Actress With Stiff Person Syndrome Tells Her Story

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Sherry Jo Ward sits in an orange armchair, playing harmonica in the center of the stage. She leans forward on the matching ottoman for emphasis. Her walker is never out of reach.

This is the beginning of Stiff, an autobiographical play Ward wrote about her 2015 diagnosis with Stiff Person Syndrome (SPS). To read more about SPS, click here.

SPS is a neurological disorder, characterized by muscle rigidity and spasms. Ward explains her bafflement when people ask what happened in various social interactions, which range from clumsy to outright rude. She explains that people with SPS have a GAD (glutamic acid decarboxylase) antibody, but nobody really knows what causes it.

“There’s some researchers who say it comes when people are following a period of stress,” she starts, holding a pipe of what she tells the audience is medical marijuana to her mouth “But when are we not we following a period of stress?” The audience laughs harder.

Ward has made a career as an acclaimed actor, appearing on films, stage, and television. When she started to exhibit symptoms that ultimately led to her diagnosis with a rare disease with no known cure, that was called into question. She continued to pursue acting, but it became more difficult with limited mobility.

These challenges didn’t keep her from the stage though. Instead it gave her the inspiration to write and act in StiffStiff is one woman play which chronicles her experiences, all the small and big things that SPS has changed. It grapples with the questions of what this will mean for her going forward, and addresses her deep yearning to be on stage. While this is serious and meaningful content, Stiff is, at its heart, a comedy.

Sherry has already won Best Actress as well as Best New Play from the Dallas Fort Worth Theatre for Stiff. She is currently performing Stiff at the Stage West Theater, and is also appearing in Life Sucks.

Stiff tells of a time in Sherry’s life when she was afraid learning to cope with this new, rare, and life-altering disease would end her stage career. Not only was she able to continue the art she wanted to, but she was able to do it by integrating SPS into her work. Rather than try to overcome minimize the disorder’s presence, she embraces the truth of her situation, with pain, honesty, and humor.

all photos of Sherry used with permission


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