Phame Academy

‘Up the Fall’: Spotlighting artists with disabilities

PHAME Academy's multidisciplinary musical showcases Oregon artists denied mainstream performance opportunities.

After celebrating its 30th anniversary last year with its most extensive performance schedule yet, Portland’s PHAME academy was ready to take on a new challenge. In the last few years, PHAME, which creates opportunities for artists with developmental disabilities, has expanded its public performances and programming and gained widespread visibility for its artists. Now, energetic Executive Director Stephen Marc Beaudoin sensed the academy was ready for more, “an artistic stretch project … out of our broader vision to position the organization and the artists we serve in the artistic mainstream.”

 The cast of PHAME's "Up the Fall." Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

The cast of PHAME’s “Up the Fall.” Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

Departing from the traditional American musicals they’d performed previously, PHAME embraced the most ambitious project its leaders could imagine: an original musical that would involve music, theatre and dance. They had the ideal playwright in Debbie Lamedman, a Portland-based former teaching staff member at PHAME who’s been commissioned by theatre companies across the country. “She knows what it’s like to work with artists and actors with developmental disabilities,” Beaudoin says. She’s even written integrated stage works (that is, involving performers with and without disabilities) before.

PHAME gave Lamedman only one instruction: be inclusive by creating characters with a range of ability and disability. “We haven’t taken a tokenistic approach,” Beaudoin explains. “We didn’t give her a checklist and say ‘include these disabilities.’ Her interest as a playwright is writing great theater.”

In Lamedman’s musical Up the Fall, which opens August 22 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, a young Portland woman, Diana, lives with an overbearing mother, finding refuge by spending much of her time feeding the birds and making friends with a squirrel, who turns out to be a messenger from a night world threatened by a trio of angry, jealous sisters. He summons her to try to save that alternate world, whose natural workings have been paralyzed by the sisters’ efforts to control it.

For Up the Fall’s music, PHAME turned to another frequent collaborator, Portland songwriter Laura Gibson, who’s earned national attention for her delicate story songs. But this was her first time writing music for the theatre, and her process was interrupted by a disastrous fire at the apartment she was living in while attending graduate school in New York. The creative team also includes PHAME Music Director Matthew Gailey, who’s composing incidental music, along with well-known Portland playwright and drama teacher Matthew B. Zrebski as stage director, and PHAME Artistic Director Jessica Dart as assistant director and dramaturge.


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.


The January news and notes starts here!

News from POV Dance, Phame Academy, Trey McIntyre, Rafal Blechacz and so much more!

The holiday and then the post-holiday fog are clearing, both literally and as a metaphor for your correspondent’s mental state. All that means is that we’re back at it, bringing you the delightful tidbits of information, news, heavily biased opinions, and random white noise you’ve come to expect!

January is looking jammed with art world goodies, which is brilliant because otherwise it gets pretty cold and damp in the ArtsWatch cave, counting the bats and newts. You’re going to have to hurry to catch the Samurai! show at the Portland Art Museum, which Bob Hicks reviewed so well for us way back in October. It closes on January 12, so sharpen those blades now. Otherwise, it’s new stuff and more new stuff.

And so we begin…again.


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