Cornelius woman loves performing with academy that caters to developmentally disabled adults
Cornelius resident Elena Wilkins is used to the stage - so much so that, according to her, she never gets nervous before a show - and there have been many.
However, she shares more than a stage with her fellow performers at PHAME, a Portland-based fine and performing arts academy: every single one of them refuses to let a developmental disability get in the way of their love for the arts.
PHAME stands for Pacific Honored Artists, Musicians and Entertainers. Established in 1984, the academy's mission is to nurture skills and self-esteem in adults with development disabilities through education and participation in fine and performing arts.
'PHAME lights my ability to show my talent,' Elena Wilkins said. 'It's a great place if you're lonely. There [are] lots of friends all around. If you wanna have fun, go to PHAME.'
In between their annual large-scale musical productions, PHAME students spend time in writing, acting, movement, and fine arts classes with the academy.
The academy's first ever regional tour, which begins today, March 14, will bring an assortment of short performances in theater, comedy and music to stages throughout greater Portland.
Except for the last performance - staged at the Aladdin Theater on March 22 and billed as a collaboration between PHAME participants and Live Wire Radio performers - all showings are free of charge and will reach the communities of Hillsboro, Beaverton, Estacada and Vancouver.
'We are very purposefully constructing this as a tour of what we call our 'backyard communities,'' said PHAME executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin. 'We still have a lot of work to do to get [our] message out there and showcase the inspiration of our students.
'Who knows, maybe it could be a statewide initiative eventually - or national, even international.'
Of the 100 or so PHAME students, 48 are participating in the tour. Each stop on the series will be unique, as different students perform at each venue, presenting improvisational skits, drama sketches and choir pieces. The lobby of each performance site will also feature the visual art of PHAME students, with copies of student poetry available as well.
Elena Wilkins, 27, will participate in dance, drama and vocal performances during the shows taking place tonight as well as March 17, 19 and 22. Her mom, Cindy Wilkins, is happy about that.
'Most of my kids are in fine arts in some way or another, whether [as an] artist or actor or musician, which is kind of strange since they're all adopted,' said Elena's mother, Cindy Wilkins, who adopted Elena with her husband, David, just a month after Elena's birth in Peru.
Active in theater
One of eight children growing up in Hillsboro, Elena was active in theater for years as a child until, at the age of 15, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
'I tried hard, when we were still in transition, to get her to be in one of the musicals in the high school, and they wouldn't even let her be in the ensemble because she wasn't staying on pitch as well as they wanted her to, and she wanted so badly to be in theater because that's what she had done before she had become sick,' Cindy Wilkins said. 'When I found out about PHAME, we jumped on it because it was a vehicle for her to do something she loved with a community that is not judgmental.'
Beginning with 'Barnum' in 2004, Elena has been a part of a slew of PHAME performances, with her favorite performance to date being 'Once Upon A Mattress.'
'My favorite part is making the audience laugh,' Elena said. She groaned when Beaudoin mentioned there would be healthy snacks from New Seasons available at each performance.
'You should know that I need cupcakes,' Elena noted as she and her mom reminisced about their first encounter at a PHAME event, which involved some missing baked goods that she had been tasked with guarding.
'Unique and noteworthy'
For Beaudoin, honing in on the artists' innate talents is a joy.
'You don't expect Elena (to be) a performer and pick her out of a crowd immediately, but her talent is unique and noteworthy, nonetheless,' Beaudoin said. 'Unfortunately, for many people, if they think about adults with developmental disabilities at all, they think either about the hardship they're going through or when they're in the news, but they don't think about them in terms of what they have to offer, the talent they have and the inspiration they have to give, which is remarkable.'
PHAME serves a wide spectrum of individuals, from high-functioning persons who live independently and hold down part-time jobs, to wheelchair-bound students and individuals who require constant supervision.
'Frankly, once they come to PHAME, that really takes a backseat to what their abilities are and what they can bring to PHAME,' Beaudoin said. 'We really want the audience to experience the students as artists, period. The artists we work with have some sort of disability or special need, but I think the bottom line is the inspiration, the imagination, the creativity and expressivity. These are universal things.'
Founded in 1984
PHAME was founded in 1984 by Carol Stady. Though Stady retired in 2008, those now responsible for running the program are determined to take it to new heights.
'Obviously, we all stand on her shoulders today,' Beaudoin said. 'It took a visionary to create it and get it of the ground, and since then we've really discovered that the heart of PHAME is the students - their talents and what they bring, which is singular and remarkable.'
Beaudoin shared pieces of PHAME's current vision, which includes collaborating with various other organizations that offer avenues of support for the greater Portland area's developmentally disabled community. Some potential collaborations include the Mt. Hood Kiwanis, which holds summer camps, and Full Life, which offers vocational and recreational opportunities.
'It's been an incredible time, since (Stady's) retirement, to really develop the organization and move it from one led by a visionary volunteer founder to one that's professionally-staffed, that has some real accountability and transparency to the community and that has a vision for our own future in the community, in Portland and beyond,' Beaudoin said. 'I think this tour is one indication of how much we've grown.'
Questions and answers
Audience members will be able to participate in a question-and-answer session with the students following each performance in the upcoming tour.
'I think they (PHAME staff) are crazy,' Cindy Wilkins said. 'It's such a huge undertaking, for the planning alone - I can't even begin to imagine - but I think it's wonderful. I think these kids need opportunities to get out there and perform all the wonderful things they do, and it's important that the community sees them as not just different.
'I think it's fabulous, and I hope we get lots of people coming out to see us.'
See the show
Wednesday, March 14, 7 p.m.
St. Johns Community Center
8427 N. Central St., Portland
Thursday, March 15, 7 p.m.
East Portland Community Center
740 S.E. 106th Ave., Portland
Friday, March 16, 7 p.m.
Estacada School District Auditorium
255 N.E. 6th Ave., Estacada
Saturday, March 17, 7 p.m.
Clark College's Foster Auditorium
1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver, Wash.
Monday, March 19, 2 p.m.
Hillsboro Civic Center Auditorium
150 E. Main St., Hillsboro
Monday, March 19, 6:30 p.m.
Elsie Stuhr Center
5550 S.W. Hall Blvd., Beaverton
Thursday, March 22, 7 p.m.
3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., Portland