PHAME: The Dignity of Risk

The innovative school of arts and performance for adults with developmental disabilities embarks on new horizons with Portland Opera

“I used to voice a tentative I’d like; now it is a firm I want.” This statement, told to me by Anne-Marie Plass during a conversation about the challenges of living with developmental or intellectual disabilities, registered deeply. The difference in wording might appear slight to you and me. The distinction is a world apart for people whose daily experience is governed by fear of being judged, deemed insufficient, and being rejected. The young woman credits her shift from hesitant hopefulness to assertive requests to her 10-year exposure to the education and demands by PHAME, an organization that exposes adults like her to arts and performance, and where she now serves as a member of the board.

Anne-Marie Plass, PHAME student, performer, and board member. Photo: Friderike Heuer

I first met Anne-Marie during rehearsal and performance of a concert that marked the beginning of a collaborative effort between PHAME and Portland Opera. The 18-month-long collaboration is geared toward teaching all aspects of creating a rock opera, from writing librettos for this subgenre of opera, to costume and prop design, to creating music with an iPad orchestra and, most importantly, performing the piece themselves, with choir and soloists trained all year long.

PHAME in performance. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The PHAME choir has had its share of exposure, having sung with Pink Martini, among others, and performed with the Portland Cello Project. This new project, however, brings it to another level: extended time and involvement of various professional artists ups demands and exposure, providing a lengthy and involved model of inclusion that is likely to benefit all sides.

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PHAME performer Katie Dunn. Photo: Friderike Heuer

PHAME’s Maxwell Rochette and Jim Augello. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Performers Henry Newson and Pat Hanson. Photo: Friderike Heuer

PHAME was started 34 years ago by a group of parents of adult children with developmental disabilities who met on Saturdays to create some space for making art, performing and socializing. It has come a long way since then, and these days provides an invaluable service to the community, those living with disabilities, and the rest of us. And the Portland organization isn’t alone: disability arts is a growing international movement.

As a school of art and performance it offers year-long classes, ranging from musical theater to podcasting, from graphic arts to photography and poetry. It enrolls more than a hundred students annually, ranging in age from 18 to 70, and provides scholarships for those who need support with tuition. A highly qualified and diverse roster of salaried teaching artists and educators speaks to the rigor of the education. Students need to be able to provide their own transport and function without the expectation of support persons (unless they bring their own.)

Newly appointed Executive Director Jenny Stadler emphasizes two additional achievements of the school beyond teaching artistic subject matter: It creates multiple occasions for students to socialize, and it provides venues for students to display their abilities and talents by connecting them to civic organizations. Opportunities to speak to politicians at the state legislature or local political organizations clearly further the goal of more inclusion.

Having originally served the purpose of providing a creative outlet, fun, and guaranteed glowing feedback for its participants, PHAME changed direction about eight years ago with forward-looking board members and leadership at its helm. It was decided to push for participants’ real potential, respecting them through challenge rather than automatic approval, encouraging them to take risks that inherently have their own rewards.

Matthew Gailey, PHAME’s director of arts and education, with the cast. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The program is now geared toward strengths, creating an educational setting that is demanding while allowing the participants themselves to demark their limits if they feel they’re being pushed too far. As Anne-Marie, who was present during the years of change, put it: “They finally took us seriously. We were treated like any other student in any school setting and we pulled off things we had only dreamt about before.” The social aspects were lifted by that tide as well. “You cannot imagine how lonely you are living with a developmental disability, once you are out of public school. With the challenging projects at PHAME we stay longer, hang out together to practice, come in for extra lessons. The way they pushed me, I already had a leading role in a musical after only one year of attending the school. With all the fear of rejection in my life, someone finally gave me permission not to be afraid.”

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Portland Opera has a longstanding general commitment to DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion – for casting ensembles and repertoire, as well as the inclusion of audiences with disabilities. Beyond that, it is in the process, like so many other organizations, of anchoring specifics in discussions of future strategic plans. Until then it relies, as Andrea Tichy, associate director of marketing and audience development, aptly put it, on things to grow organically, one positive development at the time. In the case of its new alliance with PHAME, which is supported in part by a grant from The Autzen Foundation, the connection was forged through the initiative of two educators, one at each institution.

Alexis Hamilton, singer and Portland Opera’s manager of outreach and education. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Rob Smith, PHAME’s director of community engagement, drumming at the concert. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Alexis Hamilton, manager of education and outreach at Portland Opera, connected to PHAME’s director of community engagement, Rob Smith, in the course of offering her Opera to Go program, a short production of pieces geared for educational settings. After many conversations and assessing a full musical production by PHAME choir and soloists last summer, the two decided to take the plunge: let us figure out a way to combine forces and have a project that creates a rock opera, from start to finish, with a performance as its culmination.

To their credit, both Portland Opera and PHAME jumped on board, even though funding was not in the current budget (and, if I understand it correctly, is in the process of being sought far and wide.) Portland Opera offered space at the Hampton Opera Center, and opera staff assisted in the summer workshops offered as introduction to the project. Hamilton, an opera singer herself, taught libretto writing and coached choir and soloist in collaboration with Matthew Gailey, director of arts and education at PHAME, who also beautifully conducted.

Woman cast members at the Hampton Opera Center. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The results of just a few summer months of vocal training were stunning: a concert in front of a full house of more than 200 attendees, offering show tunes from Hamilton, Hair, Spring Awakening, Jesus Christ Superstar and more, beautifully sung. Several soloists joined singers living with and without disabilities in couplets that earned standing ovations. For singing coaches like Alexis, it was eye-opening: “Teaching in an environment where process is as important as product, and where growth is the benchmark for success, helps you see your role in a new light: you become part of a joint enterprise that celebrates the work as much as the outcome.”

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Katie Carlsen leans into the music. Photo: Friderike Heuer

PHAME performing artist Aaron Hobson. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The project lends itself to the educational mission of extracting excellence from each participant. Not all students can sing or be onstage, but all have abilities that can be meaningfully integrated, from set design and building, to marketing, to creating and playing music on iPads. The amount of work going into an opera production is immense, and it will be rigorous work for all involved, something acknowledged and embraced by everyone I talked to.

The reasons for this acceptance are both obvious and not so obvious. It allows an organization like Portland Opera to be a pathbreaker, to walk the walk of inclusion of artists with developmental disabilities, with the hope that other local institutions will follow that example. For organizations like PHAME, it results in visibility, the hope of opening paths to further engagements with other like-minded arts organizations, and increased reputation that could help attract isolated adults into the fold. It fulfills the group’s mission of empowering individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to lead full, creative lives through arts education and performance, and its vision of a community that champions opportunities and possibilities for all.

The less obvious but equally, if not more, important benefits can be gleaned when listening, one final time, to Anne-Marie (who now has a career at Starbucks): “Generally, one of our biggest problems is finding employment. PHAME helps to build a skill set that helps us with finding work. If we can put on our CV all the things we have been able to accomplish in our performance career, perhaps that reputation helps to do away with stereotypes about what people living with disabilities can and cannot do. Yes, we have limitations, but they are not defining us. We have found a place in our community, now we want to find a place in the world.”

PHAME performing artist David Hutzler. Photo: Friderike Heuer

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