We all saw it on Wednesday night. We all heard Santa Cruz’s James Durbin open his mouth and unleash power and passion that landed like a punch on the judges of “American Idol.” The young man might be on the way to pop-culture history.
The following is a feature story I wrote on James back in 2008. I’m in the process of doing another story, wanting to talk to as many people who have been witness to his life on stage in Santa Cruz County as possible. If you have a story to tell about James, contact me here.
Singin’ Through the Pain
James Durbin finds relief from Tourette’s syndrome in the most unlikely of places: on stage, in front of a paying audience
By WALLACE BAINE (March 21, 2008)
The stereotypes tell us that the last place a person with Tourette’s syndrome belongs is on a stage in front of an audience. The stereotypes tell us that an impulse to bark and shout out obscenities could be ruinous for a stage production. The stereotypes tell us that those with Tourette’s have no way to control themselves in public settings, that they must, by definition, lead circumscribed lives.
Meet James Durbin , stereotype buster.
The 19-year-old actor and singer is doing what most people would consider impossible. He’s wowing audiences with his talents on stage while dealing with the double burden of Tourette’s and Asperber’s syndrome off-stage.
Durbin is playing the lead role in the Kids On Broadway production of “Singin’ in the Rain,” opening tonight at the Louden Nelson Center in Santa Cruz. Most of the roles in the big, splashy musical are double cast “” two actors are cast in the same role and alternate performances. But not the role of Don Lockwood, the famous Gene Kelly role in the classic 1952 movie. That role belongs solely to a young man who was diagnosed with Tourette’s a decade ago.
“His maturity, his confidence level, you can just see it in him every day,” said the show’s director Robin Aronson. “He’s coming into his own as a young man.”
Like most people with Tourette’s, Durbin has had to deal with off-the-mark public perceptions, most critically when it comes to the phenomenon of involuntary utterances of sexual vulgarities or racial epithets. That phenomenon, called “coprolalia,” is only one symptom of Tourette’s, and, in fact, is present in only a small percentage of people with Tourette’s. James Durbin is part of the larger portion of Tourette’s patients who doesn’t exhibit coprolalia.
Asperger’s syndrome is a mild variant of autism, and is characterized by erratic behavior in social situations and obsessive-compulsive behaviors in fields of interest. Durbin is what is called “high-functioning,” meaning his symptoms are milder than most and he is able to deal with situations that others with Tourette’s or Asperger’s would find intolerable.
“His gift is music and theater,” said his mother Judy Durbin .
In fact, “Singin’ in the Rain” is only the latest, though the most prominent, big-time role that James Durbin has taken on in local theater. In 2006, he played the lead role as Danny in “Grease” and as the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” both for Kids on Broadway. He’s also played in “West Side Story,” “Sweet Charity,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “My Fair Lady.”
“He was an incredible Beast,” said Aronson. “He has such a gorgeous singing voice and he’s really a great intuitive actor.” But, she said, “Beast” also was a challenge for both James and his supporting cast, that he was displaying disruptive behavior related to his Tourette’s and Asperger’s in the rehearsal process. This time around, she said, he’s been much easier to work with.
“And there’s a lot of pressure on him in this show. He’s featured in every scene. He’s has to do all these fast costume changes. He’s carrying the whole show.” Then, in reference to a stressful dress rehearsal, she said, “If anything was going to happen with him, it would have happened last night. But he’s been wonderful.”
In an interview, Durbin ‘s Tourette’s symptoms were characterized by mild facial and vocal tics. He’s convinced that as he gets older, the symptoms are getting more manageable and that they might one day disappear altogether.
He was first diagnosed as a junior-high student while attending Shoreline Middle School, shortly after his musician father died from a drug overdose.
“I’d go to school and all day, I’d try to hold it back and not let it show. But then when I would get home,” he makes a gesture to suggest he would engage in a rush of behaviors to “let it all out.”
But his love for theater goes back even earlier when he was entranced at the age of 8 by a production of “Damn Yankees” at Soquel High featuring his older sister. “I would wear my baseball pants and a ‘Damn Yankees’ T-shirt and I kinda became a mascot of that production.”
Then came his first role at the age of 9, in a production of “South Pacific,” playing a French boy. He also sang a song on stage, in French.
Judy Durbin said that James has been involved in consuming interests most of his childhood. Whether it was cowboys, Pokemon or professional wrestling “” still, an abiding interest for James “” he would dive into with an obsessive embrace.
On stage, playing a role, he said he feels a comfort level that allows him to put aside his tics and obsessions. As a result, he seen performance as a way to therapy, to get out from under the strictures of Tourette’s and Asperger’s.
Besides carrying “Singin’ in the Rain,” Durbin is playing in a rock band with some friends, covering material as diverse as Al Green, Led Zeppelin and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, while also attending Dale Ockerman’s Musicscool. He just auditioned for the Cabrillo Stage performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and he’s even considering taking a shot at “American Idol.”
“Kids on Broadway has really opened doors for him,” said director Aronson. “A year and a half ago, he couldn’t look you in the eye. You couldn’t connect with him on a personal basis. Now, he’s made such great strides. He has about him a professionalism that’s amazing to see.”