A few years ago I had the opportunity of having a conversation with James Eitrheim. Mr. Eitrheim was a theater instructor at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Illinois. He shared with me his memory of a former student of his, a young girl who had cerebral palsy which affected her speech and gait. He recalled that after she performed her first scene in his class during her freshman year he said to the other students in the class, "If you understood her, please raise your hands. Nobody raised a hand. Seeing how disappointed the girl was, he called her over to his side after the class and whispered, "By the end of the school year I want all your classmates to raise their hands."
Eitrheim could have chosen to tell the student how difficult he thought it would be for her, a young girl with cerebral palsy, to participate in an acting class. He could have asked her to drop out. But instead he noticed the girl's spirit and determination, and he chose to nurture her in the pursuit of her dream.
I was that student. And today I am an actress, activist and acting coach. Mr. Eitrheim was honest with me about the challenges he thought I might face as an actress with a disability, but he was also encouraging. His support not only bolstered my resolve to become an actress, it also inspired me to share my passion for the craft of acting with others through teaching and coaching.
Acting has been my lifelong passion. I've never wanted to do anything else. But if acting is my passion, teaching is my joy. And for the past nine years I have experienced that joy by working as an acting coach and teacher at Performing Arts Studio West. I began working there part time in the summer of 1999 while I was completing my MFA in acting at California State University Long Beach and was hired full time after I graduated in 2001.
Performing Arts Studio West was founded by actor/ musician John Paizis in 1998. It is staffed by professional artists who work regularly in the Entertainment Industry and offers performing arts training and career management for adults with developmental disabilities. Its programming is designed to meet the needs of both those who just want to have a performing arts experience and those who are interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts. I teach because I feel the performing arts should be accessible to all who wish to participate.
Many students who attend Studio West want to be working actors, and quite a few have realized that dream. I have been fortunate throughout my career to have teachers, including Mr. Eitrheim, who supported and nurtured my dream. Now I have the pleasure of doing the same for my students. I want to give my students a wide range of tools that will help them in honing and developing their skills as artists. My teaching partner Steve Niel and I teach classes in improvisation, acting technique, cold reading and audition preparation, scene study and film set etiquette. We design our classes to meet the individual needs of our students. For instance, improvisation exercises might be used to help one student with listening and focusing skills and another with deepening and increasing his/her emotional range.
In 2002, Studio West established a Talent and Management Department. Since then our students have been cast in over 800 roles in film and television projects. Our actors have been featured on NBC's ER, The WB's 7th Heaven, and TNT's Saving Grace. Currently PASW actor Luke Zimmerman portrays Tom Bowman on the hit ABC Family show The Secret Life of an American Teenager. This January PASW actress Michelle Marks joins the show as Tom's love interest Tammy.
It is important that actors with disabilities continue to advocate for increased visibility in theater, film and television as well as new media. Though we are seeing more disabled actors portray disabled characters, and actors like Robert David Hall of CSI and Luke Zimmerman have found success on hit television shows, for the most part disability is still relatively invisible in the media. And there are still many instances where characters with disabilities are portrayed by actors who do not have disabilities.
I am proud to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild's PWD Committee, working with other gifted performers with disabilities committed to increasing our visibility on the television and film landscape. Performing Arts Studio West is also dedicated to this advocacy. However, as actors we must be prepared for when those opportunities come. Therefore, one of my primary responsibilities is, through private coaching sessions, to prepare my students for auditions and working on the set. In these sessions I am able to do more in-depth work on breaking down the script and emotional preparation.
The rewards I get from teaching and coaching are immeasurable. Not all of our students have had opportunities to participate in film and television projects, but over the past nine years I have seen how participation in a performing arts curriculum has helped increase self-esteem and socialization skills in many of our students. I've seen shyness and fear replaced by confidence, as our students have had opportunities to perform in our numerous in-house productions, which have included three original musical comedies, a feature film and several holiday-themed shows.
It is also thrilling when a student I coached for an audition books a role. Then to see that role successfully and beautifully portrayed in the finished production is so exciting. Nothing compares, however, to watching one of my students see him or herself in a film or on television. I can see the joy of an accomplished goal in their faces, and I am honored to be part of a team that is dedicated to assisting people in realizing their artistic dreams.
As an actress, I have had the honor of training with many wonderful teachers and private coaches. Some were formerly actors who had chosen to stop acting and were committed just to teaching. Others have been working actors who were actively pursuing their careers but also dedicated to sharing their knowledge and skills with others. I fall into the latter category. I didn't become an acting teacher/coach because I was frustrated by the challenges of being an actress. I am still actively pursuing an acting career.
One of the perks of working at Performing Arts Studio West is the flexibility I have to take off when I have an audition, am in a theater production or shooting. I see teaching as an extension of who I am as an actor and activist, and I do it for one simple reason: I love it!
Diana Elizabeth Jordan lives and works in Los Angeles. She is available for workshops and speaking engagements. For more information visit her website www.dianaelizabethjordan.com. For more information about Performing Arts Studio West visit www.pastudiowest.com.top
The role of the teaching artist is rapidly changing. The growing clamor to move our educational institutions into the 21st century has been heard by teaching artists across the country. Even with shrinking budgets, institutional inertia, and open ended career paths, teaching artists are blazing trails in K12 education, health education, civic engagement, and more. In fact, it is in this less than perfect economic environment that we are seeing teaching artistry grow in capacity and sophistication as a profession. To grow this new profession in such a difficult climate requires the teaching artist to be as creative in her business practices as she is in her art making. Teaching artists with disabilities encounter additional challenges. They encounter everything from physical obstacles (for examples, wheelchair inaccessibility) to false cultural assumptions about disability that keep them from sharing their artistic gifts.
With so many obstacles, how can teaching artists build the necessary skills to succeed? Furthermore, how can teaching artists with disabilities overcome these additional obstacles and leverage their unique experience to inspire others to make beautiful works of art?
To explore this subject, on behalf of Opening Stages, I interviewed Jaehn Clare and Derek Mortland, who have both participated in the VSA arts Teaching Artist Fellows program.
Describe your career as a teaching artist. What is the concentration of your art work, where do you do it, how long, etc.?
My interest in the theatre was first exercised in 1976 when I auditioned for a community theatre company in Rapid City, SD. A decade later, I began working as a teaching artist with CLIMB Theatre, Inc. in St. Paul, MN, serving as an actor educator from 1986 - 1988. Since then my work as a theatre artist has developed into both a personal and a professional mission to contribute to the creation of positive social change in the United States by serving the arts and the education communities as an educator, trainer and advocate for disability awareness and inclusion. I have been employed by VSA arts of Georgia for more than eight years, and I currently work under the title of Director of Artistic Development.
I’m a musician. I started my formal music education at 12 on guitar and developed under the tutelage of teachers including graduates of Berklee School of Music until age 17. Around age 15, I started playing in local jazz bands out at clubs. Shortly after this my high school rock and punk band started getting some gigs at bars on Ohio State University campus. I guess we all looked old enough that we never really got asked any questions about our age. We also traveled to play a couple of gigs on Ohio University Campus bars in Athens, OH.
After graduating high school I continued playing with various bands on the local and regional rock and heavy metal scene through my early twenties, while at the same time forming a commercial lawn care and landscape company as a day gig for myself with a business partner. It was around this time that I got into motorcycle racing. I participated nationally in this sport at a semi-pro level for 6 years. In 1997, at 28 years old I had a horrific accident during a race that left me paralyzed and in a coma for 6 days. Obviously I came out of the coma, but my back was shattered in three places and my spinal cord was cut leaving me permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
Being determined to play guitar again, I had to spend a year rehabilitating myself and relearning the instrument while seated in a wheelchair. I became friends with a physical therapist who also played guitar. This friendship helped me a lot through this process. Tony would strap me in my chair in different positions to help me maintain my balance. As time went on I was able to lose the straps and maintain my own balance as well as that of the instrument.
I also really got into acoustic guitar, specifically the twelve-string guitar. I didn’t want to carry around Marshall cabinets and other PA equipment as a chair user. I also wanted to get into more solo stuff, and I saw the twelve-string as the format and platform to do this. As an accommodation to the way I hold the instrument in the chair I started tuning the guitar differently to take advantage of open strings as drone strings. This also opened up a whole new world of music and composition for me. I love it and have not looked back.
I started teaching and doing artist residencies in 2004, and this been a great blessing for me to be able to share my gifts in this way.
What are the unique challenges you face as a teaching artist with a disability?
The challenges I face as a teaching artist with a disability include: the basic challenge all artists face of fostering an appreciation for the arts in education (and in our communities, culture, society) as a fundamental principle and practice; the continuing, pervasive, negative stigma associated with being a person with a disability; the assumption that individuals with disabilities can participate in the arts ONLY as consumers or patrons (and NOT as creators and artists); the public's general lack of knowledge and understanding of what disability is and how many of us share the experience, as well as what constitutes access and inclusion in our communities; the public and personal perception that "disability is not my issue" held by some people who are not themselves disabled (yet).
Some of the challenges I face as a teaching artist are those I face on a day to day basis as a person with a disability. These include physical accessibility issues of buildings and facilities and attitudinal barriers of those I may work with, from teaching staff to students. I also face my own personal challenges in that some days it is hard to get up and get motivated, knowing that I’ll be doing another day of life in a wheelchair and all that goes with that. Once I can get a foot or wheel in the door, though, people can usually see the talents and gifts I bring, my love of learning, and my ability to connect with and empower students of all abilities.
What special insights/strengths/opportunities have you gained from your disability and how does it affect your art work?
As the result of surviving a spinal cord injury at the age of twenty years old, I experienced my existential crisis fairly early in my life as a very young adult. During the extended process of recovery and rehabilitation I learned what it feels like to be invisible to others and to be considered distinctly “less than” other people. I experienced oppression and discrimination on a personal and deeply visceral level. I almost gave up my dream of pursuing a professional career as a theatre artist; in the early 1980s I felt a distinct lack of role models in the arts and entertainment industries; a dearth of characters and even fewer professionals with disabilities were in evidence. (I still recall the very first time I saw a wheelchair user in a television commercial!) Returning to my university studies in Theatre Arts brought me back to the original impulse that drew me to theatre in the first place: that is, my experience of it as an activity (and potential career path) that required me to explore and learn about human beings -- myself and others -- on multiple, profoundly deep levels. Although the spinal cord injury that altered my life may be considered (by others) the worst thing that has ever happened to me, it is also one of the best things: I know that I am mortal, but I also know that I am a survivor. And I believe that is our creative, artistic endeavors that serve to effectively humanize us: the arts make us human.
My disability has connected me to my inner being and highest true self to a greater level. It is from this inner, quiet center that I can see the carrousel of my life and our collective life. From this vantage point I can see the relationships of life emotionally, mentally, and spiritually and bring awareness of these energies to listeners through the pictures of my music.
I have made the most of my disability in seeking out performance and speaking opportunities related to it. I have had as many or more opportunities to expand my musical and teaching career because of my disability than I would in spite of it. These include numerous opportunities through VSA arts, a trip to Australia to perform at the Wataboshi Asia Pacific Music Festival, International Day of People with Disability Festival, and Woodford Folk Festival (2002/2003).
What elements of the VSA Fellowship program do you find most helpful and/ or intriguing?
The "independent study" nature of the Fellowship was very intriguing to me, requiring me to participate in the design as well as the implementation of the specifics of the experience -- learning goals, strategies, and specific activities. The opportunities to attend national conventions and professional development events were extremely helpful and worthwhile, as were the multiple opportunities to collaboratively create and learn with new colleagues and friends. The fellowship offers emerging and developing teaching artists important and meaningful opportunities to explore the field in a broader context, amongst peers and colleagues working in diverse communities and programs. The positive effects of the program on the profession include deepening our individual personal contexts for our professional endeavors, as well as expanding our awareness of available resources, opportunities, and best practices in the field. It also supports our ongoing professional development by helping us make connections to each other as artists and expanding our understanding of how our work both in the arts and in education may foster positive social change in our communities locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
The opportunity to spread my wings and to have outlets for my music and teaching beyond my regional area. Beyond that, we have mentors who are teaching artists and have participated in the project previously. I look forward to being able to present or speak in front of audiences, teachers, students and artists at a national and international level.
What do you see as the long term affects of this fellowship on your artwork and your career?
The long term effects on my own art work include affirmation and validation of my training, background, experience, endeavors and goals as a theatre artist. My career path has certainly been positively impacted, in that I have met and developed peer relationships with new colleagues and friends and have been exposed to their creative work and artistic visions. My credentials as an arts administrator and practicing teaching artist have been enhanced by the multiple opportunities to work with and learn from leaders in the field within national and international arenas. Additionally, the TAF allowed me to assess and evaluate my own experiences, skills and capacities in context with peers and others striving to succeed in the field.
It has the possibility to make my music more collaborative, cross cultural and cross disciplined. I see music becoming a support for other art forms -- performance/theater, dance, storytelling, visual art and media art. I naturally try to teach more than music through my music, and I see the ability to develop this line of teaching to a greater level now.
Glenn McClure is a composer/teaching artist from upstate New York. He specializes in international partnerships that use the arts to teach academic subjects and health education. He currently serves as the president of the Association of Teaching Artists and is a member of the current class of VSA arts Teaching Artist Fellows. For information about the VSA arts Teaching Artist Fellows program go to: http://www.vsarts.org/x1643.xml.top