Seventeen-year-old Sarah Owens feels true acceptance in her Live Art classes at School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC). That feeling isn’t something she experiences in other situations.
“It’s difficult for her in some settings,” says her mom, Miriam, explaining that Sarah has a developmental disability. “Some of her ways of communicating are not always accepted or understood by her peer group. I knew SPARC was a safe place for her. From day one, Sarah has felt accepted, capable, unique, and special there.”
Social and friendly, Sarah loves to dance, and “dancing at SPARC makes me feel at ease,” she says. This year marks her second performance for Live Art, an inclusive arts education program that brings together students with and without disabilities. The annual production – this year, it’s Live Art: Dream – started back in 2012.
“We wish we had known about SPARC a long time ago,” Miriam says. “They do an amazing job of helping kids who are brand-new to the program feel like they belong. Sarah has thrived in that environment.”
Sarah’s mom likens the environment to “an oasis, a bubble,” she says. “The rules are simple. There is no judging. Everybody is accepted for who they are and what they bring to the group. Those types of conditions don’t exist in our society where people are judgmental and put other people down.”
Last year, she watched her daughter take the stage with more than 200 students from SPARC and partnering organizations as well as guest artists. “She wasn’t nervous. She was having fun on stage,” Miriam says. “The joy of what she was doing came through.”
SPARC and Live Art have made an impression on Sarah as well. She was especially thrilled when everyone in her class sang to her on her birthday. “They said positive things about me, and they made me feel special. It made me happy,” she says.
It’s about acceptance, compassion, and empathy!
Live Art classes use the ACE curriculum. “ACE stands for acceptance, compassion, and empathy,” says Courtney Vollmer, SPARC’s director of creative play. SPARC started focusing on ACE in 2015 before presenting its production of Live Art: Blue.
Using the curriculum, students are asked to “model positive behavior of acceptance, compassion, and empathy out in the community, at school, at home, in their neighborhoods, and so on,” Vollmer says. “This expectation has set the tone for the open, welcoming environment we have at SPARC.”
Mia Krivanec, thirteen, will be performing in her fourth Live Art production this year. Her mom, Sara, has seen Mia’s empathy for others deepen over those years. “It’s taught her how to see the world a little differently,” she says.
SPARC has been part of Mia’s life since she was a first-grader at Mary Munford Elementary School. Through her involvement, she has learned sign language so she could “communicate with her new friends who are deaf,” her mom says. “Now, she’s at the point where she’s pretty fluent in it.”
Mia likes being on stage at Altria because she is “with all the people I love, so it doesn’t seem as scary,” she says, adding that during dress rehearsals all of the guest artists sit down with the students. “They give us a pep talk. They talk about their experience and what it was like for them to be nervous. They tell us, ‘You are not alone. We are all going to do this together.’”
Participating in Live Art has also opened up a whole new world of career possibilities for the young teen – like therapist, social worker, and sign language interpreter. “I feel like I want to help people now,” she says.
The ACE curriculum ties nicely into this year’s Live Art: Dream, which will be performed on Sunday, June 11, at Altria Theater.
Magician and comedian Justin Willman will be performing in the show for the first time. He got a feel for the show when Hanover native and Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Jason Mraz sent him the trailer for last year’s performance. “Every performer is looking for an opportunity to be part of an event where we are sharing the stage and reminded why we do this,” Willman says. “To be part of something so pure and so good reminds us of why we started performing in the first place. It started with pure joy.”
Jazz singer and actress Desiree Roots will be taking the Live Art stage for the second year. She admits she didn’t know what Live Art was all about when she accepted the invitation last year. “I didn’t know the magnitude,” she says. “When they said it was a life-changing experience, it truly was. There was not a dry eye in there, and this was the rehearsal process. I was honored to be part of it.”
When SPARC called her this year, she immediately said yes. “I was in awe last year,” she says. “This differed from other performances, more so because of the atmosphere and the positive energy and vibes from the SPARC kids and family. Just to see the joy in their faces. There were no disabilities. Everyone was on equal footing.”
It started with a dream!
The entire Live Art program was inspired by a dream that Erin Thomas-Foley, SPARC’s senior director of education, had while she was pregnant with her son Daniel. She was journaling because she couldn’t sleep, and one image she kept coming back to was that of a famous musician standing on a blank canvas surrounded by students dancing around him with paint on their feet. Some of the students in Erin’s dream had special needs.
“Her vision became a reality when we started the Live Art program,” says Vollmer. “We had a class called Speaking Feet, where typically developing students and students with special needs danced with paint on their feet.” That class translated to one of Live Art’s most memorable performances – Jason Mraz and a group of young SPARC artists creating a live piece of art on stage.
This year pays homage to how the program was created. The theme is intended to “inspire others to pursue their dreams,” Vollmer adds. “In this show, we will take you into a dream state where fantastical, magical things will happen, some may even seem odd or bizarre or scary or surprising – like what you experience when you are dreaming.”
The show will also address what you do with your dreams when you are awake. “Dreams are endless opportunities to explore the unknown, and they create a window into a world of possibilities,” Vollmer says. “It is our hope that through this amazing arts program, our students will feel empowered and our audience will be inspired to follow their dreams.”
Students at the school have been creating dream statements this past year. “I dream of a community where people are no longer judged for the color of their skin or their ability, but by their capacity to love; a place where everyone is accepted,” one student wrote.
Another penned: “I dream of a world with less of a need for hatred or violence… a world where differences are no longer feared but celebrated.”
SPARC took the students’ dreams and worked with local recording artist, musician Steve Bassett, and sound artist Stephen Vitiello to help bring the statements to life.“We created a recording studio at SPARC and allowed each student to spend time recording their dream statements to be featured in a part of the Live Art: Dream show,” Vollmer says. “The next step is to encourage our students to pursue achieving their dreams during their lifetimes.”
Kids just get it!
Emily Knight, mother to 11-year-old Jonathan, had heard about Live Art for several years before she got her son, who has Down syndrome, enrolled in classes this past fall. “I felt like I had won the lottery,” she says of his involvement.
The experience was difficult for Jonathan in the beginning. At first, he didn’t want to participate in class activities. “As a parent of a child with special needs, something like this is risky. It takes patience,” his mom says. “Sometimes, it’s a wild card. I don’t know if he will listen.”
Teachers at SPARC brainstormed and came up with ideas to make the process easier so he would be successful in class. “After five or six classes, he was saying he couldn’t wait to go,” his mom says. “Now he’s listening to instructions, and he has a dance partner. It’s very moving to see him. When watching, you can’t tell who has special needs and who doesn’t. It’s just beautiful.”
Jonathan is looking forward to the show. “He has three older brothers, and he goes to their activities. He’s excited about his brothers coming to his performance,” his mom says. “He has told me that Live Art makes him happy.”
Synia Radcliffe, thirteen, will also be making her debut in Live Art: Dream this year. “Synia is a genuinely kind and caring person. It was a good fit for her,” says her mom, Abbie. “She is so accepting and she treats everyone equally without me having to preach that. She just gets it.”
Synia likes going into a classroom where “you are not judged, but you can just have fun,” she says. “Everyone should have the chance to know that, and to know that there are different people in the world. I really like that.”
All the students in the show are on an equal level, she adds. “If someone doesn’t feel equal, everybody there helps that person to feel equal.”
Photos: Sid Koerin, Courtney Vollmer
Special Performance at Special Olympics 2017
Earlier this year, SPARC’s Live Art concept debuted on the world stage when a team from the Richmond organization participated in the opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Schladming, Austria. In all, more than 2,600 athletes from 105 nations competed in the Special Olympics in March.
The invitation came after Mraz, who was performing at the ceremonies, suggested Live Art be involved. SPARC created a rehearsal video so students and international global messengers from various countries could practice ahead of time and participate in the production with Mraz and 13-year-old Grace VanderWaal, a past winner of America’s Got Talent.
A small contingency from the Live Art team (Erin Thomas-Foley, Ryan Ripperton, Brendan Kennedy, and Daniel Clarke) arrived in Austria four days before the opening ceremonies. “We partnered with a local middle school in town,” says Brendan Kennedy, assistant director of Live Art. “The kids had to learn sign language and when we got there, they already had a base of knowledge. We worked with them a few hours each day.”
More than one hundred students, choir members, and global messengers participated in the show. “It was one song and four minutes on stage,” Kennedy says. “We taught the kids how to use magic thumb lights that are made to look like your thumb. We had incorporated them into a previous Live Art performance in Richmond and knew they had a nice effect.”
The stage, built at the bottom of the ski slopes, felt like an arena, he adds.
“It was a remarkable, incredible opportunity for us. We know now that the program in Richmond has legs. It’s important and inspiring. It can affect people on a much larger stage.”
SPARC Senior Director of Development Candace Mraz, SPARC alumni and sister to Jason Mraz, understands how unique it is to have a program like Live Art go from a local stage to an international audience. “We are proud of what it’s doing,” she says. “I’m not surprised it’s getting recognition or that it went international. Somebody has to do it first. I’m glad we were the ones to do it.”
Candace’s daughter, Chaney Evans, sixteen, has participated in Live Art since its inception. “I’ve met a lot of new people,” Chaney says. “After the Live Art experience, you are more confident in yourself, and you have more understanding for others. You understand where they come from and that we are all the same.”
The show has been a real family affair for both Candace and Chaney. “My mom was in the finale of the show last year and I have performed with my uncle, Jason,” Chaney says. “He’s a performer, but to me he is just my uncle.”
Candace says her entire family feels “blessed to stay as involved in it as we are.”
Photos: Ryan Ripperton
Big Names at Live Art: Dream
Guest Artists for Live Art: Dream include Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Jason Mraz; magician and comedian Justin Willman; Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Colbie Caillat; Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Paul Williams; composer and front man for Matchbox Twenty, Rob Thomas; singer Rayvon Owen who appeared on American Idol; singer and songwriter Steve Bassett; singer and actress Desiree Roots; musical director Chris Caswell; musician and actor Ben Lee; and singer and songwriter Susan Greenbaum.