By Keith Loria
It was back in 1984 when a group of families who had the shared experience of having a family member with a disability, wanted to find a creative outlet for their loved ones in the Portland community.
“If you looked around at the options back then for socialization, enrichment, quality of life and creative expression, they were few and far between,” says Stephen Marc Beaudoin, executive director of PHAME. The Portland-based nonprofit offering a community where adults with disabilities and their families creatively engage, learn and grow in an environment that is supportive and comfortable. “Before people with disabilities were really represented at all in popular culture and the media, there was a whole different landscape. Here were people with a shared interest in arts and creative expression, and the unfortunate shared experience of a total lack of programs.”
That was the genesis of PHAME, born from the desire to give a creative voice to those who were silenced, and built upon a belief that the creative arts are for all. Their belief is that through the arts, PHAME students, artists, teachers and the greater community can discover their own inspiration. Originally, the acronym stood for Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Entertainers, however it has evolved into Pacific Honored Artists, Musicians and Entertainers.
PHAME provides year-round arts programing to primarily post-high school adults, ages 17 and up, with developmental disabilities.
“That’s where the need is for transition,” Beaudoin says. “College is not really an option a lot of time. PHAME keeps students engaged, learning, active and engaging in social networks.”
PHAME offers two 15-week terms throughout the year, creating life-long learning opportunities and classes in visual arts, creative writing, acting, music theory, choir, dance, musical theatre and much more. PHAME also offers highly specialized workshops and intensives taught by renowned Northwest artist teachers.
Students also participate in a number of staged productions held throughout the year, including concerts, performances, cabarets, recitals and art shows in Portland and beyond, as well as touring across the state.
“The arts are important for anyone. Creative expression, the opportunity to create alone and with others, to listen and learn, to find your voice, all helps individuals become more themselves,” Beaudoin says. “Data tells us a very clear story—arts engage every individual’s life and make them better and healthier.”
Barb Smith is the parent of 24-year-old PHAME performer Jason Young and says the programs they offer changed her son’s life.
“When Jason aged out of transition education at 21 at the high school, there was nothing for him,” Smith says. “We were working with a community partner to try and find jobs and weren’t successful for quite some time. Six months after leaving school, he walked in to the kitchen one day in tears, and said, ‘I have no one and nothing to look forward to.’ It was terrifying to hear.”
The family immediately started looking for solutions, and Jason’s sister found PHAME, and since he always had an interest in music and dance, they gave it a shot.
“We came in right away and started classes and saw an immediate change in this young man who was practically non-verbal and now was making friends and connections and being a ‘real’ human being with something to look forward to every day,” Smith says. “He has done a little bit of everything—dancing, musical theater, choir, song writing and acting—he just loves it all.”
Eliza Jensen, a student at PHAME, learned of the program after moving to Portland in October of 2014. Having taken theater in college, Jensen was interested in seeing what they had to offer. She signed up for a few classes and snagged the lead role in PHAME’s production of Up the Fall, a musical play about a Portland girl’s journey through a realm where figures from world mythologies and folk traditions intermingle, similar to Into the Woods.
“I think that what makes this place so special is it allows people that work differently in the general population, to go to school for creative arts without it being dumbed down,” Jensen adds. “I think often the community treats being ‘different’ as ‘less than,’ with the belief that we can’t do what others can do. But PHAME is different. It caters to people with development disabilities but works towards the values of inclusion and dignity.”
It’s experiences like these that have made PHAME such an important part of the Portland community over the last three decades.
“We have a big vision,” Beaudoin adds. “We want to see a community that champions opportunity and possibility for all artists. It takes a big community of champions to realize that vision. Whether through volunteering, serving on the board, donating time or talent to the organization, there are so many ways to get involved. PHAME brings passion, joy and celebration to arts education and performance.”
Keith Loria is a freelance journalist who has written about everything from business to sports to healthcare, with a lot of entertainment writing thrown into the mix. When not writing, Keith can be found playing with his daughters, Jordan and Cassidy.