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Writing and performing are the music driving ArtStream production

Volunteer mentor Sylvia Herrada, actor Kirsten Davidson and director Madeleine Barry in ArtStream production. COURTESY PHOTOVolunteer mentor Sylvia Herrada, actor Kirsten Davidson and director Madeleine Barry in ArtStream production. COURTESY PHOTO  During rehearsals, actors may offer input about how to do a scene. But at ArtStream, Inc., they actually help write as well as perform.  

They vote on a theme, create original characters, and improvise scenes, which staff then script into original, one-act musicals.

After the script is in place, the production proceeds like any other – with the help of a professional music director and choreographer, said Heller An Shapiro, executive director.

ArtStream productions present a double-bill of two musicals, each about an hour long.

Actors with disabilities, volunteer mentors, and theater professionals work as a team, producing six inclusive musicals in the region, in addition to classes in acting and social skills.

The mentors act alongside the actors, in case they forget a line or blocking. The mentors can be as varied as a high school student’s parent, special education teacher, or just a theater lover.

In existence since 2005, ArtStream was, in a sense, an offshoot of Imagination Stage. A group of teachers at the youth theater realized some students were “aging out” and wanted to fill the gap, Shapiro noted.

“Within two years we were a nonprofit organization, the first inclusive theater focused on adults with IDD – intellectual and developmental disabilities – and autism,” she said. “The actors have a full range of cognitive disabilities.”

Some actors may be blind or wheelchair-bound, in addition to IDD.

ArtStream now rents space in several locations across the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.

Next at the organization’s Gaithersburg location are two musicals. One is “The Miraculous Tales of Stonehaven;” the other, “To-may-to, To-mah-to.”

Madeleine Barry is directing at ArtStream for the first time with “Stonehaven,” a fairytale-inspired musical.

Most gratifying for her is “getting to know everyone so well and becoming part of their lives, and vice versa. By writing the play together, we find out what the actors want for their lives,”

They also have been “wonderful” in guiding her about how “things were done in the past,” Barry said. She credits music director Diane Zhou for helping to helm the show successfully.

In “Stonehaven,” three children who love fairy tales and playing together go to sleep – and wake up in a fairy-tale kingdom.

“But it’s nothing like they had read about,” Barry said. “They have problems there they had never encountered before.”

“To-may-to, To-mah-to,” in contrast, is a political comedy about the fictional country of Incog and its search for a national vegetable. Mary Beth Levrio is staging the production, with music direction by Jack Kerness.

Every actor in an ArtStream production gets to select the name of his or her character. Kirsten Davidson chose “Stephanie” for the mechanized woman she plays – loosely based on the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.”.

Davidson has been acting with the theater for more than a decade. In addition, she has a federal government job and exercises regularly.

“I like ArtStream a lot,” she said. “I like acting, dancing, and just being in the shows.”

She also appreciates, Davidson added, all the friends she has made, who enrich her life.

Like Davidson, some of the actors are involved for years, having found a sense of community, Shapiro said. They range from young adults to individuals in their 70s.

Everyone auditions for ArtStream productions – as a sign of intent and determination – but everyone gets a part.

“We watch growth,” Shapiro added. “One guy didn’t speak at all the first year. The next he did one line. This year he is singing and dancing, really expanding.”

The performances take place April 27 through May 6 at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, in Rockville. For information and tickets, visit: www.art-stream.org/see-a-show.

Details are pending for the June performances of other musicals at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre.

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