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For Mike Berkson (foreground) and Tim Wambach (background), creating the two-man show Handicap This! dispels notions that those with Cerebral Palsy don’t have anything in common with those who do not.
‘Handicap This!’ creators prove friendship has no barriers
A theater can be an imposing place; one in which men and women who seek the spotlight go to be judged on their stage presence and their ability to perform.
It’s a condition that’s not for everyone, and the more Chicagoans Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach, the stars of Handicap This! take the stage at community theaters, corporate events and universities throughout the United States, the more they are convinced that performers are made, not born.
“I was nervous the first time I took the stage,” said Mike, who is 24 and has a severe case of Cerebral Palsy.
“But it’s a personal thing, and eventually, performing came easy to me,” he said. “I think Tim and I know we have something interesting; we have something that we also know is unusual.”
Handicap This! is a play that explores the serious issues – punctuated by the comical ones – that occur when one in a pair of best buddies has Cerebral Palsy, and the other does not. It may sound simple enough, but as soon as a theatergoer is drawn into the banter between Mike and Tim, it becomes clear: friendship is about a meeting of the minds, and not about what’s on the surface.
The concept was the brainchild of the two men, each of whom hopes to peel the layers of preconceived – and sometimes ill-conceived – notions about disability.
“The tagline is that we educate, empower and entertain,” said Tim, 38, who has worked as Mike’s aide since 2001. “The people who come to see our show are open-minded. What’s interesting is people want to be educated about the special needs community in a way that captures the best of everyone.”
A story about sidekicks
Handicap This! was conceived by both Mike and Tim; it’s constructed as a one-act play starring both men. It’s autobiographical in nature; its creators hope the show entertains and inspires – and opens some eyes.
“The experiences of Mike and I are the foundation of the show,” Tim said. “It’s about the obstacles that have come about and things that have happened to us. We tailored our core message as ‘Judgment not allowed; improvise, adapt, overcome.’”
The show touches on many aspects that, to those coping with a physical disability, will instantly recognize. Awkward stares from others, the feeling of helplessness that occurs in several situations, and the inevitable loss of confidence that follows.
“The experiences of Mike and I are the foundation of the show. It’s about the obstacles that have come about and things that have happened to us. We tailored our core message as ‘Judgment not allowed; improvise, adapt, overcome.”
– Tim Wambach
Occasionally, Mike’s identical twin brother David will perform with Mike and Tim. He plays an unusual role: The embodiment of Mike as if he was able-bodied.
Mike’s role in the production is that the narrative is indicative of his experiences.“
The impetus for Handicap This! came when Mike and Tim were asked to speak at events about creating awareness for disability issues; as a part of this, they made people laugh. Tim and Mike both quickly realized the speeches they were giving could become a stage show, and in January 2010, they made their debut.
“This is what I’ll say about disability – it may be a roadblock to friendship for some people, but if that’s the case, the other person is likely not a person you want to be friends with, anyway. The bottom line is that you can never let the disability get in the way of your relationships, or what you want to do.”
– Mike Berkson
Since then, the pair has performed throughout Illinois, and in South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Only a month into 2013, the friends will travel to Montreal, Canada; Florida and Texas.
The hopes for the show, for both men, are lofty. “We hope to perform the show on Broadway by 2016,” Mike said.
“We have an interesting story to tell,” Mike added. “And there are a lot of people who relate to our story – so we have an audience.”
One stage, Mike said he does like to improvise, but basically, he and Tim stick to the script. “I feel very relaxed when I’m on stage because it doesn’t take a lot to do it,” Mike said.
The ultimate goal – besides getting to the Great White Way – is fostering a better understanding among able-bodied people about those who are disabled.
“We hope that people learn that what’s on the outside doesn’t count,” Tim said.
A fateful meeting
To hear Tim tell the story of how he met Mike, it was serendipity, pure and simple.
Tim applied for a job as an aide to special needs children for a local school district. He had studied communications in college, but the fact that he worked with special needs children during the summer months caught the eye of administrators, and he was hired to work at a middle school.
At first, he was assigned to help a young girl, but then, he was assigned to work with Mike, who was then in the sixth grade.
“It was an instant chemistry,” Tim remembered. “Mike is witty, and when we met he was 12 and I was 27. I hadn’t really experienced that with a 12-year-old. Somehow, he was more mature. He seemed like an old soul.”
One incident led Tim to believe his tenure with Mike would be different. During a local outing at a local mall, Mike told Tim he just “had to have” some Taco Bell.
Once they arrived at the restaurant, Tim realized that, even for the able-bodied, messy tacos can be difficult to eat. Since Mike has limited use of his arms and hands, the tacos made a huge mess – a circumstance Mike knew would occur. Tim was horrified by the development, and didn’t know what to do. Mike let him off the hook by saying, “There’s no use crying over spilled Taco Bell.”
Mike, who was born in Evanston was also equally intrigued by his new aide.
“I knew that we would have fun,” he said. “I knew he was different.”
Tom remained Mike’s aid throughout middle school and high school, save for two years. Afterwards, Tom continued on as Mike’s aide. Mike graduated from high school in 2007.
Mike was born in Evansville, Ill., and grew up in nearby Wilmack with his parents, Dennis and Linda, and his twin brother, David. After he completed high school, he went on to college, but soon found that his goals were not commensurate with college life.
“I decided that I wanted to pursue a career performing and advocating, and writing; ultimately, I would like to make films,” he said.
Mike’s favorite movie is “Pulp Fiction,” directed by his idol, Quentin Tarantino. “The more violent the movie is, the more I seem to like it,” he laughed. “I’m not sure why that is.”
What Mike is sure of is the enduring nature of his friendship with Tim.
“He’s my best friend,” he said.
Tim concurs with Mike’s sentiment.
“Mike’s brilliant; he’s off the charts in term of intelligence, and he’s a really interesting person, and this was apparent when he was young,” he said. “He can talk about a litany of different topics.
“We’ve both cried, and we’ve talked about really serious issues,” Tim said. “But I don’t think there’s ever been a day when we didn’t laugh at least once.”
Mike, who has many friends, said disability doesn’t have to be a roadblock to friendship.
“This is what I’ll say about disability – it may be a roadblock to friendship for some people, but if that’s the case, the other person is likely not a person you want to be friends with, anyway.
“The bottom line is that you can never let the disability get in the way of your relationships, or what you want to do,” Mike said.
There’s an old saying that the measure of a person’s life is measured by how much they are loved. There’s no doubt about it: our relationships with others are the cornerstone of our ability to thrive and enjoy life. Relationships allow us to explore all of the facets of giving and receiving love, from the patient and protective concern shown between a parent and child to the fire and chemistry that happens between friends, mates and spouses. And the level of ability has nothing to with the level of love one is willing to give to or receive from another.