​Ward to Present ‘Stiff’ at the Tennessee Williams Center

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

In 2015, Sherry Ward sat in a neurologist’s office, the third one in the past few months, hopeful that she would finally have some answers.

She’d been experiencing tremors, severe pain and her legs would give out on her. She and the two neurologists who saw her before were stumped. She was almost ready to throw in the towel. However, with two kids at home and an acting career she was not ready to leave, she knew something had to give.

During that third visit, Ward was tested for a rare, degenerative disease, Stiff Person Syndrome. Results came back positive. Since then, she and her family have settled into a new normal.

Stiff Person’s Syndrome (SPS), which affects twice as many women as it does men, is characterized by extreme muscle stiffness, rigidity and painful spasms in the trunk and limbs, severely impairing mobility.

Part of the new normal has been getting back to the work she loves. After the encouragement of a friend, she put her story down on paper.

“Once I got sick, I thought there goes my acting career,” she said. “I had lunch with a dear friend, René Moreno, who passed away a couple years ago. He was the director of the August Osage County production I acted in. He was in a wheelchair from a spinal cord injury. He took me out to lunch, and we compared stories. He told me, ‘You’re going to find a way to express this dramatically.’ He is one of those people I respect so much. He is just one of those people, you do what he says. So, I got to work.”

Next Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 22 and 23, Ward will present her solo, autobiographical play, “Stiff,” which details her experience navigating her diagnosis. “Stiff” has been an award-winning audience favorite at festivals, conferences and theatres across the country.

“Taking René’s advice, I started writing things down. I’m not a natural journal-keeper...but I was determined to create a show around my experience with doctors and with how it’s affected my acting work,” Ward said. “I was determined to write a show, but I didn’t just want to write about a sick lady. I wouldn’t want to see that, and I don’t want to put my friends through that. I was determined to make it funny.”

Jim Crawford, associate professor of theatre at the University, performed in “August: Osage County” with Ward a few years ago, and he said working with her then was an unforgettable experience.

“I was dazzled by her even then,” he said. “She was one of the best actors I’d ever worked with. I heard about this show she was developing, but I moved away from Dallas. When I finally got to see parts of the show, I was blown away.” he said. “She is somebody who has taken this difficult turn in life and turned it into such a funny, moving piece of art.”

Moreover, in a community of writers and artists, Crawford said he hopes this show will be especially inspirational.

“One of the things I love about the show is she did not turn things into an after school special. She has a really great, biting sense of humor, and that is so intact in this piece,” he said. “We have so many theatre artists, and I think it is a great example of someone taking something that happened to them and unexpectedly turning it into a piece of theatre. Take your broken heart and turn it into art.”

Ward will perform “Stiff” on Jan. 22 and 23, at 7:30 p.m. in the Tennessee Williams Center. The show is free and best suited for mature audiences.