In November 1991, after a near-lethal fall from a fifth-story window ruptured his aorta and damaged his spinal cord, actor Rene Moreno withdrew to his family’s Dallas home. For one bleak year, he mourned the loss of the use of his legs and a busy, well-regarded acting career. By December 1993, however, thanks to therapy and a nationwide network of artists, Moreno was back on stage, viewing his work from the increasingly instructive position of a wheelchair.
“In a way, I’m a whole new actor,” said Moreno, preparing for a matinee performance of Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol. “For a long while, I grieved the actor that was. In my mind, I saw a man with dance training, who used his whole body for expression. That person died. This is like starting all over again.”
Before the fall, Moreno had built a solid professional reputaion. In 1982, just out of Southern Methodist University, the Dallas-born actor won the role of understudy for Mozart in Broadway’s Amadeus. Later, he received the Princess Grace Foundation Award for his breakthrough performance in Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare on Broadway. He spent a decade in New York pushing his range at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, Pan Asian Repertory, Drama League and INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center, with side–trips to San Diego, Hartford and Cincinnati theatres.
“I’ve thought back over my career, and, even in New York, I never saw someone with a disability sharing the stage with ‘able-bodied actors.’ The sole exception was a hearing-impaired actor, Howie Seago. I think about him a lot now,” Moreno said of the actor’s performance as Ajax at La Jolla Playhouse.
Moreno did considerable thinking in rehabilitation. He also kept in touch with DTC’s artistic director Richard Hamburger and associate Melissa Cooper. It was Cooper who lured Moreno into a staged reading for the “Big D Festival of the Unexpected,” and later asked him to audition for the role of the narrator in A Christmas Carol under director Evan Yionoulis.
“It was scary going from a reading to a full production. I was the first person audiences saw on stage in Carol. What did they see? We live in a society that judges you by the way you look. But I watched them, and, by the play’s end, people looked at me in a different way,” he said.
And colleagues learned to respect Moreno’s needs. At the Arts District Theatre, DTC’s staff built ramps, and widened the bathroom and the dressing room mirror. Designers laid out the set “on the floor,” without stairs, making cutaways wide enough for his passage.
“The people I work with are more aware now. They go out after the show to a bar or restaurant and say, ‘Hey, Rene couldn’t get in here.’ It’s great.”
Back in school in Dallas studying psychology, Moreno plans to keep acting. “There’s a lot going on in L.A. Meanwhile, I’ve kept in touch with artists around the country and I work with two small Dallas companies, Greathouse and Abilities Theatre, a multi-disabled group.”
At times, Moreno is uncomfortable with being singled out: “We all have disabilities,” he reasons. “Mine just happen to be in full view.”