East End Special Players perform ‘Turtles on the Tarmac’ at North Fork Community Theatre Saturday

For one night only, the North Fork Community Theater will showcase a performance that involves a prison escapee, a Grammy-award winning artist accused of smuggling drugs and an impromptu talent show.

The East End Special Players will perform their “Turtles on the Tarmac,” at NFCT Saturday, April 6 at 4 p.m. The show, which the company developed and debuted last year at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater, takes place at an airport during a nor’easter, which, as the title suggests, blew turtles onto the tarmac, thus canceling flights. Inside the airport, the audience will meet escaped convict Rotten Robin, famed —and possibly framed — musician Tammy Tam-Tam, along with a pair of workers the Starlight Lounge who try to make the best of the stormy predicament and other characters the cast created.

“We always stick to the humorous side of everything,” said Jacqui Leader, who has served as the company’s artistic director since 1992. “Every play we do really is a comedy.”

The East End Special Players celebrate the talent of differently abled actors. Its 30 members, who live throughout the East End, each have learning challenges, including autism, Down Syndrome, and other cognitive or physical difficulties. For many years following their first show in 1985, the players exclusively mimed their performances, as many were non-verbal.

Over the ensuing two decades later, Ms. Leader realized that along with lots of talent within the players’ ranks, there was also rich creative material waiting to be mined. During the troupe’s improv rehearsal exercises, the director witnessed the depth of the cast members’ imaginations as they conjured full-bodied characters. She then helped them craft original stories to showcase their creativity. Their first original play, “You Are A Petunia In My Garden,” which debuted in 2008, was crafted around a series of personal vignettes that explored their lives as adults with varied needs, abilities and skills.

“It really comes from improvisational work,” Ms. Leader said of the East End Special Players’ original material. “Then the staff and myself, we weave a story together from their own personal experiences through the improvs. They have just loved it and it really has empowered all of them.”

The company, which meets weekly at the Southampton Arts Center, began developing “Turtles on the Tarmac” during the COVID-19 pandemic. The players spent these quarantine-era Saturdays crafting individual characters and scenes. Once they could meet again in-person, the cast continued improvisational exercises to round out the story lines and discover how their roles related to one another.

“Then there were songs added, and we had a musical director come,” Ms. Leader explained of developing the show. “[The cast members] pretty much make up their own choreography. They are so funny and original.”

Ms. Leader said she tries to keep the performances as low-stress as possible, even when an actor forgets their lines. She will gladly coax them through the scene, and the audience, she said, never seems to mind.

“I tell the audience ‘we’re not here to pressure them if they forget a line,’” Ms. Leader said. “I tell them ‘a wonderful voice from above comes down through the microphones and helps cue them.’ Everyone ends up just having a good time, a relaxed time.”

To purchase tickets for the East End Special Players’ performance at the North Fork Community Theater Saturday, April 6 at 4 p.m., visit eastendspecialplayers.org. Tickets range from $10 for children and students to $30 for general seating, plus applicable service fees.

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