raised garden beds — “I’ve always wanted that” — and its view of Sylvester Manor Farm fields, “I knew it was meant to be.”

Ms. Leader became the artistic director for the East End Special Players through a recommendation. While preforming on the South Fork, she was contacted by someone asking if she was interested in the artistic director post. “I had no idea really what it was about, and went to see a rehearsal,” Ms. Leader said. “It was love at first sight.”

At first The Players only performed in mime, but Ms. Leader saw possibilities in the performers’ own stories. Writing material and collaborating and performing on the stage has been a revelation to many of the players, Ms. Leader said. “They can be open to their feelings. For example, some have been bullied, and we deal with that. One way is to have the bullied person play the bully, and we always make it with a sense of understanding. And make it come out positive.”

The result on individuals she works with is a pleasure to be a part of, she said, citing an example. “We have one man who hates his disability, and sometimes condemns himself for it. I say, ‘We all have disabilities.’ And point out how well he’s performed in the past, what it has given him and what he gives to the audience. To see his and other’s sense of self-esteem rising is one reason we’re all involved.”

It doesn’t take long for The Players to come to love the challenge and multiple gifts preforming gives. Ms. Leader said she feels the same directing and molding her company. “Being together, having a sense of family, a sense of fun, is as important as the plays,” she said.