you might get what you’re after
strange but not a stranger
I’m just an ordinary guy”
“Burning Down The House” by Talking Heads (David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison)
Jessica Dart and Jason Rouse were driving from Portland to the Oregon Coast when they popped on a favorite album from their road trip playlist. As they rocked out to the live version of Talking Heads’ classic song “Burning Down the House” from Jonathan Demme’s revered concert documentary Stop Making Sense, the couple thought about making a music video featuring one of the students from PHAME, the fine and performing arts academy for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities where they both taught.
“Psycho Killer,” “Take Me to the River,” “This Must Be the Place”… as the miles counted down and the music played on, they kept thinking how different songs might suit other PHAME students. By the time they reached Lincoln City, they had the rough outline of a show — PHAME’s reinterpretation of not just the fab Talking Heads music, but also of the visual spectacle of Demme’s legendary film.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
Two years and hundreds of hours of learning, creating, cooperating, and rehearsing later, PHAME’S re-envisioned live performance of Stop Making Sense premieres at Portland’s Revolution Hall this weekend. It represents not only a dazzling visual and auditory experience for audiences, but also a dramatic leap forward in arts education for Oregonians with disabilities.
“This Must Be the Place”
Even a few years ago, such ambitions would have been unthinkable for many who succumb to stereotypes about artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as the students PHAME serves.
“There’s a true bias against people with disabilities,” says PHAME’S executive director, Jenny Stadler, characterized by low expectations and lack of understanding about what many can accomplish when provided appropriate educational settings, accommodations, and guidance. “We’re consistent as an organization about dismantling preconceptions.”
For many years, PHAME fought those impressions by primarily staging classic American musicals. But Stadler’s arrival and consequent development of a new curriculum and approach upped the stakes by encouraging and facilitating much greater creative student involvement. Four principles underlie today’s curriculum: teamwork and education, self-advocacy, self-awareness, and persistence and practice. (You can read much more about PHAME’s new approach in OAW’s 2019 story, “PHAME and Friends Rock Out,” which covered the development of the school’s previous show, The Poet’s Shadow.) As I wrote then, “The goal of PHAME productions isn’t merely (if that’s the word) to create a performance, but also to help students develop skills that will serve them in their lives and work beyond the stage and even the academy itself.”
But even PHAME’s faculty were surprised at just how ambitious the students, who range in age from their 20s to 70s, had become. “Before the pandemic, students came to us to do art,” Stadler explains. “But we found out that, when they were stuck at home, that’s where they did art.” The school encouraged them with online classes that, for instance, asked students to create art solely from objects in their kitchens. “And we saw this huge explosion of creativity — people re-conceived where you do art,” she recalls. “We’ve got students coming to us wit 3,000 TikTok followers. The students wanted more tech. We realized we needed to up our game. We’re just trying to keep up.”
The redesigned curriculum starts with introductory courses to teach basic art-making skills, like songwriting and video creation. For the students willing and able to explore further, a second tier of technique classes teach advanced skills such as scene study for actors. The third level, lab classes, provide still more challenging hands-on opportunities. “How do we support students who oftentimes have been shafted by regular arts education?” Stadler asks. “We’re playing catch up, challenging them in a way they haven’t been challenged before.” Stop Making Sense “is the first time we’ve taken that lab mentality through the entire process and put it onstage.”
“Burning Down the House”
When Rouse and Dart brought Stadler their idea to recreate Talking Heads’ classic 1984 concert film, she realized the creative variety and challenge involved offered an ideal vehicle to push PHAME’s artistically ambitious students even farther than The Poet’s Shadow had done. It didn’t hurt that it happened to be one of her all-time favorites from her college years. (Same for me, by the way.)
“For me and my friends in the 1980s, Talking Heads were the background music to our lives,” Stadler wrote in a recent PHAME newsletter. “Their compelling, weird, rhythmic, and unexpected musical themes wove their way into our hearts and brains, and we danced to them while we graduated from high school and then college, got our first jobs, made our first adult friends; in some ways this music was our soundtrack for growing up and for figuring out who we were going to be.” Portland even boasts its own Talking Heads tribute band.
The music is, of course, magnificent — most of the band’s greatest hits, augmented by a crack crew of guest musicians from Parliament/Funkadelic and elsewhere. But the original movie, considered one of the greatest concert films ever made (along with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz), is far more than a rock concert documentary, with head Head David Byrne intentionally transforming the shows into visual gripping performance art, from his jogging and other parodic dance moves to the famous, Noh-theater-inspired Big Suit he donned to reflect how dance music involves the body much more than the head. And the innovative camerawork supervised by Demme, one of America’s finest directors, is equally compelling. Chosen by the Library of Congress for the US National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” it’s as much multimedia spectacle as documentary.
That variety made it ideal for involving the many kinds of artists who attend PHAME. But the film also embodied another crucial element.
“This music permeated our lives in large part because of the undercurrent of pure joy that runs through it,” Stadler’s newsletter article continued. “When you watch the film Stop Making Sense, you see and feel that joy: the joy of movement and expression and being exactly who you are.
“Joy is in the water here at PHAME, and in part that’s why Jason Rouse, Jessica Dart, and I thought this project would be a perfect fit for PHAME. The process of making art—and building community—is interwoven with joy, and it’s this joy that breeds true self-expression. Talking Heads—and frontman David Byrne—weren’t afraid to use art to express themselves freely, and that fearlessness is something we encourage our students to practice every day at PHAME. Like a strong percussion section, our classes, workshops, and community gatherings provide an underlying structure, while leaving space for students to riff, to explore and try new things, and to get out of the box and play.”
“Found a Job”
Along with play came work. Serious work. The rigorous process of reimagining the film began in last fall’s classes, Dart says, and really intensified during this past spring. For example, Rouse’s Video Lab class members spent weeks listening to each song, studying the lyrics, drawing inspiration from the imagery, and collaboratively conceptualizing videos that reflected all those aspects.
At every stage, PHAME’s phalanx of teaching artists encouraged the students to take creative chances. “We believe in the dignity of risk,” Stadler explains. “Students with disabilities have often been infantilized, told they’re doing a good job even when they aren’t. We believe that as a full adult human being, you should be allowed to take a risk, make a mistake, push yourself. It’s even a risk to audition for a show because you may not get a role.”
The approach worked. “From week to week, their ideas would develop and grow riskier,” Dart recalls. “There was a sense of ownership that came from investing so much time and effort. They were learning important lessons, like if your idea doesn’t get used, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with it or with you, but that there was another good idea that worked better. Those were good lessons in collaboration.”
For the song “This Must Be the Place,” digital photography students took hundreds of still images — buildings, clouds, people — that lent themselves to the concept of home. Visual art and video art students immersed themselves in the music and learned how to let it inspire their own paintings and more. “What does this mean to you when you hear this song?,” teachers would ask.
Music students learned how to play their parts on iPads. (They’ll be accompanied by a live band, including some Portland indie rockers.) Dancers learned a multiplicity of moves. Over many weeks, teaching artists prodded students to take the show as seriously as any other artist creating a live original rock show in front of a large audience in a major Portland concert hall, giving sometimes tough, but necessary feedback. “They’d work it, work it, work it, like you would with any artist,” Dart says, “pushing the students beyond where they’d been pushed before.”
PHAME student/artist JJ Ross created original choreography and reimagined some classic solo dance sequences from the film. His contribution exemplifies the exceptional opportunity the project offered participating students.
“He’s been a great mover on stage, but he’s never had to choreograph a whole show before, and then teach it to other people in the dance ensemble,” Dart says. “There’s not many other places that would give him the freedom and the opportunity to gain those skills and that confidence.”
And Dart says the process of creating the show has already exerted vital effects on its creators.
“Anytime someone comes into a project where you don’t know what to expect, but you bring an open mind and creativity, you automatically grow from that,” she says. “When they’re trusted to participate in professional level experiences, you see them growing as humans, embracing risk taking. We’ve seen this time together build camaraderie among the cast. They’re super supportive of each other’s work.”
To make it happen, the project and school received vital support from Regional Arts & Culture Council, Oregon Cultural Trust, and a Creative Heights grant from the Oregon Community Foundation.
The product of all that effort and creativity: the biggest and most complicated production in PHAME history. “Poet’s Shadow involved 60 students, this one about 100,” including singers, dancers, actors, instrumentalists, photographers, videographers, and other visual artists, Stadler says. “What happens onstage is much more complicated, more challenging. There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of people on stage.”
They wound up choosing nine songs from the film and adding a couple of other Talking Heads songs. “This isn’t a faithful copy of the movie,” Stadler explains. “It’s a tribute to it, our interpretation of it.”
As always, along with the PHAME artists, the show features non-disabled local professional musicians and other artists working alongside them, including singer/songwriter Laura Gibson, Blitzen Trapper’s Brian Koch, Lost Lander members Sarah Fennell and Matt Sheehy, and PHAME teaching artist Stephanie Strange.
Stadler expects the show to raise PHAME’S public profile. “The visibility of this show at Rev Hall is going to make more people take notice of PHAME and people with disabilities in general and help in overcoming bias against them,” she says.
The project has also inspired PHAME itself to double down on its ambitious vision. The school has bought new computers to facilitate video art, and embarked on a capital campaign to raise funds to build an actual video and audio production tech lab and recording studio so that students can also learn the skills necessary to produce high-end videos and songs, not just conceive them.
A documentary filmmaker is also chronicling the process (yes, a film about a concert about a film about a concert). And for Headheads who still can’t get enough, a new 4K IMAX restoration of the original Stop Making Sense movie is coming out next month, premiering at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, with Spike Lee hosting a Q&A with Byrne and the other original members (Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison) in attendance — the band’s first reunion in two decades, since their 2002 induction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The new restoration will then play in theaters around the country, including Portland’s Cinema 21 and Hollywood Theater.
Dart sees the show having lasting benefits, and the project leading to even greater artistic adventures — and risks.
“Opportunity and risk are things that people with disabilities don’t often get,” she says. “The opportunity to do something of this scale and to be trusted while doing it is rare. I just see even more collaborations coming out in the Portland community and more chances for PHAME artists to be included in what’s going on.”
PHAME presents STOP MAKING SENSE: A Multimedia Concert Tribute to Talking Heads, at 7:30 pm, Saturday August 26 and at 2 pm, Sunday, August 27, at REVOLUTION HALL, 1300 SE Stark Street, Portland. For tickets and more information, visit phamepdx.org.