Art program focuses on abilities, not disabilities
By Rhonda Bodfield
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 04.05.2009
Parents of special-education students rarely get to have those precious, scholastic coming-of-age moments, such as watching their children star in school recitals or pitch shutouts for their baseball teams.
If there's a meeting at school, it's often to focus on what their children can't do and how to make the best accommodations.
Susan Claassen works with members of Pastime Players, an art program that provides training in music, drama and dance to special-education students at Catalina Magnet High School. The program got its start in 1984.
KELLY PRESNELL / Arizona Daily Star
So there's something powerful about the annual Pastime Players performance, when parents get to see their children take the stage, regardless of mental or physical challenges, and showcase their ability to recite poetry or Shakespearean lines or to dance hip-hop or to sing "What a Wonderful World."
For Don Romano, it was an experience he had with four of his children, but never with the baby of the family, Danny, who has developmental disabilities.
Danny was a freshman at Catalina Magnet High School in 1990 when he was invited to participate in Pastime Players, said Romano, a 66-year-old bank executive. "I just thought, 'Great.' It was an activity that allowed for an experience that special individuals like Danny just weren't invited to do.
"The whole point of it is to concentrate on what people can do — to focus on their abilities, rather than their disabilities."
Pastime Player Manny Uzueta throws his hands to the sky as he sings during rehearsal for "The Me Inside of Me" at Catalina Magnet High School.
KELLY PRESNELL / Arizona Daily Star
The program got its start as a workshop in 1984 and has grown into an art program that provides training in music, drama and dance to special-education students at Catalina from the ages of 15 to 22. About half of the players are in high school. The rest are graduates who can't leave it behind.
Under the direction of Susan Claassen, the managing artistic director of the Invisible Theatre, students learn under the tutelage of artists twice a week. Their training culminates in a musical montage called "The Me Inside of Me," which encourages its audience to see that everyone has gifts to offer — if they aren't limited by expectations.
"I saw the arts not only as an integral part of the school day, but I also felt that it would liberate their abilities," said Claassen, the prophet of empowerment.
Long before "Yes we can" got contemporary traction as the rallying cry of the Obama hope campaign, her students shouted it in response to her questions.
"Sometimes people are limited in what they see," she'll intone. "They'll say, 'Oh, you can't do this or you can't do that.' When they say that to us, what do we say?"
In unison, 20 voices respond: "Yes we can!"
Claassen is unapologetic about setting the bar high. "We never want anyone to tell us we're less than whole. We never want people to say we're 'good for special ed.' We're good because we're great entertainers."
"Such Good Friends," a documentary on the Pastime Players, will be unveiled later this month. Viewers meet six of the players and their families.
They'll hear about parents whose new-baby bliss dissolved into tears when they learned of their child's challenges.
They'll meet pictures of courage.
Students who can't read memorize every line.
Students who can't move their feet use hand taps instead.
Some have survived more than two dozen surgeries.
At least one didn't survive.
Meg Hudman learned about the program at a Special Olympics event three years ago. She'd already graduated from school, so she came on as a teaching assistant.
"I help out the kids," she said. "Some of them can't talk, so I use my voice for them."
The 27-year-old's learning disability doesn't keep her from writing poems every year for the show. This year's focus is on heroism, she said, adding that her own personal heroes are her mother and Claassen.
"Susan was willing to take the time and show people that we may have a disability, but we're still as equal as anyone else," Hudman said. "At Catalina, the kids see us as equal, but in the world, we've still got a long way to go."
The Pastime Players have performed in Phoenix and in Orlando, Fla. A powerful moment for Claassen was when the students performed for elementary pupils, and, afterward, the children asked what the performers' disabilities were. It wasn't obvious to them.
Filmmaker Cyndee Wing is in the process of culling 100 hours of footage she's collected over five years. She hopes the film will spread from Tucson to festivals around the country. "This has the potential to go far and wide. It's a celebration of kids, but it's a reality check, too," she said.
The experience changed her own life, sending her back to school at 54 to be able to offer therapy to autistic students.
"I saw the need for families to have a vision for their children. These parents believe in their children, but getting others to believe in their children is a big challenge."
Her experience also has taught her more about gratitude.
"You can't help but be touched by a child who can barely walk or balance who is putting on tap shoes," she said.
"The next day, when you're moaning and complaining about your life, the vision of that child will come back to you and lift you. If they can work as hard as they do with the challenges they have, it makes you realize that you can certainly lift yourself up to your own challenges."
On StarNet: Visit the online edition of this story at azstarnet.com/metro to see a video showcasing the Pastime Players performance group.
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or email@example.com