No special needs here

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April 23, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// Disabilities take center stage at Jeanne Calvit’s Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts //

Although the upcoming performance had little to do with animals, elephants abounded in the rehearsal room on a recent Tuesday morning at Interact Center in the North Loop.

The young man leading the cast in warm-ups had a chubby, childlike countenance — the telltale face of a man with Down syndrome. An older actress in a power wheelchair lolled her head, unable to participate in the light jogging in place. It was clear that nearly everyone getting ready for the show had, well, special needs.

“God, whenever people use the ‘special needs’ words, you know you’re in for trouble,” complained Jeanne Calvit, Interact’s artistic and executive director. “There is sometimes this feeling that these people are little hot house flowers, that you can’t say, ‘You know what? That improv really stunk.’”

As the founder and driving creative force behind Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts, a combination arts center and day care facility for adults with disabilities, Calvit is all too familiar with the soft-glove sensitivities that surround the disabled. And she delights in running roughshod right over them. In fact, she considers it her mission to call out the elephants-in-the-room as loudly and as intelligently as she can.

Since the early 1980s, Calvit has been putting artists with mental illnesses, brain injuries and physical and developmental disabilities on stage, producing aggressive theater pieces that gleefully romp around in the sometimes squirm-making terrain of disability culture. Her style is highly physical and darkly humorous, and her plays often mine the inappropriate for humor and revelation. Her goal, she says, has never been to boost the self-esteem of her actors or to babysit. And she bristles at the cloying cliché of social workers who engage art in their practice.

“We are not doing this as therapy,” she said emphatically. “We are doing this to put on a kick-ass show. So that even an art snob like my partner” — Calvit is married to a German artist and actor whom she met while studying at Paris’ acclaimed Jaques le Coq school of theater — “can come to an opening and say, wow, this is really solid work.”

An alternative to bagging groceries

Calvit, a Louisiana native who spent her 20s touring Europe in vaudeville and cabaret shows, got her first taste of working with disabled actors in McGregor, Minn. A friend of hers ran a summer camp there for people with developmental disabilities, and she asked Calvit to lead a series of theater workshops for her campers.

A string of successful summer performances in the small town led to requests for similar shows in Minneapolis. By the 1980s Calvit was routinely mounting productions with disabled actors. Then in 1992, she formally founded a theater company that specialized in this so-called outsider art. By 1996, she had opened Interact Center in the Colonial Warehouse building in the North Loop.

A hybrid day care facility and professional arts center, Interact admits people with disabilities on a selective basis. Those accepted train professionally in performance and visual art, studying with an Interact staff made up exclusively of artists, musicians, writers and actors, all of who currently work in Minneapolis. Right now, Interact serves more than 90 clients. It is the only day care facility in the nation to offer professional opportunities to the disabled in both the visual and performing arts.

Over the course of the year, Interact artists put together two theater shows and a half-dozen art exhibitions, which take place in the center’s on-site Inside Out Gallery. (This season’s performances are planned for the Lab Theater.)  Interact actors are paid for their performances and rehearsal time, and those working in visual arts receive a commission on all pieces sold in the gallery. The idea is to offer the disabled a means of earning income more engaging than the low-skill, low-wage jobs promised by traditional social service programs.

And Interact frequently invites big name local talents to work on special projects. Acclaimed local playwright and author Kevin Kling, for example, spent several years crafting “Northern Lights/Southern Cross,” a play written specifically for Interact that involved collaborating with an Australian acting troupe for the disabled called the Tuttie Ensemble. Interact actors traveled with Kling to Australia in 2007 to finalize the script and to present an in-progress performance. The show ended up winning Australia’s 2007 Oscart Award for best musical. Just last fall, “Northern Lights” opened to rave reviews in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio.

On the visual arts side, Interact each year pairs four promising members with a gallery owner or professional artist from the local scene. The six-month mentorship program results in a marquee exhibition in the fall in the Inside Out Gallery. This season, Calvit said, the center also has plans to mount a six-artist show at the Creative Growth gallery, a renowned showroom for outsider art located in Paris.

Defending the freak show

Much of Interact’s success has to do with Calvit’s way of openly playing with the threat of exploitation. She unabashedly uses the metaphor of a freak show to describe her performances. One of this year’s scheduled shows, “Madame Majesta’s Miracle Medicine Show,” takes as its theme the questionable medicine shows that toured around the Old West, employing Native Americans and the disabled to hawk snake oil and other cure-all tinctures.

“The thing about the freak show was that it was the first time disabled people really got a chance to perform,” Calvit said. These performances, she argues, allowed the disabled to use their unique identities to build a more productive and creative life. “We think with our modern sensibilities that this was all very evil and negative. But there was certainly a positive component to it. A lot of the shows that [Interact does] are about marginalized people that are living on the edge but are at the same doing something that’s quirky and fun and that also serves a purpose.”

Performances in years past have featured men with Down syndrome swaddled in diapers and crawling out of a giant vaginal flower (to signal the birth of man, in an adaptation of Aristophanes’ “The Birds”), a dramatic bird-hatching that employed a woman’s bald white head as an egg and a Down syndrome character named Blubber Boy who can make his belly fat sing.

“Whatever the disability is, we don’t hide it,” said Calvit. “It’s just like if an actor is super tall or fat or funny looking. Do you try to overlook that? No. You comment with it. We like to shine a light on parts of disability culture that make people uncomfortable.”

Some audience members have been offended in the past, Calvit said. But that’s just the price for pushing the envelope.

“You can look at it as exploitation,” she continued. “But that’s only if our actors don’t get the joke. But you know, they get the joke. They’re smarter than we think. They have a sense of the absurd, a sense of humor. People just assume that they are totally out of it and that they don’t know what they’re doing.

“But [those accusations of exploitation] always reveal what that person feels about disability,” she continued. “It shows their own limited views that the disabled are not capable of getting this kind of humor or understanding it.”

The 2010 Interact season kicks off this week with “The Garden of Good and Evil,” an art exhibition based on themes of fertility, nature and creation, which opens April 30. A Mother’s Day show, called “The Mother Ship,” opens concurrently in the studio’s Gift Gallery. “Madame Majesta’s Miracle Medicine Show” opens at the Lab Theater in June.