After celebrating its 30th anniversary last year with its most extensive performance schedule yet, Portland’s PHAME academy was ready to take on a new challenge. In the last few years, PHAME, which creates opportunities for artists with developmental disabilities, has expanded its public performances and programming and gained widespread visibility for its artists. Now, energetic Executive Director Stephen Marc Beaudoin sensed the academy was ready for more, “an artistic stretch project … out of our broader vision to position the organization and the artists we serve in the artistic mainstream.”
Departing from the traditional American musicals they’d performed previously, PHAME embraced the most ambitious project its leaders could imagine: an original musical that would involve music, theatre and dance. They had the ideal playwright in Debbie Lamedman, a Portland-based former teaching staff member at PHAME who’s been commissioned by theatre companies across the country. “She knows what it’s like to work with artists and actors with developmental disabilities,” Beaudoin says. She’s even written integrated stage works (that is, involving performers with and without disabilities) before.
PHAME gave Lamedman only one instruction: be inclusive by creating characters with a range of ability and disability. “We haven’t taken a tokenistic approach,” Beaudoin explains. “We didn’t give her a checklist and say ‘include these disabilities.’ Her interest as a playwright is writing great theater.”
In Lamedman’s musical Up the Fall, which opens August 22 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, a young Portland woman, Diana, lives with an overbearing mother, finding refuge by spending much of her time feeding the birds and making friends with a squirrel, who turns out to be a messenger from a night world threatened by a trio of angry, jealous sisters. He summons her to try to save that alternate world, whose natural workings have been paralyzed by the sisters’ efforts to control it.
For Up the Fall’s music, PHAME turned to another frequent collaborator, Portland songwriter Laura Gibson, who’s earned national attention for her delicate story songs. But this was her first time writing music for the theatre, and her process was interrupted by a disastrous fire at the apartment she was living in while attending graduate school in New York. The creative team also includes PHAME Music Director Matthew Gailey, who’s composing incidental music, along with well-known Portland playwright and drama teacher Matthew B. Zrebski as stage director, and PHAME Artistic Director Jessica Dart as assistant director and dramaturge.
Since Beaudoin expects Up the Fall to have a life beyond the six scheduled performances at Artists Repertory Theatre, it’s designed for a wide range of performers. “We’re writing this for an integrated cast of people with and without disabilities, including some members of our program and actors from mainstream theaters in Portland,” he says. For instance, Lamedman’s script calls for one of the characters to ride around in a chariot, which could include an electric scooter or wheelchair — but doesn’t have to. The chariot is only one artifact drawn from many different folk tales and myths from cultures around the world that collide in Up the Fall in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Beaudoin also hopes theatre programs in community colleges and high schools will pick up the show, finding ways to integrate people with and without disabilities in their own productions. That would take a step toward PHAME’s larger goal: helping open the mainstream arts world to people with disabilities. For example, PHAME (an acronym for Pacific Honored Artists Musicians and Entertainers) also advises mainstream artists who want to include people with a greater variety of abilities. A couple of years ago, filmmaker Gabe Van Lelyveld called the organization seeking guidance in casting a developmentally disabled character in his film, Mandarose. PHAME recommended some facilitative practices and some current artists, and PHAME alumna Josie Newhall landed the role.
“We’re trying to get individuals with a disability to believe in their own potential and worth, and their families to believe their son or daughter can be successfully integrated into the broader community,” Beaudoin says. “That can be very scary; it can be hard for some to allow even an adult child to venture out in the world. We have to change a lot of hearts and minds. Society is changing, but in some regions of arts and culture, there’s a pervasive snobbishness about what is art and who gets to call themselves an artist. People with disabilities are, far too often, not on the list either as artists onstage or the audience. We want to make our artists visible — Here they are. Look at them.”
Eventually, Beaudoin wants to see PHAME’s performers receive more opportunities beyond the organization. “We’re making the case that artists with disabilities, developmental or otherwise, have the moxie and guts and talent to go toe to toe with any other artists or performers,” he says. “Cultivating the talent of performers with disabilities is not an end in itself. It’s also a way for them to be out working in the mainstream community onstage, backstage, in galleries, community choirs, volunteering. They deserve the same access to those outlets as any other artists, and their interests and ambitions are as diverse as they are.”
Up the Fall runs August 22-29 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison. Tickets are available online and at 503.241.8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org. An earlier version of this story appeared in Artslandia magazine.
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