Producing a Fringe play teaches Philadelphians with disabilities self-determination

Every day is a dance party at the SpArc Services Cultural Arts Center in Philadelphia. The program’s clients like Prince and the Backstreet Boys, but most often it’s Michael Jackson that gets them jumping with joy and applauding each other’s moves.

In SpArc’s 2017 Fringe Festival performance, “Benthic Blast,” staged at the Painted Bride on Sept. 21, Jackson’s “Beat It” is the soundtrack to one of the play’s pivotal scenes, in which sharks and fish learn to get along and eat tacos together. Friendship and joy are the themes of the play — and the entire program.

SpArc is an organization that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Their aim is to create community connection and encourage personal growth through the visual and performing arts. The underwater-themed “Benthic Blast” is the fourth Fringe performance the program has mounted. Program participants collaborated with the SpArc arts staff to create the costumes, sets, story, and music.

The SpArc building on Westmoreland Street in North Philadelphia is a safe space for many of the cast to spend their days. In a given week, about 110 people participate in the programs, funded through state Medicaid waivers. There they participate in music, craft, and performance classes. “Benthic Blast” is a direct result of the theater program.

Linda Price, director of the SpArc Cultural Services Center, says that the folks the program supports don’t typically have a lot of access to the arts, and that she’s still shocked when one of the participants tells her that they’ve never been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She says that the goal is to meet participants as artistic peers, and for everyone to learn from each other. “You learn when you’re here to be making art for the sake of making art,” she said.

On a Wednesday in July, Phoebe Dilworth is working on a free-form embroidery project as part of her costume for the play: a mermaid. She also plays a space monster that protects a planet called Tom Bosley. Program participant Richard Johnston, who came up with much of the story for the production, plays a character that is half-octopus, half-man, inspired by his favorite actor Tom Bosley, best known as Mr. Cunningham from the classic television show “Happy Days.” Much of the play was not scripted, but the SpArc staff take a back seat to what the participants are interested in doing.

Director and theater teacher Liz Hollon prompts the participants with questions onstage. In one scene, the characters eat fortune cookies. Hollon asks cast members what the fortunes say, and their responses often steer the action in surprising and funny ways.

Price says the way Hollon directs the theater program is beautiful because she helps them feel ok about making choices. “It’s really indicative of how the world approaches people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They don’t let them decide. They don’t get to make choices about the food they eat. They just come in with whatever lunch someone packed for them. They wear whatever clothes someone puts out for them,” Price said.

Backstage, on the night of the performance, Hollon encourages the nervous performers. “We’re going to have the best time ever!”

By the end of the show, most of the audience is ecstatic and on the stage dancing to a Madonna song with the cast.

“I feel like they are more creative on an average day than I’ll ever be on my best day,” said Hollon after the show. Being the SpArc theater program teacher has changed the way she approaches her own work and collaborations with other theater artists because the participants encourage and empower her to do whatever she comes up with. “I’m always overwhelmed by how much love they give one another, and how much love they show me.”

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