Column: Because one man believed they could

“The parents are always in tears,” said Matthew Kuriloff, the 35-year-old coordinator of East End Disability Associates’ Community Arts Program. The downtown Riverhead nonprofit launched its theater and arts program in January 2013 — and its latest production, which premiered April 25 at Bellport’s Gateway Playhouse, provided much to provoke tears of joy. 

What Matthew had helped pull off that Friday was the organization’s first full-scale musical, a complete performance of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the performance. Having volunteered with East End Disability Associates in the past, I knew that the level of assistance required by the developmentally disabled people it serves covers a wide range.

I hesitated beforehand, and wondered, would the show be hard to follow? Not that I would mind.

I needn’t have worried. For nearly two hours, the cast sang, acted and moved just like any other ensemble presenting The Who’s classic musical, led by a five-piece band. The narrator glided in front of the curtain with a grace I wish I had. Cousin Kevin grilled Tommy with pure disdain.

Of course, there were times it was evident this wasn’t your typical rendition of “Tommy.” And that’s what made it better. That’s what made it inspiring.

Think the crowd should let out some cheers? Uncle Ernie didn’t hesitate to wave it on, encouraging us to make some noise. Or how about when Captain Walker shoots the man cheating with his wife? In this version of “Tommy,” the captain checked after the gunshot to see if the philanderer was OK. And one cast member ripped out an unscripted break dance move — or two, or was it three? — to please the ladies in the front row. And in the back.

“Why can’t I be that carefree sometimes?” I asked myself as I left the theater.

I’d bet Matthew has caused a few people to leave performances with similar reactions since he started the arts program. A theater major at Hampshire College, he spent some time in real estate and tried out acting himself. But “that rapidly became uninteresting,” he recalled.

The Malverne native eventually landed at job at EEDA and, considering his arts background, was told that, in the future, the nonprofit might possibly be able to create some kind of program to take advantage of his skills. After working in EEDA’s day-habilitation program for a while, he presented an innovative plan that included bartering services with Grace Episcopal Church — cleaning up the yard for the church’s blind pastor, Mother Mary Garde, or painting and planting on the church grounds — in exchange for the opportunity to use vacant space there for the Community Arts Program.

It’s since paid off for pretty much everyone involved: the performers, the organization and even Matthew himself.

In late April, he was recognized as Direct Support Professional of the Year in New York State by the American Network of Community Options and Resources, a nationwide trade organization that represents over 800 providers. After being completely surprised when his co-workers sprang the honor on him at a meeting, he was flown down to Miami to receive the award.

He says the biggest honor has been doing the actual work.

“For those of us who do this work, it’s a completely reciprocal experience,” he said. “Spiritually, even financially — we do get a steady paycheck — we get just as much out of doing this as they get in the program. Every day, there is some sort of epiphany here.”

And Matthew isn’t the only one. Alissa Slade, who played Cousin Kevin in “Tommy,” wrote the recommendation letter to ANCOR nominating him for the award. Before participating in CAP, Alissa had always written poetry. Now, she’s written five songs of her own and discovered an artistic talent she never realized she had.

“He’s helping me grow as a person,” she said. “I never knew I could write songs.”

CAP will produce a more individualized variety show this summer and is working with Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, as it does with Grace Episcopal, on an exchange of services that will allow it to use that space for the performance.

Seeking to learn more about the performers, I stopped by the church one recent weekday to watch them practice. There, a group of about nine performers worked on a dance to Pharrell Williams’ mega-hit, clapping and dancing in line. It’s usually one of those songs that gets stuck in my head and I try to shake out.

But this time, as the door shut behind me, it was hard not to enjoy it.

“Because I’m happy … ”

R1226_Staff_Pinciaro_C.jpgJoseph Pinciario is managing editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-298-3200, ext. 238.