stephen marc beaudoin

‘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.


BodyVox opened the Washington
Park Summer Festival

With warm summer temperatures at last arriving in Oregon, a bumper crop of free outdoor shows provide a splendid way to combine two of the state’s greatest assets: verdant summers and vibrant music. On Saturday, the esteemed conductor Keith Clark leads a concert version of Johann Strauss’s popular comic opera The Bat (Die Fledermaus) at Washington Park Amphitheater this Saturday and at Concordia college next Saturday. The great locally based Metropolitan Opera baritone Richard Zeller headlines the cast in this tenth anniversary production of Portland SummerFest opera in the park.

This Saturday’s performance is part of the family-friendly annual Washington Park Summer Festival, which on Sunday hosts the Portland Festival Symphony’s annual free concert (which happens in other parks in and around Portland all month), led by the venerable conductor Lajos Balogh for the past 32 years. They’ll be playing music by Haydn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky (boom!), and more.

The Washington Park series opened Thursday night with a performance by Portland’s popular BodyVox dance group, who kicked it off with a precisely timed, characteristically merry performance by a coverall-clad quartet (with feet tied together by orange tape), set to the Bobs’ characteristically jolly version of Talking Heads’ early hit “Psycho Killer.” Reverie, a `lovely version of the famous flower duet from Leo Delibes’ opera Lakme, featuring lovely costumes designed by Portland’s celebrated Michael Curry reminded me a bit of Imago Theater’s nature-oriented moves. Another slapsticky quartet, Usual Suspects, opened with klezmer style music by the inimitable Portland ensemble 3 Leg Torso and butt-to-butt bumpiness, then followed with a Chopin nocturne. Given the distant seats and profusion of kids, subtle moves would have been lost, so the group wisely relied on expertly executed sight gags, sometimes obscured from certain angles because of huge speakers mounted at the front of the stage; the sound was plenty loud, so it might have been better to place them at the back of the stage instead.

The second half featured a Bollywood number with a couple of intruders in Western outfits disrupting an Indian film production dance and several dances familiar from earlier BodyVox performances involving landing a really impressive and uncooperative fish, herding equally uncooperative sheep, rounding up an uncooperative orange bunny, and more. “Bottom of the World” paired a Tom Waits song with one of BV’s most endearing qualities: the inventive use of simple props — in this case, a long plank. Sometimes they don’t even need that, as Anna Marra and Josh Murry proved in their prop-less duet to the vocal harmonies of the Hi-Los, or magenta-frocked co-founder Jamey Hampton’s reprise of his dazzling solo to a Paganini showpiece, this time to a recording of the fiddle original rather than last week’s live marimba solo in BodyVox’s Chamber Music Northwest show. Its lighthearted creativity and broad audience appeal make BodyVox an Oregon treasure.


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