ON STAGE OR OFF, BE THE BEST YOU CAN BE
Story by Bill Rautenstrauch, photo by Chris Baxter
Glass marbles, plucked one at a time from a big glass bowl, hit the floor of the theater, bounce and roll. Each one marks another stage in a woman's death process.
Then, finally, all the marbles left in the bowl are dumped at once, with a thunderous crash. They go bouncing and rolling everywhere.
A theatrical life ends. And so does a monologue performed with clarity and quiet power by Nora Croucher, an Eastern Oregon University education major taking her first turn in a college play.
In a string of remarkable performances during "Talking With ...," the final production of the 2004-2005 school year, Croucher's was perhaps the most remarkable of all.
It was a triumph over adversity, one that earned her an ovation on opening night.
"It felt good to know I could do it," said Croucher, who has battled cerebral palsy all her 22 years.
CP is a condition that affects body movement and coordination. It occurs just before, during or just after birth. Often it is caused by trauma during the birth process.
It leaves a person physically challenged for life. For many, it's a show stopper.
But Croucher, who has one more year to go in her EOU degree program, chooses to look at the bright side of things.
She talks about her unique challenges in a matter-of-fact way. She makes it clear she's getting on with her life and aims to be the best she can be.
If she feels sorry for herself, she doesn't show it.
"I'm pretty lucky, because cerebral palsy can be very severe," she said. "I'm not affected as badly as some. I can walk with my walker."
The EOU student who hopes to teach someday was born and raised in Elgin. In the early years, people involved with her upbringing and education had no idea they had an overachiever on their hands.
"Until I was middle school age, I wasn't mainstreamed much. I was pretty much a special ed kid because I couldn't keep pace," she said.
She made it to high school and did her best to keep up. Teachers helped her along. When she needed it, she was given extra time to study and complete assignments.
Still, she was considered to be an "at-risk" student, one likely to drop out of school and lead an unproductive life.
Then she met Trista Ruth, a local vocational rehabilitation specialist who worked with at-risk students in local high schools.
Croucher credits Ruth with convincing her that success is always a possibility.
"She was very nice, and a good facilitator," Croucher said. "She taught me that as long as I was willing to advocate for myself, there were ways to deal my with problems."
Croucher graduated from Elgin High in 2001. By then she had decided on a career in education. She set her sights on a Multi-Disciplinary Studies degree, augmented with an English Speaker of Foreign languages certificate.
Spanish is her foreign language of choice. Through a lot of hard work, she has the certification goal within her grasp.
"I'm pretty fluent," she said. "I can understand and make myself understood."
Her course of study is rigorous, and few special arrangements are made for her. She has learned to seek creative solutions to her special problems.
Reading, for example, has always been a challenge because poor eyesight is a byproduct of CP. Since high school, Croucher has substituted "text on tape" for printed
"Audiotape is a lifesaver," she said.
It takes her longer than others to complete lessons, just as it takes her longer to get from place to place. She has learned to plan ahead and get an early start on things.
She gets assistance in daily living activities from a home health aide. The aide helps her dress in the mornings, and drives her to places
On campus, though, Croucher makes her own way. The trick, she said, is to leave herself enough time.
"It's harder in the winter when there's snow and ice. But it's not a big campus, and getting around isn't that bad," she said.
There isn't much time for extracurricular projects, but she has continued to nurture a love for drama that took root in high school.
She once played the loud-mouthed secretary in an Elgin High School production of "Grease." She also was cast as an extra in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
In college, she kept her hand by taking acting classes, but never auditioned for a stage production.
Then came the casting call for "Talking With ...," a play by the famously enigmatic Jane Martin.
The play, oft-produced on college campuses, features a number of monologues for women. The characters include a washed-up rodeo cowgirl, an atheistic snake handler, a half-mad baton twirler, a cursing, screaming woman in labor, and others.
Croucher had some extra time during the spring term, and decided to try out.
"I had to audition like everyone else," she said. "I wasn't sure what part I was going to get, but it turned out to be a good one."
The woman Croucher played was one who bared her soul to the world over the death of her mother.
It was a two-pronged assignment: Croucher had to play the character convincingly, and at the same time draw a poignant word-picture of the mother.
"It was a snapshot of a very personal thing. The lady I played was a controlled person who doesn't let her defenses down. For once she was letting people see her," Croucher said.
Each character in the play appeared alone on stage, in the spotlight. The company agonized for a time over the best way to get Croucher to her mark.
"We had a hard time figuring out how to get me out there," she said. "We tried carrying me out chair and all, and that was a fiasco. Then I wondered if Dan (a stagehand) was strong enough to carry me out and put me in the chair on stage. It turned out, he was."
As related by the character, the mother kept a bowl of glass marbles with her in her bedroom, dropping one on the floor with each turning point in her illness.
At the end of the monologue, the character overturns the bowl and pours out all the marbles, just as the mother did at the moment of her death.
It was a role that called for good timing. It also required the gift of memory Â— something well developed in Croucher.
"The key was reading it aloud, over and over," she said. "I knew if I could hear it, I could remember it. Because of listening to text on tape, I have good auditory memory."
The cast included several talented actresses with solid acting credits to their names. Croucher said she felt like an "inept new kid on the block."
"I just tried to stay out of the experienced ones' way," she said.
Fortunately for her, her fellow actors made her feel welcome.
"They were pretty cool. There was a change to a costume every night and they helped me with that," she said.
Though she enjoyed doing the play, Croucher said she isn't sure she'll be able to try another one next school year. She expects academics to take up all her schedule.
When she is finished with college, she hopes to team-teach in a dual language program. She knows there is a lot of hard work ahead.
"Getting a teaching license in Oregon is no joke," she said.