PHAME Turns 30: Portland arts academy educates students and community

Abbi Dunham in PHAME's Bye Bye Birdie.

PHAME’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Ivan Arredondo.


“Everyone in Portland today is talking about equity issues, especially in the arts,” says PHAME’s executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin. “Rarely is disability included in this discussion, though it needs to be. PHAME’s performances and collaborations provide proof to the Portland community of the value, ability, talent, and dignity of artists with disabilities; we are proving that they need to be integrated, showcased, educated, employed and given access to opportunity like any other artists.”

Abbi Dunham, a 33-year-old Portland actor and musician, has been singing in choirs since a child. As with most people, Dunham’s involvement in music stopped almost entirely after high school. But unlike most people, Dunham is a musician who has Down Syndrome, so finding opportunities to stay plugged in to the creative arts community seemed unlikely.

Then in 2004 Dunham learned about PHAME, and with some encouragement from her older brothers, Dunham made the gutsy decision to explore her music talent at Portland’s PHAME Academy. Her determination and theatrical flair landed her the lead role of Cosette in PHAME’s 2007 production of Les Misérables. Through PHAME’s classes, she also learned how to accompany the PHAME choir with percussion and iPad and began composing her own music. She recently performed in collaboration with Pink Martini, and she currently sings in the 60-member PHAME choir and 19-member chamber ensemble.

This year marks PHAME’s (Pacific Honored Artists Musicians and Entertainers) 30th year of providing fine arts classes and performance opportunities to talented people like Dunham who are a part of the I/DD (Intellectually and Developmentally Delayed) community, which includes individuals who have Down Syndrome, autism and other disabilities. To celebrate PHAME’s inspiring achievements as a nonprofit organization, executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin, artistic director Jessica Dart, and music director Matthew Gailey organized PHAME @ 30: six events to showcase the brilliant talent bursting out of their classrooms. On Saturday, April 26, PHAME’s choir and chamber ensemble collaborates with Portland singer-songwriter Laura Gibson in PHAME @ 30: Big Sounds at the Mission Theater.

Abbi Dunham (right, in purple blouse) sings with the PHAME choir.

Abbi Dunham (right, in purple blouse) sings with the PHAME choir. Photo: Stephen Marc Beaudoin.

Integrating into the Arts Community

By presenting PHAME artists on stage as equals with professional musicians like Laura Gibson, Pink Martini, Storm Large, Portland Cello Project, and the Shanghai Woolies, and with actors like Amy Beth Frankel and Isaac Lamb, PHAME breaks down the wall of artistic isolation often experienced by the I/DD population and creates a safe space for integration to happen naturally. For example, PHAME collaborated with Pink Martini and the von Trapps on April 6, leading more than 1,000 people in a sing-a-long celebrating the 30th anniversary year of Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. Within the supportive space created by PHAME, performers are finally free to stretch out their artistic limbs and live fully as artists.

“At PHAME, we’re not interested in creating a system in which the otherness of these artists is reinforced,” Beaudoin says. “We want to create a system in which these artists are integrated into the community. We’re interested in understanding the goals and ambitions of the artists we work with and providing pathways to achieve their goals.”

Dunham relishes the pursuit of her artistic goals and eagerly presents her musical discoveries. “When the audience gives a standing ovation I know I’ve given a great performance, and I feel proud of myself,” she says. She admits she was a bit nervous when she first began attending PHAME, but now she takes charge while on the stage. “I want the audience to focus on me and our singing,” says Dunham, “and I want people to understand our talent.”

When listening to Dunham and the PHAME choir, audiences understand and resonate with PHAME performances when they focus on the artists’ expression of reality and not on the disabilities. “PHAME has this very difficult job of wanting to serve a unique population but then wanting everyone to forget that we serve a unique population,” Beaudoin says. “We spend as much time as we need understanding the ability and disability of the student so that the student can be served well, but then the disability becomes secondary to cultivating the student’s artistic strengths. The individuals we serve are artists. Period.”

Self portrait by PHAME artist Mary McFarland

Self portrait by PHAME artist Mary McFarland.

PHAME artists present more than 30 performances a year to approximately 10,000 people in and around Portland. This packed performance schedule requires an intense work ethic. “Because this population has been sidelined so often,” explains music director Matthew Gailey, “a need has emerged, a desire, a fighting spirit that says, ‘Pay attention to us! We’re worth it!’ Their collective focus is unsurpassed. When we rehearse as a group there are long stretches where everyone is dialed in with extreme focus and a present-minded work ethic.”

The energetic teamwork demonstrated by PHAME students (“There’s a LOT of cheering for each other during rehearsals,” observes Gailey) combined with the vibrant interaction among staff and students at PHAME creates a rich atmosphere in which new artistic goals emerge. “In working with our nonverbal students, we began coming up against a ceiling,” Gailey says. “We realized that we needed to write for the strengths of all our students and showcase them. Why can’t we create a really powerful silent role that’s a featured character?”
In this spirit, PHAME has commissioned Laura Gibson and Debbie Lamedman to write a musical specifically for PHAME students to premiere in August 2015.

Educating the Community

PHAME places a high priority on educating the audience and arts community on the valuable talent within the I/DD community. “We are working now and in the future to find more mainstream arts partners who believe in the aptitude of our artists and are open to learning how integrating them into their offerings — as paid artists or performers, as students of the arts, as audience members and much more — will benefit their organization or business, and the entire community,” Beaudoin says. “There’s a lot of fear of the unknown, but we are making the case for the social capital gained by collaborating with PHAME and with the artists and performers we educate. Any organization or business interested in representing the entire community must include adults with developmental disabilities. No more excuses.”

PHAME's Stephen Marc Beaudoin. Photo: Jennie Baker

PHAME’s Stephen Marc Beaudoin. Photo: Jennie Baker

Under the direction of Beaudoin, a musician and former journalist, PHAME is pushing ahead with its five-year strategic framework that outlines a continuation of sustainable expansion, community integration, and artistic excellence. PHAME currently serves over a hundred students in 21 classes, with more public performances and a larger public audience than at any other time in its 30-year history. As the student body has increased by 20 percent, PHAME has increased the number of classes offered by 150 percent. Through expansion of education and public performance programs, PHAME’s annual budget has grown by 360 percent in four years.

There are still four more major events in the academy’s 30th anniversary season. Big Sounds with Laura Gibson on April 26 will also feature a multimedia show of PHAME students’ artwork. Later this year, PHAME will present a Birthday Bash, Variety Show, and Holiday Finale. As a performer with PHAME for ten years, Abbi Dunham will be a part of it all. “I’d really like to audition in New York, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” she says.

That’s why PHAME wants to help improve the career opportunities for students like Dunham. “If in ten years from now an adult with a disability still cannot have access to mainstream arts opportunities —on stage, or behind the scenes, or in the audience — or cannot access quality continuing arts education not only at PHAME but beyond, then we haven’t done our job,” Beaudoin says. “It’s great that we provide this place here, but by doing our job so well, in a way it gives allows institutions an out because they can say to artist with a developmental disability, ‘You go over there to do your art.’ The more compelling answer is that those institutions must do a better job of being accessible to all artists.”

Come experience what PHAME is about by seeing Abbi Dunham and the PHAME choir and chamber ensemble in performance on Saturday, April 26, at 7 pm at Portland’s Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan Street. Tickets on sale online or at the door. Be sure to stick around after the show to talk with the PHAME performers!

 Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.

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