VIDEO: Partially Paralyzed Michael Patrick Thornton Uses Robotic Exoskeleton As RICHARD III

By: Mar. 10, 2016
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In a season where Ali Stroker, of the Deaf West Theatre Company's revival of SPRING AWAKENING, made history by becoming Broadway's first wheelchair-using actor, Michael Patrick Thornton, co-founder of Chicago's Gift Theatre Company, will also make some history by standing up.

A wheelchair-using actor since 2003, when spinal strokes left him partially paralyzed, Thornton has been performing at eye level with his fellow actors in the title role of William Shakespeare's RICHARD III with use of a robotic exoskeleton.

Named ReWalk, the computer-based, battery-operated, motion sensor device enables people with spinal cord injuries to stand and walk. The co-production of by Gift and Steppenwolf theaters is the first to incorporate the futuristic-looking device. Thornton describes it to the Daily Herald as a "wearable scene partner."

Physical therapists Kristen Hohl and Kate Scanlan alternate performances in a non-speaking role as the king's aide.

The two have worked with Thornton for months as he prepared to play the manipulative, murderous usurper Richard, whose misshapen body reflects his twisted soul.

"He uses ReWalk as an extension of his body," says Hohl. "He's not thinking about walking; he's acting. To integrate that so quickly, to become one with the device, is incredible."

Thornton was 24 when he suffered his first spinal stroke, a disruption of the blood supply to his spine. He awoke from a coma several days later unable to move anything but his eyeballs.

Two weeks later, he suffered a second stroke. Doctors told him he would never walk again.

Grueling physical and speech therapy involved reciting Shakespeare's sonnets and soliloquies to develop breath control. Within months, he directed a play at The Gift. A year later, he took his first steps.

Before long, he resumed acting in Chicago and on ABC where he had a recurring role on the drama PRIVATE PRACTICE. In 2006 he won Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Award for his performance in Gift Theatre's THE GOOD THIEF.

Thornton was set to play Richard last year at Next Theatre in Evanston, but its closing in November 2014 put the production in jeopardy.

But Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member intervened on his behalf and Steppenwolf agreed to produce the play with The Gift and director Jessica Thebus, in partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

What excited Thornton about taking on this physically demanding role was the institute's willingness to engage in a frank, challenging conversation on the subject of disability.

"Disability gets consigned to the inspirational triumph story where a saint-like patient quietly bears the load and teaches us all how to appreciate what we have," he said. "That is not RICHARD III."

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