Big Emotions Reign Supreme in PHAME’s World-Premiere Rock Opera

Written and performed entirely by adults with developmental disabilities, The Poet’s Shadow is a landmark production for the Portland nonprofit.

By Conner Reed July 24, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

PHAME artists (including the iPad ensemble) perform a song from their collaboration with Portland Opera

It’s a tale as old as time: Girl meets boy. Girl dumps boy. Girl’s poetry about boy comes alive, transforms into a monster, and teaches her a half-Inside Out, half-Babadook lesson about the importance of tending to our grief.

So it goes in The Poet’s Shadow, a world-premiere rock opera and the product of an 18-month collaboration between PHAME—a local performing arts academy for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome and autism—and Portland Opera. Debuting this month, it’s the most high-profile partnership in PHAME’s 35-year history, and the city’s first production of this scale written and performed entirely by people with developmental disabilities.

“We’re very much building the plane while flying it,” says PHAME executive director Jenny Stadler. “This whole thing is so cockamamie and I’m still like, ‘Oh my god, it’s actually happening and we’re still on schedule.’”

Since PHAME was founded in 1984, it’s offered classes in music, dance, and theater; today, the catalog includes circus arts, improv, and podcasting. The nonprofit hosts its own showcases, and students are occasionally cast in productions around the city—in the past few years, its performers have appeared in Artists Repertory Theatre’s Teenage Dick and Portland Playhouse’s Scarlet. That’s a vital step in making traditional arts organizations more inclusive of historically marginalized populations, Stadler says. But since taking over in 2017, she had sought more all-encompassing, hands-on opportunities for students.

Enter Alexis Hamilton, education and outreach manager at Portland Opera. In 2017, Hamilton saw PHAME’s In a Single Breath, a piece students developed with local playwright Matthew B. Zrebski.

“I found myself kind of stunned,” says Hamilton. “I thought, ‘We could do that. We could write an original opera [with PHAME].’”

Stadler was all in. The two built a rigorous curriculum that covered costume design, libretto writing, the history of opera, and more. Hamilton taught the class on libretto (the actual text of a work, for opera noobs).

“The most surprising aspect was how nuanced the story is and the emotions [the students] wanted to express were,” Hamilton says. “[In opera], we don’t get to be melancholy with a tinge of nostalgia. No, we need to be miserable.”

Music was composed on GarageBand by PHAME’s new iPad ensemble—Stadler says the devices are “extraordinarily accommodating” for people with disabilities. Portland’s own disability-centered Wobbly Dance company provided choreography for the monster. From writers to musicians to performers, 42 PHAME
students have had a hand in the show.

Anne-Marie Plass has performed with PHAME since 2008, with credits ranging from Rizzo in Grease to Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. In The Poet’s Shadow, she plays an enchanted rose—her first stab at portraying flora.

“[PHAME has] made me feel better about having a disability,” Plass says. “I’m very confident where I used to be very shy. Now it goes from ‘I would like’ to ‘I want.’”

Still, Stadler says the toughest part of her role is the nagging sense that her students belong to a community few are eager to acknowledge.

“Thirty-five years ago, we were still institutionalizing people with developmental disabilities. It was this horrible ‘don’t be seen, don’t be heard’ mentality. This fight for full inclusion is pretty new,” she says, careful not to downplay the hardships of other marginalized groups. “I’m trying to be the best warrior I can while being respectful to the needs of other communities. But I’m also a little impatient.”

Turns out impatience is a hell of a catalyst. Under Stadler’s guidance, a long-ignored population is about to fill a stage with the hard-rocking, pastel-colored contents of their imagination.

“I can’t wait for [audiences] to see what we can do,” says actor Lea Mulligan, who plays the poet’s mother. “They’re going to be shocked. And there’s usually a time when people start crying, so we’ll see what happens there.”

The Poet's Shadow

Aug 23–31, Hampton Opera Center 

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