In December, we launched a new series of long-form features unpacking an exciting dialogue between Jeanne Calvit, Founder and Artistic/Executive Director of Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, and Julie Guidry, Co-founder and Executive Director of Upstream Arts. This series was born out of our recognition that many other pioneering organizations have paved the way for the work that Upstream Arts is able to do now; Interact, founded in 1996, is one of those organizations. In fact, Interact and Upstream Arts are frequently mistaken for each another, given we’re among a very small handful of arts organizations in the Twin Cities primarily serving individuals with disabilities!
The conversation continues this month, as Jeanne and Julie dig deeper into the similarities, synergies, and differences between Interact and Upstream Arts, toward potential future collaborations. What follows is the second installment of their conversation. Enjoy!
JULIE: So we’ve talked a bit about the origins and history of our organizations. What’s the main focus of your work these days? Who do you serve, and how would you describe what’s really important to you?
JEANNE: Well, I have a lot of focuses. I’m continuing to try to raise the bar for our artists to interact with the visual and performing arts.
JEANNE: Well, I’ve been doing this now for 33 years—but every time we do a show, I learn something different. We all have different strengths and talents. Our composer, Aaron, has brought in this amazing composing talent and has gotten a lot of our guys to sing, do harmony. We’re singing at much more sophisticated levels now; and we’re dancing at much more sophisticated levels, because we’re working with dancer/choreographer Colette Illarde, who’s one of my staff. So you know, things we may not have attempted 10 years ago, we’re attempting now. And then the visual arts, we’re raising the bar. Offering more structured classes now, bringing in master artists. We’re starting this outdoor festival now, where they get to work on puppets…
JULIE: Is that “Work Your Quirk”? That one that I saw, the street festival that you did—
JEANNE: Yes, that was part of UNIQUINOX.
JULIE: I told you about that. My kid was clamoring to get out there! It was so cool.
JEANNE: I want to do a more—when we get into our new space, wherever that’s going to be—I want to have more of a community element, so we can bring people in, kind of like May Day.
JULIE: We should do something for Northern Spark!
JEANNE: We should talk about that. Yeah, that’s a good idea.
JULIE: Okay so—what was the second part of that question?
JEANNE: Right, so, one of the things that I’m focusing on is just raising the bar in both our visual and performing arts. We’ve developed this product line, sublimated items, where we use a heat press to put actual pieces of art from our artists on cups and bags and things. So we’re selling those—they’re selling really well. However we need to improve our ability to market and expand sales.
My legacy work, which I’m very interested in doing over the next 10 years, is spreading the model to other places, within the U.S. and globally. There’s one place in New Orleans that I helped start—they’re purely theater though, they’re not doing visual arts right now—but they started their own theater company based on our model, called InterACT NOLA. They’re about 2 years old now. I’ve gone down there several times, helped hire a director. Aaron and I went down there and helped them with musical theater. It’s so fun; they’re so talented!
JULIE: Some day, you’ll have to do a festival…
JEANNE: I want to do a co-production with them. Like the jazz show that we did? I’d love to do it down there. And they’re just thriving, they’re doing great. They’re in their infancy, but it’s been nothing but delight. So that has been a blessing to share the ability to change peoples lives using our years of experience.
Then of course, there’s a program in Thailand that we’re starting, working in a hospital. That’s more with children—well, mostly children and young people, with some older people involved, too. We’ve got the parents involved now, actually in the productions. I was trying to recreate the Interact model and get actors, but I couldn’t find any actors there. They don’t have a theater culture, and the people that do act end up touring around Asia. So I couldn’t find any actors, but the parents were sitting there watching rehearsals. So I was like, “Hey! You want to get up and try this role?” And they got really into it! All the parents, they started creating costumes and props. One of the guys -Ning Nong —he’s adorable, maybe early 30s—he’s got this little disabled guy and another little kid. He was up there with them, immediately, helping his kid, right, who’s in a wheelchair. And suddenly I noticed he would be kind of directing, helping. I thought, “Hmm, he’s getting into this theater thing.” Then one day, I’m in the middle of rehearsal and get pulled out for something—and so I asked him if he would carry on the rehearsal, work the scene while I was gone. And he did. He worked the scene, went over all the choreography, everything. Wow. And then his wife started showing up, and she was really creative too. They have recently become leaders of then program.
JEANNE: They were just doing laundry before and now they are running a theater.
JULIE: The culture there is a little more communal, right?
JEANNE: Very. It’s totally communal. I mean, they’re shy in a way, but they’re also not afraid to be silly and funny. They have this concept—“sanook”—it’s this national embracing of having fun. They’re totally about having fun. That’s why I love to do this work over there. Because even though I’m working, there’s this attitude… When things go totally crazy and nothing works out—which happens a lot, because things just don’t happen in a linear way always—people there just start laughing. I’ll be like, “But that’s not good; we were supposed to do this today, and that was supposed to happen, and we don’t have this,” and they’ll say, “Oh, don’t worry, it will all work out. It’s going to be fine. Relax. The important thing is to have fun.” And so you find yourself thinking, “Yeah, why am I getting upset about this?”
JULIE: In American culture, we take ourselves so seriously, don’t we.
JEANNE: Yeah. So the national and international work is really important to me now. Because I wouldn’t want to have a situation where, whenever I’m gone, there’s one model in the world and it’s Interact. I mean, after I’m gone, that model could change. Let’s face it. If you’re not there, somebody’s going to jump in, but it’ll be different. Every person’s going to bring their own stamp to it.
JULIE: And that’s okay—
JEANNE: Yes, that’s fine. But I could imagine someone could come in and say, “You know, I think we should be a normal day program and do arts, but have it in-house and not do these big shows that are so expensive…” I could totally see that happening. And I could see new Board members saying, “You know, that really would be a much more financially smart way to operate.”
JULIE: Well, I think that would be a terrible idea.
JEANNE: I know. I’m just saying, from a purely fiscal point of view, Theater and Art are not big money makers.
JULIE: Jeanne, I make a quarter of my income from programmatic revenue. A quarter! What a terrible business model I ultimately have. But until we have a better climate to be in support of individuals with disabilities, this is the model.
JULIE: And it’s actually a great model, because revenue and the bottom line is not—whatever, I’m preaching to the choir now. Okay, let’s keep going here. So the question was: What do you do? Who do you primarily serve? What next? And yours is national and international influence with this legacy—and I kind of love this, your legacy work—it’s cool that you are thinking about that.
At Upstream Arts, obviously you know that one of the big initiatives that we had is to provide a lifetime of experiences and really develop programs for all ages. We had a real interest in seeing our services have that expanse. For awhile, we were tracking that development as Caleb moved through middle school to high school to his transition program to an adult day program; and that allowed us to see that we had a model with this capacity, so that was exciting.
One audience that we’re looking to develop is our teaching artists—creating a space, a viable employment model for them. And then there’s a professional development piece that we’re looking at, with regards to the Special Education Assistants in the public education system, who we believe really strongly make or break the quality of a program. They spend the most extensive amount of time with students with disabilities, but have the least amount of training. So for a variety of reasons, a lot of our advocacy work in the education system has been around finding funds to provide professional development for Special Ed Assistants. That’s been a large part of some of our work; the idea that if we want to change quality of program, we have to change the people who are delivering that program. And we believe that arts-based instructional strategies have a really strong place within Special Education and within education in general. So the target audiences for our programs are individuals with a huge range of abilities, but there’s this secondary audience that we have—and that’s our teaching artists and also the staff providing support to individuals in the education system or the adult day program system.
So there’s those two pieces—the lifetime of experiences, and the teaching artist development, becoming this model where our artists really have an artistic home—and then the third piece is having this very strong local presence, embedded very deeply in Minneapolis Public Schools and local organizations, with the idea that we take that level of presence to have national influence. We’re not interested in franchising or having Upstream Arts all over the nation. We are interested, though, in creating—similar to what I think you’re doing—the ability to professionally develop individuals to do the work that we’re doing. We’ve got this canon of curriculum that is extensive, and a level of adaptation and modification—we have a lot of tools that we’re working to compile into a database right now, which will allow us to put together a book. So eventually, we can have these institutes where people come, receive training, get the book, and then can go out and do it on their own.
JEANNE: You could do what I’m doing—I mean, maybe one day, maybe ten years from now or something. Ultimately, if you have this totally successful model, you’ll get to a point when you’re like, “Well, now what?” You’ll want to spread the happiness. You’ll want to spread the good stuff. The challenge is to be able to do this and make money.People in the disability field are constantly being socked with funding cuts and just trying to survive.
JULIE: That’s right. Nobody has money to invest.
JEANNE: People are going to want to replicate you, but it’s not like, “Let’s franchise it—“ Yeah. With what? Nobody has any money. Social services, disability, the arts—nobody has money. This is not the business world. But you know—we’ll go do a show somewhere and some workshops, and then usually three people come up to us afterward and say, “We want to start our own Interact.” Okay! You invite me; I’ll lay the groundwork; I can even do a show here with your guys, lay out exactly all the steps you need to take to make this happen. They pay for my travel and a fee. Of course they’re going to all do it a little differently from you; and if they’re not in Minnesota, they don’t have all these fabulous grants, so they’re probably going to make it on a much smaller level than you. Believe me, when you get out there to some of these other states and you hear what they’re dealing with, the kind of funding and disability services – they’re 30 years behind Minnesota. They’re so far behind. Pretty much every state I’ve been to. Even places like Massachusetts that you’d think would be really, really advanced—they don’t have a lot of the services that we have.
JULIE: Well, I think we share the same sensibility around that question of, “How do we share this work?” Because I feel the same way. There is no money to be made, and more importantly, the point is about creating opportunity for choice, opportunities for people to engage. If I believe that fundamentally, then how do I create an environment where the most individuals can engage with what we have to offer? It’s cool to hear your approach—you say, “I’ll come!” And you understand that package. I’m going to come; I’ll help you develop a show; and I’ll show how you can lay the groundwork. It’s very cool. That’s something we’re trying to understand for ourselves. We know we have something offer; but now it’s a question of what’s next.