Promoting Equality with LIVE ART

by Stephanie Brown,
Writing Intern 

It began as a dream: young people dancing and singing together onstage, with painted feet and proud smiles. Erin Thomas-Foley, a teacher at the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC), imagined a performance in which all of her students – those with Autism, Williams Syndrome, or Down Syndrome, those deaf or hard of hearing, and those without special needs – could participate fully and equally.

The sad reality is that performers with special needs rarely get chosen to participate in large productions. Most casting directors automatically disregard them, preferring to work with “typical” performers. But Thomas-Foley knew that her students were capable of putting on a fantastic show. All they needed was an opportunity, and she was determined to give them one.

Thomas Foley took the idea to her colleagues at SPARC, who embraced it wholeheartedly. Soon after, with much effort and the support of nearly a dozen partner organizations, SPARC launched LIVE ART, a 20-week educational arts program for students of all abilities and disabilities. The purpose of the program was to encourage all students to express themselves; to foster strong friendships between people with and without special needs; and to raise community awareness of the positive impact that involvement in the arts can have on children with special needs.

The program’s culminating event was a live public performance, the kind of major event which most students with special needs would otherwise never get to do. On June 3, 125 young performers, half with special needs and half without, lit up Richmond CenterStage with a number of acts that included singing, sign language, spoken poetry, live hand- and foot-painting, acting, and musical instrumentation.

The performers were joined by 22 popular Virginia-based musicians, including Steve Bassett and Susan Greenbaum. Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, widely known for his hit single “I’m Yours,” served as an artistic director for LIVE ART, and made a surprise appearance onstage as well.

Top: Jason Mraz sings while the mimes spread paint; Bottom: The foot-painted canvas

On her blog, Teaching Artist Abernathy Bland recalls a favorite moment from the performance: “The mimes poured paint all over the canvas, while Jason Mraz stood in the middle singing ‘Details in the Fabric.’ He sang, Hold your own. Know your name. And go your own way. And these students heard that.” As he sang, the students stepped onto the canvas and did a dance, their feet making colorful patterns as they went. The canvas was then lifted up to show the audience the newly painted “details in the fabric.”

At the end of the performance, the students received “resounding applause and a standing ovation from a teary-eyed audience,” says the Greater Richmond Grid. SPARC credits the success of the program to the students’ hard work, and plans to hold more events like LIVE ART in the future.

LIVE ART is just one contribution to current efforts to make the arts more inclusive of people with special needs. SPARC hopes that the program will serve as a model for other organizations working on similar projects. “All children are capable of doing amazing things if you trust in them, believe in them, give them an equal chance and a little bit of accommodation and support,” explains SPARC board member Fred Orelove. “This is not rocket science. This is really about children being children first.”

And that is what LIVE ART did – it let children be children, instead of defining them by the presence or absence of certain abilities. LIVE ART generated a safe space for young people with special needs to develop their creativity and self-confidence, right alongside people without special needs. By stressing that everyone is different and has different strengths, LIVE ART taught the students and the entire community that we are essentially all the same.

For Thomas-Foley, SPARC, and all the young people involved in the performance, LIVE ART really was a dream come true.

To help spread LIVE ART’s message of inclusion and equality, the classes and the final performance were all filmed, and the footage is currently being made into a documentary. View the trailer, a short excerpt from the documentary, and a clip of the LIVE ART dress rehearsal online.

Visit the LIVE ART website to learn more about the program, or see what other programs SPARC is offering.

For more information about opportunities in the arts for people with special needs, check out Pittsburgh’s FISA Foundation, as well as:

– Arts and Services for Disabled, Inc.
– Art Relief International’s Art and Disability Program
– National Arts & Disability Center

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Photo credits: Martin Montgomery Films and Humanstory Films