Jeanne Calvit and Julie Guidry

Jeanne Calvit and Julie Guidry


At Upstream Arts, we recognize that we are standing on the shoulders of many other pioneering organizations that have paved the way for the work that we’re able to do now. Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, founded by Jeanne Calvit in 1996—exactly ten years before Upstream Arts—is one of those organizations. In fact, we’re 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! 

Recently, Upstream Arts Executive Director Julie Guidry sat down with Jeanne to talk about the similarities, synergies, and differences between Upstream Arts and Interact – toward exploring how we might collaborate moving forward. We will be sharing their lively conversation in a series of long-form features here on our blog; what follows is the first installment. Enjoy!

JULIE: Can you share Interact’s origin story and a little bit of your history?

JEANNE: Well, my history is theater. Pure theater. I dropped out of college and moved to Europe when I was 19 years old and was there for ten years. First I studied languages; then I did an internship with a Czechoslovakian theater company, became part of that group, and toured with them for six years; then I studied the Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna; and then I went to L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris for two years. And then I moved back to the States. I was trying to survive as a freelance theater artist, so I was doing a lot of residencies. And then Greg Lais, Founder and Executive Director of Wilderness Inquiry – at that time, he was on the Board of a place called Camp New Hope, up in McGregor – and he asked my partner and I if we would put together a theater program for people with developmental disabilities.

We applied for a grant and got the funding—from Travelers, or St. Paul Companies in those days—it was maybe $3,000 for three weeks, but you know, in the 1980s, that was like $13,000 for us. So we went up there for three weeks, and it was just amazing. We did three shows for the community of McGregor; there was nothing going on in McGregor, so everyone would come out to these shows. One night, there was this interesting looking couple in the audience, and they came up to us afterwards. One was a New York playwright, whose mother’s side of the family was from Minnesota—they had a cabin and he would go up there to write plays, which ended up on Broadway—and he said to me, “This is some of the best theater I’ve ever seen in my life. You’re really on to something.” That was a huge affirmation.

So we kept doing these shows and the next year, we took one to Minneapolis. It was called Feathers, Bells, and Seashells. We did it for a fundraiser, I don’t even remember what it was, but it was a huge fundraiser, there may have been a thousand people in the audience. After the show, a man named Howard Miller came up to me and said, “I want to start up a day program using theater as a tool. Could you help me?” Howard had a PhD in Educational Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Theater; he understood the power of theater for social change. We said, “Sure!” We founded that first program in 1983. Originally it was called SWAN and involved seventeen people with developmental disabilities. Every afternoon, we worked on theater. I ran that program for ten years; we subcontracted with Pillsbury Neighborhood Services [now Pillsbury United Communities] and later changed the name to EPIC. That adult day program is still around today, with the name EPIC, but it’s no longer focused on theater.


Interact performers at the 2009 ARCadamy Gala

Interact performers at the 2009 ARCadamy Gala (via FB)


Anyway, in the interim, a group from Arc approached me because they were going to do a play involving people with developmental disabilities. I met with Laura Winsor, who was very enthusiastic; she was asking for advice and I just blabbed out some ideas. By this time, I had been doing this work for a long time, so I had a lot of ideas! At the end of the meeting, she was like, “Jeanne, you should direct this.” I thought, “Okay, I’ll do this one project.” We called it Interact from the get-go, but to me, I was doing one show. Yet after that show, we started getting all these offers. I kept thinking, you know, I’ve got two kids, I’m really busy, I don’t know if I can keep doing this—but really, we kept getting invitations. So I kept saying yes.

At one point, though, I thought, okay. We can do shows at disability conferences from here to eternity, but we’re really not changing anything because we’re preaching to the choir. What we need to do is mount a theater piece and put it in a real theater—like the Southern—I think it was 1992 or so. We’ll do this piece, and we’ll get it reviewed like any other show, and everybody’s invited. We worked for a year and a half on that show. It was called Bubba Nelson and the Endangered Species and actually, it would be very relevant today. It was really cutting edge, very fun but very political. We got so much media coverage; the show was a big hit. So then it was like, “Oh, okay, now what?” I had gotten quite a few grants for the project, but by the time I paid off the Southern and all the actors, I had made $500—for a year and a half of work! And I didn’t even count gas mileage, because I was driving all these people around—every night, I drove all the actors home. So I actually lost money.

JULIE: But that was the impetus for Interact, at that point, right? That was the start. It sounds like there wasn’t an option for you to say no. It was happening.


Interact performers in the 2013 production By the Seat of Our Pants

Interact performers in the 2013 production By the Seat of Our Pants (via FB)


JEANNE: It was. But in the meantime, I had left the other program, so I didn’t have the income anymore.

JULIE: Was Interact incorporated as a 501(c)3 at that point?

JEANNE: No. We were working with the Southern Theater as our fiscal agent. It wasn’t until—it suddenly hit me when we went to San Francisco to be part of this conference. Which was crazy, because I had to raise all the money for us to get there. I somehow did it, but it was just kind of a miracle. When I look back, I’m like why—I was a poor mother, barely making it, and here I was raising $10,000 for us to go perform at this conference, it was crazy! But man, I’m glad I did it. We went there, and we met this guy called Elias Katz [co-founder of the National Institute of Art and Disabilities]. He had started a lot of these day programs in the Bay Area—have you heard about them? All those art programs?

JULIE: Yes! They’re amazing.

JEANNE: Yeah, they are amazing.

JULIE: A lot of them are still there. We went and saw maybe nine…

JEANNE: Yes—the big ones, the ones that were off the charts, were the ones in the Mission District. Creativity Explored and Creative Growth.

JULIE: Creative Growth—that’s one that we saw. They’re across the bay now.

JEANNE: So he brought us to these places, and a light bulb went off in my head—I thought, this is what we have to do. I have to expand it beyond theater. That’s when I came back and wrote a grant to start Interact. We got $15,000, again from St. Paul Companies (now Travelers). That enabled me put all my energies into doing what I had to do to find a place and get going.


Painting by Interact artist John Riddle (via Interact)

Painting by Interact artist John Riddle (via Interact)


JULIE: So that was really the very preliminary start.

JEANNE: Yes. And Upstream Arts?

JULIE: Well—so growing up, I was gymnast, and a dancer, too, because you have to put some grace in the movement. It didn’t work so well for me, but you know… When I was in high school, I started working with this special education classroom. I would go in and teach dance classes, because it was an interesting way to take the talents that I had and share them with the community that was there, in my school.

JEANNE: And where was that?

JULIE: In Brussels, at the International School of Brussels. It was K-12, and there was maybe a total of 3,000 or 4,000 students. So it was small, very small community. So then, when I came to the United States to go to college, I was trying to figure out where I would fit, what I would study. When I moved to Montana, I ended up finding Opportunity Resources, an adult day program that was providing services for adults with disabilities. I was working with the Creative Arts Director, who was also the Recreation Director. So we were leading trips to Yellowstone and Glacier with folks with disabilities; and we were doing arts programming, mostly in the wintertime; and we were blending the two of them, you know, painting in Lamar Valley at Yellowstone—because he was a visual artist and I was a recreation major. So that experience was really the first time I had the pleasure of working with adults with disabilities.

JEANNE: Were they mainly adults with developmental disabilities?

JULIE: There was a huge, huge, huge range. At the time, it was one of the only adult day programs in the state of Montana, so they pulled from across the state. But they had—as part of their sheltered workshop environment, they had contracts like we have [at adult day programs] around here, you know, packaging fire kits for firefighters, those sorts of things. They also had an amazing antique wood shop where they refinished antique furniture. They did unbelievable, beautiful work—there’s something there, actually, that should be explored in our day programs. And they also had individuals out in the community doing work, so I did job coaching with them—I had done a short internship, and then they hired me. I continued to do the creative arts and recreation programming, and then also served as a job coach part-time. So from there, after a short stint in Maine, I moved to Minneapolis to work with Wilderness Inquiry.

JEANNE: Oh, really? Cool! I didn’t know that.

JULIE: Yes! That’s what brought me here in 1999, to guide wilderness trips. And then I was hired on and became their staffing director and volunteer/internship coordinator. So I was training all of the staff and leading wilderness trips. And then I met my husband, Matt, who has a kid with a disability. We were set up by Sarah Milligan-Toffler at Wilderness Inquiry. She’s phenomenal, a good friend of ours. And so Matt, who is an actor and a dancer—

JEANNE: Wait, how did Sarah know Matt?

JULIE: Well, Matt was friends with Noël Raymond, the Co-Artistic Director of Pillsbury House + Theater. They went to graduate school together. And Noël’s partner Amy is a musician; and she and Sarah’s husband played music together. So when they all had little kids—and Matt had Caleb, who was the oldest of all their kids—they all started hanging out. It happens that Sarah’s husband is an Early Childhood Special Education professional—social worker. So for Matt to have a friend like that—you know, at that time he was raising a 3-year-old with significant disabilities. Anyway, Matt always had a vision for Caleb, always, and never let what he was hearing get him down. Because it wasn’t an option. They didn’t know, until Caleb was born, that he had such significant disabilities. He was born in 1996, so they just didn’t have the information.


Caleb George-Guidry

Caleb George-Guidry (photo by Dirk Anschütz)


So, because of my dance background and working with folks with disabilities, and his experience—Matt’s an actor and a dancer, worked with Margolis Brown for a long time and acts around the Twin Cities—we just started collaborating. He was already doing theater and writing his own shows, doing performances related to his experience, doing some really wacky, out there performances related to his experience raising Caleb. We started going into Caleb’s school together and doing programming with middle school students. Caleb was about 10 by then.

Because even before that, when he was really young, Caleb would go watch his dad rehearse and perform. And he would mirror what Matt was doing. Matt would put his arms up, and Caleb would put his arms up, and then they’d pull down, go back and forth. They came up with this “Caleb Says” game, where they were doing this mirroring activity. Because Caleb is nonverbal, they found that this is a place where they could communicate, through a lot of dance and movement at home. So as I entered on the scene, these two had this dialogue that was just really lovely—and really obscure, odd, if you’re watching as a passerby. But it’s a beautiful thing. To this day, we’re still running around the living room, doing ridiculous sorts of movement so that we’re engaging with him. This is where we’re engaging. And we find that—it’s not just him that communicates in this way. We realized that, with this experience and our backgrounds, we could start taking it into the classroom and working with his peers in the middle school. As we began doing that work, we were able to get some funds to start Upstream Arts, which was a pretty luxurious place to start as an organization.

JEANNE: I remember, when you first came to Interact, you already had some support.

JULIE: Magic miracle money. A family member had set aside some funds and offered it to us, to help get the organization started. It was substantial support for five years, which allowed us to fast-track all the infrastructural pieces that most organizations have to build more slowly over time.

JEANNE: Wow, what a great gift.

JULIE: Yeah. So we went into Caleb’s middle school to start doing these programs there, and it was absolutely working. We started just playing theater games. And then we pulled in some other individuals that had more Boal experience, so we evolved some of our curriculum to have more of that influence.


Early Upstream Arts participants at Lake Harriet Community School

Early Upstream Arts participants at Lake Harriet Community School


What we found—and what we set out to do, I think, very early on—was the development of social and communication skills for individuals with disabilities. Because we knew that those skills not only were priorities in the academic setting for students K-21, but also for adults. When it comes to vocational skill development, those are fundamental pieces. So we developed all of our curriculum with that in mind; it wasn’t centered on the creation of arts so much as utilizing the arts to develop these skills. Some of our first clients, following the middle school, were actually adult day programs, who brought us in to do work. With them, we came up with this residency model that allowed us to have an extended relationship with individuals on a weekly basis, developing these specific skills; and then really working with the day programs to identify and tease out some of the barriers that they were running up against, related to employment and how we could support them in breaking down those barriers.

JEANNE: So when you first started, since you had this start-up support, did you charge for the programs?

JULIE: We did always charge something from the beginning; but it always was, and still is, an incredibly subsidized rate. Depending on who we’re working with, they’re typically only paying about a quarter of what it actually costs us to run our program, and then the rest is subsidized through grants that they write, or that we write, and individual donations. Because our services are, as we put it, a lifetime of services—so from birth until retirement and beyond—we have different sources of funding for the educational work that we do and for the adult programs, though it’s pretty well-balanced.

What we’re finding is that we’re one of the only organizations nationally that works with individuals with disabilities from birth to retirement; and that works to provide experiences for people with developmental and cognitive disabilities, Autism, emotional/behavioral disabilities, and everything in between; and takes an interdisciplinary approach to the arts. That’s really quite unique. A lot of organizations are age-specific, disability-specific, and/or discipline-specific, so we’ve realized we really have a unique niche.

The birth-3 work has been our newest component, working with families who have kids born with disability or newly diagnosed, developing their bonding relationships and communication opportunities with their kids at that young age. And then the age 3-5/Early Childhood Special Education, working with educators in that environment; then K-12 is still that education piece; 18-21 transition students, working on vocational skill development and work readiness; with adults, we’re working on social skills or vocational readiness, depending on their readiness; and then the retirement-age individuals with whom we’re working, we’re typically seeing a lot of early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia, and so we’re trying to facilitate creative opportunities for expression in that environment.


Upstream Arts Teaching Artists and Participants at Opportunity Partners

Upstream Arts Teaching Artists and Participants at Opportunity Partners


JEANNE: Are you mostly working with adults in the context of Adult Day Programs?

JULIE: Yes, the majority of adults that we serve are in Adult Day Programs. We have partnerships with about 15-20 adult day programs around the metro area, annually. Opportunity Partners and all their locations, Lifeworks and all their locations, Midwest Special Services, Phoenix Alternatives… and then there are a lot of community programs out there, doing social programming for young adults with disabilities. Most of the time, they’re doing outings, like bowling, but then sometimes they’ll contract us to come in. So we have partnerships with some of those agencies. Often they write grants to bring us in. These programs are a great way for us to be able to work with the young adults, but also have a relationship with the families. There’s advocacy that happens in all of those arenas, too.

So the work itself—yes—comes from personal experience; for me, working with many different folks with disabilities, and for Matt, as an artist. We now employ eighteen professional teaching artists, most of whom have some kind of relationship to a person with a disability in their own personal life, or they are an individual living with some kind of disability themselves. We didn’t intentionally set out to do that, but people have found themselves coming to us for a variety of reasons. And their experiences with us contribute to their unique sets of talents—one is now pursuing her Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, another is studying to be a sign language interpreter. So this work is really informing their paths in a lot of different ways, which I think is compelling, in terms of what they’re creating outside of Upstream Arts. Our artists are a fundamental part of our mission, so we strive to really support them by paying a living wage, giving them paid time off, offering them a creative home. Their work with Upstream Arts informs the other work they’re doing as professional artists, which expands opportunity and choice for everyone. In the disability community, we really don’t have enough choice; so artists creating with this kind of mindfulness is a great service to all.

To be continued!