The arts are whatever you want them to be, and I think that’s the power behind them. In my experience as a theatre artist, I have worked with people of varying abilities, both physical, mental, and developmental. Those that I know that fall outside of the average ability are rarely held back by their ability; instead, it is something that elevates their performance and capacity to connect with different audiences.
Growing up, I was surrounded by the arts; my parents were part of a variety lip sync show at my church, and this opened my eyes to the diversity of the arts world. I was exposed to different genres of music and so many people with unique backgrounds and life. By the time I was 9, children from our church were finally able to be part of the show, and I found a home in this theatre group. The family life I experienced extended past blood. At this time, the youngest member of the group was 4 – my little sister – and the oldest was a woman named Gene with a fiery attitude that was approaching 100. And she never let her age stop her. She liked to be glamorous and took inspiration from Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day.
And yet, there were others in the theatre group with varying backgrounds. One of my first friends was a woman my mother’s age that had been involved in the theatre group for close to thirty years. She, too, had grown up around the arts, and like my mother, she had a passion for working with children and dancing. Though she never had kids, she was exceptional at connecting with those in the cast, and her hugs made everyone feel loved. Recently, she has taken up painting, and I keep a piece she did for my high school graduation close to me. Her name is Kathleen, and many people would judge her at first sight because she has Down syndrome. But what people don’t see is that developing differently isn’t necessarily a disability. It’s just individual compared to my experience. She never has let her ability hold her back; she has excelled because of it.
Today, there are not a lot of opportunities for people with differing abilities within the arts. But involvement in the arts itself can help bridge the gap between misunderstood communities. There are theatres around the U.S., such as Variety Theatre in St. Louis, that produce shows with the goal of including people of ALL abilities. These are far and few between. I grew up with people of varying abilities, and I was never taught to look at people like Gene or Kathleen any different than I look at myself. Because the truth is that there is no huge difference. We all are living in the human experience. The point of The Triple A Project is to foster a community in which we are not taught to see our differences but instead to see the things that bring us together. If I could learn this as a child, anyone is able to do so, but we have to be willing to open our hearts and minds to new experiences.