AUSTIN (KXAN) - When fans and supporters wish actors good luck in a play, they traditionally say, "Break a leg." Long time actress Lana Dieterich has a leg up on the rest of the theatre world in that department.
"I contracted infantile paralysis, probably when I was six months old," said Dieterich. "But they didn't even know that that's what I had because I wasn't old enough to tell them. All I did was cry and the doctor thought that I was crying because of teething."
It was not teething; it was polio and it hit Dieterich with a vengeance in 1945, during the height of a U.S. epidemic. Early in her childhood, she endured surgeries designed to help her walk. They were largely ineffective and little Lana's left foot curled beneath her ankle, forcing her to walk on the side of the foot.
But she was the oldest of what would become seven siblings in her family. Survival meant taking control and that's exactly what she did, at home and at her parochial school, where her favorite subject was reading.
"You went up and down the rows and everybody would take a paragraph," Dieterich recalled. "And I would be so mad, listening to these other people reading these wonderful paragraphs in these monotones. I couldn't wait for it to be my turn so I could show them how it was done."
Things rocked along that way until the fifth grade when the child was jolted by a decision her parents made.
"My mother and father sent me to the Easter Seals Camp for Crippled Children," said Dieterich. "It was brand new and near where we lived in Pennsylvania. It was a really pretty spot on a lake and there were cabins and everything. They did it because they felt it would be good for me, I know, but I felt like I was being ostracized; I felt like I was being sent away, when I would just as soon have spent the summer with my siblings, playing with them, than with these people whom I didn't know."
It turns out, though, that the trip to camp would change Dieterich's life.
"At the end of that camp session, there were a bunch of specialists who came down from Erie to take a look at a lot of polio survivors there," she said. "The doctors looked at me and told my parents that I could have corrective surgery on my leg and that some of the muscle might be able to be saved or repositioned so that I could use that leg better. They said they might be able to fix my foot so that I wouldn't have to walk on the side of it. So during my sixth grade year, I was basically in the hospital for the whole year."
The surgery straightened Dieterich's lower leg and she began to wear matching flat shoes. She walked, though, with a noticeable limp.
"I hated people staring at me on the street," she said. "I still do. It still bugs me."
That's when the girl's life took a big turn. During her freshman year in high school, there was no space for a study hall. So Dieterich and a friend spent their "study" period sitting at the back of a senior speech class.
"We weren't in that class, officially, more than a week when they were getting ready to start rehearsals for their speech class play," she remembered. "The nun came in and said that the lead was sick and would not be able to play that part. And she said, 'Would anybody be interested in playing,' and she hardly got the words out and my arm was up like that! 'Yes, let me have that role!'''
A series of appearances followed during Dieterich's college years and when she moved to Austin from Kentucky in 1979, she threw herself into acting whenever she got the chance. Her career now boasts more than 100 roles and though she acts only part-time, she is paid for her work on stage.
A highlight came in 2007 when Mitchell Lichtenstein put her in his movie, "Teeth."
"It's now an underground cult hit," Dieterich said. "I won't tell you the plot line but it was filmed here in Austin. I was cast as a nurse and it was a small part. But I will never forget this man for doing what he did. I was speaking to the lead, you know, and I said, 'Just a minute, I'll go check.'
"The camera followed me around and down the hall; it just watched me walk and he didn't have to do that. He didn't have to show that here was a disabled person working and fulfilling a useful job in this hospital. And more deeply, here's a disabled person acting. I really respected him for that."
Unfortunately, though, the actress's leg was getting progressively worse.
"I'm now experiencing post-polio syndrome, where it's weaker than it used to be," Dieterich said. "I have to use a cane a lot of times."
So when Zach Theatre director Dave Steakley approached the actress with a proposal to star in the role of Viola in the current production of " August: Osage County, " Dieterich studied the script and then hesitated. Stage directions required Violet to repeatedly and loudly clang up and down some stairs on the set.
"I said, 'Dave, I've looked at this and I'm not going to be able to be going up and down the stairs like that.' He said, 'I already thought of that.' He said, 'What