Photos by Friderike Heuer
Two summers ago, Portland Opera Manager of Education and Outreach Alexis Hamilton attended an original musical performed by artists from Portland’s PHAME Academy, which serves adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She hoped the 35-year-old organization might help her make the Portland Opera To Go program more accessible to people with disabilities. But she was so impressed by PHAME’s 2017 production that she imagined a bigger project.
“After I saw that,” Hamilton recalled, “I was really on fire” to collaborate with PHAME.
That production coincided with the arrival of PHAME’s new executive director, Jenny Stadler, who was looking for ways “to overcome the invisibility” that separated many people with disabilities from the rest of society. One method: give PHAME students opportunities to tell their own stories to the larger public. After Hamilton approached her about collaborating, Stadler woke up with a “middle-of-the-night epiphany: we help them become inclusive, and they teach our students how to create an opera.”
This weekend and next, 18 months of groundbreaking work by PHAME and Portland Opera staff — and above all the students themselves — culminate in what Stadler calls ‘the biggest project we’ve ever done.” PHAME’s original new rock opera, The Poet’s Shadow, runs for seven performances this weekend and next at Portland Opera’s Hampton Opera Center.
PHAME artists created the story, wrote the libretto, composed the music, and designed the visuals — as well as acting, singing, dancing, and playing most of the music.
“As far as I know, it’s a first of its kind partnership with an opera company working with adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities to produce an opera,” Hamilton said.
ARTSWATCH FOCUS: ARTS & EDUCATION
As impressive as the production is, it’s only part of a bigger story. To produce The Poet’s Shadow, PHAME had to create a whole system of teaching to prepare students for the immense task of making an original multimedia production. And the lessons learned in that process will benefit them and other people with disabilities in ways that extend far beyond these shows.
Founded in 1984, PHAME Academy engages arts education professionals to teach classes in many art forms (choir, dance, visual arts, improv, and more) to about 125 students ages 18-75. For years, its students performed in classic musicals before embarking on original productions: Up the Fall in 2015 and 2017’s In a Single Breath. But those shows were written by experienced playwrights, not PHAME students.
PHAME teachers including Hamilton conducted a series of classes that covered the history of opera, libretto writing, graphic and costume design, composing music on iPads, singing, and more. In one class, “we took eight very different people and shoved them in a room and had them write a libretto,” which meant collaboratively coming up with an original story, plus the words the performers would speak and sing, Hamilton explained. “There were so many passionate ideas flying around, and people having to negotiate them by getting to know each other and what they care about. The most exciting thing for me was learning what this particular group of people cares about and how sophisticated their ideas about love and depression and art were.”
Some were passionate about social justice issues. Others yearned to tell a story about the redeeming qualities of romantic love. They finally settled on a story about a poet named Elizabeth, who’s suffering from depression, breaks up with her lover, and embarks on a mythical journey to discover the source of her negative feelings — and what she wants from life. She writes poetry to help her through her crisis — and those poems begin to come to life.
Under Hamilton’s tutelage, the students considered the things that can make them depressed, and also what can make them feel better — the positives that depression can eclipse. The protagonist’s mother also has to face her own fears, about growing older, loneliness and her daughter’s struggles.
“It’s a deeply psychological story, but they had to mush it into the hero’s journey structure to have it work on stage,” Hamilton said. “This libretto is very sophisticated and many-layered in its fairy tale clothes.”
Using Apple’s GarageBand application, PHAME students created musical themes representing each character — think operatic leitmotifs, or Darth Vader’s famous theme from Star Wars. PHAME director of arts and education Matthew Gailey, who’s also the show’s musical director, arranged those melodic or rhythmic phrases into music for the eight-member PHAME iPad orchestra, 20-voice chorus and a string quartet from Metropolitan Youth Symphony.
“They created a musical language for each character in a [10-week] term and a half,” Gailey recalled. “They attacked it! So many ideas, so much collaboration — they completely owned it.”
Students also devised visual ideas for costumes, video projections, even the poster, then worked with designers to realize them. Costume designer Liliane Hunt, for instance, taught design classes, worked closely with the students on creating the designs, and hand-sewed the costumes. Portland Opera donated Hamilton’s extensive teaching time, production materials (PHAME has no costume or prop shop), and the performance venue.
“It’s been an interesting investigation of developing my character and making her my own,” said PHAME artist and board member Anne-Marie Plass, who had never acted until she arrived at PHAME in 2008. “How do I use my hands and body, gestures and blocking to help tell her story? It’s been fun not having a set direction,” unlike her previous PHAME roles in classic shows such as Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, and The Secret Garden.
Throughout the process, PHAME staff, stage director Bruce Hostetler (artistic director of Portland Revels, Stadler’s previous employer) and guest choreographers Erik Ferguson and Yulia Arakelyan from Wobbly Dance worked to accommodate performers’ disabilities. Gailey helped one iPad drummer overcome his tendency to rush tempos by devising an exercise that connected his gestures to his breathing. The six “movers” were positioned so that those who had trouble seeing floor markings or remembering moves could follow those with better perception and memory.
Plass, who says she processes information slightly slower than many, appreciated the staff’s patience and sense of humor. She said Hostetler is an approachable, encouraging director who provides positive reinforcement to help her and other PHAME artists reach the levels he knows they can attain. “I’m very perfectionist,” she admits. “I need to be reminded over and over again to relax and to be patient with myself, because I’m not always going to get it the first time. Having a director who understands that is so important.”
The Poet’s Shadow coincided with another major development for PHAME: the pilot version of a new curriculum that, among other things, codifies the academy’s educational practices to help its teaching artists incorporate its basic principles consistently across its many courses — including those involved in learning to create an opera. 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.
“We firmly believe at PHAME that the skills you learn in the arts are transferable to the rest of your life — not just in the arts,” Gailey said. “These key concepts come out of our philosophy that you teach the person, not the subject.”
For example, Gailey and the other teachers and staff employ principles called “differentiated instruction” and strengths-based instruction that start by building on what a student can do well, instead of immediately focusing on weaknesses. For students who may never have been praised for what they do well, and perhaps have been criticized for what they don’t, that approach can build confidence.
That doesn’t mean the students are coddled — quite the opposite. Many PHAME students have never been challenged to rise to their potential because teachers or employers wrongly assume they can’t. (In fact, what may be needed is an accommodation, like giving Plass a little more time to assimilate information.) As Gailey puts it: “There’s an assumption that they’re not going to be doing much, so let’s not expect much. Teamwork communication, self-advocacy, self-awareness — these are things people with disabilities are often not asked to do because of low expectations.” As a result, students may need practice at repeated effort of the kind that other students routinely receive in their education — try and fail, try again, keep trying till you get it right.
“We have a lot of people who have been underestimated and undervalued,” Gailey explained, “so we ask them to work harder. ”
With help from PHAME teaching artists, students developed those skills at every step in creating The Poet’s Shadow. Intentionality, for instance, is a major principle of the curriculum — teaching students to formulate what they’re going to do before actually doing it.
“A lot of them don’t have much experience with forethought,” Gailey said, and the arts can teach that, such as when a choir member decides how to shape a vowel or phrase, or when to breathe before singing a note, or a when painter imagines how a line will flow before brush meets paper. “Intentionality is useful in everything,” Gailey said. “How do you start your day, what do you have to do make sure you show up to work on time?” That principle and the others get practiced and reinforced throughout the curriculum.
Self-awareness, another key concept, is what drove Gailey to devise (in the moment) the breathing exercise that helped one of PHAME’s iPad drummers learn to match tempo and rhythm with the other ensemble members. That requires knowledge of the individual student and what’s causing his particular difficulty — then the ability to figure out a way around it, in this case slowing down his bouncing-around focus.
“What I was trying to do is make him aware that you’re connecting your hand to an external cue, not just what’s in your head,” Gailey explained. “Within four classes, he went from no sense of a steady beat to being able to keep steady time. That whole journey for him is a direct result of this project.”
That kind of work can demand a lot of teaching artists. “One of my challenges was in vocal class,” Hamilton recalled. “I had 12 students with a wide variety of abilities and talent levels. Just trying to manage how much time you’re able to spend with each student, how many things can I pack into 10 weeks, what do I have to have them take away….”
What inspired her, and Gailey, was how much the students craved the challenges. “One of the most rewarding things as a teacher was to have people put in the work and be eager to be there,” Hamilton said. “In both the voice and libretto class, everybody came back prepared and ready to go. They all hung in there.”
Because opera, which involves music, story, movement, and visuals, “is so multilayered and so cross disciplinary,” Hamilton said, the project was ideal for involving a broad swath of PHAME students. The Poet’s Shadow provided 42 PHAME students with invaluable experience in writing, composing, graphic design, and performing. Stadler estimates that “at least half of our student population has had their hands on this program,” compared to only 15 or 20 students performing in previous musicals.
Under the crisp, upbeat direction of Hostetler and Gailey, the rehearsal I witnessed a couple weeks before opening night displayed a degree of preparation, precision, perseverance and passion that any performing artist should aspire to.
Beyond the Stage
Participating in the production provides immense payoffs for PHAME artists, including making connections that could lead to roles in Portland theaters, choirs, and other performing arts organizations. “Working with PHAME in collaborating with professional companies such as Portland Opera has made me think about maybe joining a professional choir or even participating in a theater production,” Plass said.
Plass, who has worked at Starbucks for years, says the production also gives participants tools they can apply in later endeavors, artistic or otherwise, including self-confidence and teamwork skills. Working on a complex, collaborative project for over a year demonstrates the commitment and stick-to-itiveness valuable in any job, but people with developmental and intellectual disabilities too seldom receive the opportunity and assistance they need to show it.
Hamilton and Stadler expect future collaborations, and PHAME already plans to work with Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Center Stage, and Linestorm Playwrights. “As we partner with more organizations willing to share those stories, the experience of disability will get out into the world,” Stadler said. “They’ll have personal connections with people who have disabilities” that may open Portland performing arts to other disabled performers.
“It’s exciting for the students because they get to take their talents as far as they want to,” Hamilton said. “And it shows the Portland community what’s possible and offers other companies a model for building relationships with a constituency that may not have crossed their radar.”
The complex, rigorous process of creating an original show benefits PHAME artists in ways beyond career opportunities. “These are people who don’t often have a lot of agency or choice in their lives,” Gailey said. “Here, they get to make artistic choices that have a central impact on the show. So to have this rock opera as a vehicle for self-expression helps give them a sense of purpose through art.”
Creating a show that deals with adult, sometimes dark themes like heartbreak, loss and recovery also helps fight the “infantilization” sometimes directed at people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, he said.
The Poet’s Shadow also offers a cultural benefit beyond its value to the individual artists who created and perform in it. “Whenever you have a population that’s been ostracized from the mainstream, they find each other and form a community and their own culture,” Gailey explained, just like various ethnic identities and (more recently recognized by mainstream society) Deaf culture. “When they collectively come together and do art, that culture is reflected in the art. This project gives that culture a voice to allow that cultural expression to be seen and heard in our community.”
- The Poet’s Shadow August 23, 24, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31 at Hampton Opera Center, 211 Southeast Caruthers Street, Portland. Read more about PHAME’s relaxed and sensory-friendly performances here. Tickets and information at www.phamepdx.org/poet. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian / OregonLive.
- Photographer Friderike Heuer, who’s been following this project throughout its eighteen months, recently published Hidden Magic, her own photo essay on it, focusing on the behind-the-scenes work of costume designer Liliane Hunt. Find it on Heuer’s web site YDP – Your Daily Photo.
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