WASHINGTON- Anita Hollander walked onto the stage, pulled up her dress and removed her prosthetic leg.
The nationally renowned actress performed for more than 40 audience members Wednesday as part of a festival to bring awareness to the arts and disabilities.
“It all began in 1977, when nine out of 10 doctors said I was perfectly OK,” Hollander, 54, said. “The 10th doctor that I went to in New York finally realized that something wasn’t quite right.”
In the middle of her junior year at Carnegie Mellon University, Hollander was diagnosed with neurofibrosarcoma, a form of cancer of the connective tissue surrounding nerves. Five years after the tumor in her left leg was removed, Hollander faced her greatest fear when her doctor decided it was best to amputate her leg.
“I cried for 20 minutes when I found out, but eventually discovered it was really a blessing in disguise because I was in so much pain,” Hollander said. “I soon realized that if you can perform with two legs, you can do even better with an amputation.”
As the physical pain slowly slipped away and she faced the reality of having one leg, Hollander created her own stage play, “Still Standing,” which illustrates her story from her diagnosis to marriage and to having a daughter, through songs and narrative.
After performing the show nationwide – including at the White House in 1999, the Kennedy Center and off-Broadway – Hollander knew that the VSA Festival, the International Organization on Arts and Disability, would be a perfect venue to share her message. She received a call one week before the festival began and rearranged her schedule to help the cause.
“I love using the things that I am best at to help make other people’s lives better,” Hollander said.
This year marks the sixth international festival over three decades. VSA was founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to raise awareness and opportunity for those who have disabilities. Soula Antoniou, VSA president, said she was delighted to have Hollander as one of 2,000 participants in the seven-day festival.
“Hollander’s performance is consistent with our mission and is helping create opportunities through the arts with people who have disabilities,” Antoniou said. “We are pushing to move the dial of perceptions around disabilities through the arts and this festival.”
Hollander’s show connected with audience members, especially Sharon Tarlano, 47, of Burke, Va., and Toni Popkin, 55 of Alexandria, Va. After being in a car wreck five years ago, they suffered traumatic brain injury and could relate to Hollander’s message on multiple levels. Both had to retire. Popkin worked in the mental health field, and Tarlano was a veterinary technician and animal obedience instructor.
“Even though we have a different disability, it was quite powerful and took me through all kinds of emotions that I could relate with,” Tarlano said.
Through each stage in her life, Hollander said the fine arts and her daughter are what kept her going. Ultimately, she motivated the audience members to keep “standing” by not letting their disabilities get in the way.
“I have learned that what makes you different makes you unique and even better than you could’ve imagined,” Hollander said.
Other performances, exhibits and artists will be featured at the VSA Festival, which goes through Saturday.