Casey found his voice, shared it for the disabled
by Kevin Cody
“If I could write everything I am thinking, my words would reach to the sky,” Casey Rohrer says in a 2016 documentary about a play he had written. At the time, his play, “Once Upon a Road Trip,” was in rehearsals with the Family Theater production company at the Hermosa Beach Second Story Theater.
“The play is about how it feels when you don’t have a voice,” Rohrer says in the video. He meant that literally. Rohrer was born with Cerebral Palsy. The disease deprives its victims of muscle control, with the notable exception of the eyes.
“If I wanted a glass of water, I had to play 21 questions,” he recalls in the video.
That changed in second grade, when he received a Tobii C 112, similar to the machine that enabled astronomer Stephen Hawking to talk. The eye activated voice machine enabled Rohrer to read aloud and participate in class discussions.
It was transformative for both him, and his Hermosa Valley school classmates, recalled his second grade teacher Jeannine Madden.
“The students have developed an enhanced sense of empathy by learning to interact as they would with any other child at school,” Madden said in a 2010 Easy Reader interview.
With his new voice, Rohrer discovered theater.
He landed a role as the Mirror in a school production of “Snow White.” Anchorless Productions, which produces plays with disabled actors, cast Rohrer as Mufasa in “The Lion King,” and as Uncle Joe in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
His stage performances caught the attention of Family Theater director Craig Greely, who cast Rohrer alongside able bodied actors as the Silent King in “Once Upon a Mattress.”
Rohrer wrote “Once Upon a Road Trip,” while on a family trip to Yellowstone during his eighth grade summer vacation.
He sent the one act, 40 page script to Greely, who liked it, but said it needed work. Greely enlisted veteran local playwright Angelo Massino to work with Casey on the play.
“When Angelo came to my house and started talking, I knew I was in for a challenge. We had to have blood, sweat, and yes, even tears,” Casey says in the 2016 documentary. Massino also wrote plays based on his childhood, but his childhood was on the mean streets of New York City.
After a year of rewrites Greely produced “Once Upon a Road Trip” at the Second Story Theater.
The positive critical response encouraged Rohrer to write more plays.
He also became an activist for people with disabilities.
That work was sparked in 2010 when a bench in Manhattan Beach’s Polliwog Park was dedicated to his grandmother, Beverly Rohrer, for her work on behalf of disabled students. Beverly Rohrer was the superintendent of Manhattan Beach Schools, and often took her grandson to the park.
In 2016, Rohrer helped his mother Beth cut the ribbon during the opening of South Park in Hermosa Beach. He and his mother were involved in designing the play areas to be accessible to the disabled.
“All kids can play together now,” he said at the ribbon cutting, using his Tobii C12.
Rohrer first spoke publicly about his disability at his eighth grade graduation. That led to him giving motivational speeches at schools and conferences across the country, including one at a Microsoft/Tobii Dynavox conference in San Francisco.
His most recent effort on behalf of the disabled was helping convince the Hermosa City Council to approve a walkway on the Greenbelt that can be traveled by wheelchair.
The Greenbelt is a former railroad right of way that runs north/south through the city, and is magically lit by sunlight rippling through its canopy of trees. But its wood chip walkway is treacherous for the elderly and the handicapped.
After years of resistance from able bodied walkers who feared removal of the wood chips would make the greenbelt a speedway for cyclists, the city council agreed to a decomposed granite walkway used in the city’s parks.
Unfortunately, as Parks and Rec commissioner Barbara Ellman tearfully reported at a recent council meeting, the elderly and handicapped friendly walkway will come too late for its most eloquent advocate.
Rohrer passed away last month, at age 20. He had just completed the autobiographical “Casey: The Musical,” which he hoped to premiere this spring. The musical begins with his doctor telling his parents their son would never be able to communicate with them, and ends with the doctor marveling at all their son had achieved. The songs are set to melodies (with permission) from the musical “Seussical.”
A memorial service will be held for Rohrer on Saturday, March 25 at 11 a.m. at the Portofino Hotel in King Harbor.
A sunset memorial will be held on the beach at 22nd Street in Hermosa Beach on Monday, March 27 at 6:30 p.m. ER