by: COURTESY OF WELL ARTS - Professional actors play roles during stage readings in the Well Arts program. (Above) Brian Tennison and Jenny Newbry act in the 2011 Beautiful Minds performance Whats Important is the Story. Not too many things in the artistic world are more noble than Well Arts, an organization that gives voices to the members of our community who may be dismissed, forgotten, forlorn or disabled.

In the upcoming season, the group’s stage readings will be written by people with mental illness, parents with children with developmental disabilities, veterans, individuals living with multiple sclerosis, at-risk teenage girls, and African-American women.

Katy Liljeholm, Well Arts’ third executive director since its formation in 2000, says the mission remains the same as when Kate Hawkes formed Well Arts as an outreach from Artists Repertory Theatre, working with cancer patients from Oregon Health & Science University. It’s to educate, enlighten and entertain.

“Part of it is to get people in the general public to understand what it’s like to have MS, or Down Syndrome or be bipolar,” Liljeholm says. “It’s also a healing for participants.

“We’re very social animals, but we can live very isolated or restricted lives. People don’t realize how special their stories are. As a professional theater director, I didn’t know what people were walking around with, until I started asking them about their stories.”

She compares an 80-year-old woman and a 19-year-old Iraqi veteran, who both believe nobody wants to hear their stories and “those two groups might not know they have the same exact problems.”

She adds: “It’s also fun to share stories and create. We tend to be work-driven as a society and forget about how fun play is.”

Well Arts (, mostly supported by grants and foundations and donors, has four mainstage performances scheduled for the 2013-14 season (performed at Portland Actors Conservatory’s Firehouse Theatre, 1436 S.W. Montgomery St.), accompanied by extended workshops to prepare the playwrights:

• “Beautiful Minds: I Wander, it Calls” — Written by peers at the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Washington County, and includes prose, poetry and puppets. Nov. 1-9

• “Just Like You” — Written by parents and children with disabilities at the Northwest Down Syndrome Association in a two-month playwriting class. Jan. 10-18

• “The Unexpected Guest” — Written by National MS Society members about the surprises in their journey since their diagnosis. March 14-22

• “Jump At The Sun” — Written by African-American women in an oral history theater project with the Urban League of Portland’s Senior Multicultural Center and the Portland Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. May 2-10

In addition, Well Arts

sponsors smaller community projects:

• “Youth Stories For Portland” — Performance as part of the Fertile Ground Festival by girls transitioning out of the juvenile justice system through Pettygrove Boys and Girls Aid. Late January

• “Soldier’s Heart” — Veterans take part in a storytelling arts workshop that blends writing, theater and visual art to help them explore tools to communicate their stories to the people closest to them.

All the productions start with workshops, which open up dialogue and communication. About six to 13 people take part in each workshop and ensuing production, which, basically, is a stage reading before 100-some people.

“We tend to think of (afflictions) as something we shouldn’t talk about,” Liljeholm says. “It’s OK to talk about personal experiences and it helps other people.

by: COURTESY OF WELL ARTS - Actress Sarah DeGrave performed in the Well Arts 2012 Reunion Writing workshop 'I:you.'“It helps people say hello to their bodies, redevelop relationships. ... People can write about whatever they want. We don’t dictate subject matter.”

Then, everybody shares what they wrote, with a facilitator giving feedback. Stories are curated into a script, with the stories put in order that make sense. There are actor auditions. “Usually we can’t get Meryl Streep,” Liljeholm jokes. “But we have fantastic local actors.”

In rehearsals, participants are involved and can change stories and create conversations with actors to refine writing. Then actors perform on stage.

“It becomes tricky to fit everybody’s story into the performance,” Liljeholm says. “If we have too few, then there’s the pressure to write a lot.”

Michael Braem of Newberg, who has multiple sclerosis, originally shared some of his story in 2003. He went through a divorce and a child visitation case, and the story was about “the up-and-down situation I was in with MS and visitation with kids. Very emotional. ... My piece was about living with MS, and it’s not rosy and candyland. There’s a dark side to it. Other writers were more positive. My story was, although I have MS and can still live life, not good.”

He took a break from Well Arts, and then rejoined about four years later. He wrote about a loving lesbian couple, and about falling in love with a girl and she never knew it. He’ll take part in Well Arts this year, writing something “all positive.”

Braem says: “It’s a form of self-healing where you can get your points, or whatever you want to express, out. Sometimes you can’t just do it in words of speaking. It’s also a little creativity and self-


It’s very satisfying, he adds, to have actors on stage “bringing your words to life. When you get a good actor and he nails it ... you cry from joy.”

Michele Torland of Portland has been a Well Arts playwright since 2006, admittedly healing from a cycle of personal issues, including domestic abuse. She’s a single mother (and grandmother), and she returned to school and worked three jobs while putting her life back together.

“It was a soul-searching experience,” says Torland, adding that her writing has taken on a different perspective of imagination and creativity and “it’s allowed me to have a lot more confidence.”

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