It turns out that collaboration, communication, and confidence—skills necessary in order to perform—are skills that are beneficial for people with disabilities. Of course, there are tons of different kinds of disabilities, and not every person with a disability has the same needs, but Julie Guidry from Upstream Arts and Jeanne Calvit from Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts both say that they have seen the performance work they do increase verbal and communication skills, and build confidence in the people with which they work.


Upstream Arts officially began in 2006, but its beginnings came long before that when co-founder Matt Guidry, Julie’s husband, was a company member at Margolis Brown. Matt’s 5 year old son, Caleb, who was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (CdLS), which affects his physical and cognitive development, would sometimes attend rehearsals. Caleb would watch the performers for a while and then go to a mirror and imitate their movements. Matt encouraged his son’s mirror game, and expanded on it, soon finding that in participating in movement theater exercises, his son was able to communicate far better than he ever had before.

As Caleb grew older, he developed thriving social skills, which is uncommon for people with CdLS. Matt continued working with his son, collaborating with Caleb’s teachers and eventually forming a nonprofit with Julie, Caleb’s stepmother. The aim of Upstream Arts is to foster creative communication and social independence through the arts.

Upstream takes an interdisciplinary approach, utilizing theater, poetry, music and other art forms to build communication and social skills for youth and adults with disabilities. Upstream conducts residencies in schools and recently has started a program called Culture Club, where young adults from Highland Friendship Club (which serves teens and young adults with disabilities), and the St Paul Jewish Community Center (which has a program for individuals with disabilities) attend plays, performances, and museums each week. The day after the cultural experience, the group meets at the JCC to discuss the experiences and participate in arts activities conducted by Upstream teachers.

Julie said that Upstream creates an environment that’s very real and very natural where the people can act out situations in a safe environment.

She said a lot of times people with disabilities have their choices made for them, and Upstream helps them to develop choices. “We are not doing it for them,” she said, “We doing it along side of them.”

Collaboration and confidence

Where Upstream focuses their performance activities in classroom and workshop settings, Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts is geared toward performance. Founder/Artistic Director Jeanne Calvit, who trained at the Jaques Lecoq school in Paris, said the main goal of Interact is to showcase and market the work of people with disabilities.

“My philosophy is that we don’t do therapy,” Calvit said. “Our goal is to do real theater.” That being said, though, Calvit has seen significant changes in people with disabilities who participate in the performance process. “They haven’t been able to express themselves, they’ve been measured by the deficits they have, but when they are in a play—they are applauded and treated very differently.” From families and friends of the people she works with, Calvit hears that by practicing theater, people can have a whole change to their identity.

Besides confidence building, she believes Interact’s ensemble work aids in communication skills. “There’s a social involvement in theater that is really crucial,” she said. Also, basic things like voice projection and diction prove beneficial skills. “One parent told me that their child learned more doing two plays than they did in 10 years of speech therapy,” Calvit said. “Because they are motivated to do a good job. It helps their speech and their personality.”

Other companies that utilize the arts and performance in work with people with disabilities include VSA Arts of Minnesota, which won a Sally Award this year, Anodyne Arts, The National Arts and Disability Center and the Artists with Disabilities Alliance which holds The Open Flow Forum where visual artists, performers, musicians and poets can showcase their work at monthly meetings.