Category Archives: Voices

Beautiful Moves

Performance by Partners’ for Youth with Disabilities’ Access to Theater Program

Maureen Finnerty relishes the moments in which the audience is shocked by what the performers can do. She cites many instances in which audiences gasped when the performers abandoned pairs of crutches or relinquished their wheelchairs during the performance, “You can sense that people wonder if they should get up and help [the performer]. It’s the fact that they can’t, we’re on stage and that shows people just how much anyone can do.”

Maureen remembers parents who could not have imagined their child as a dancer, students who ask her to call their teachers to explain that they can physically do much more, and students who understand that being stared it can be ok.

“People [are] looking at them, but now it’s for the right reasons.” Indeed, for Maureen the real reward is seeing how the attitudes of the performers change about themselves. The audience’s misinterpretation of the performance’s intent is negligible. “[The students] come away with a different idea about what the pathways for people with disabilities are,” she explains, “the audience will have their own perspective on the performance, and they will have their own perspective on my disability.”

According to performer and movement educator Maureen Finnerty, the audience often misunderstands the performers.

“I’ve had people come up to me after a show and say, ‘Wow. I really loved what that piece said about disability.’ But the piece had nothing to do with disability.” When asked if the audience’s misinterpretation of her students’ performance bothers her, Maureen is quick to explain that, “… we’re giving a present to the audience. Everyone will unwrap it differently.”

For Maureen, the beauty and power the ensemble members bring to their performance stems from their personal investment in the roles they craft. She says the investment happens because the students at Access to Theater are never told their characters. “We choose [our character] and through rehearsals [we learn] the impact of our words and movement before we’ve even performed it.”

And the end result? “The parents always cry. I don’t get it,” she laughs.

Despite her self-assured way of talking about her experience as a performer and an educator, Maureen was not always comfortable in the realm of creative movement. Only after joining Access to Theater at a friend’s suggestion did Maureen begin to explore movement as a form of self-expression.

“My only idea about movement came from my physical therapy,” she explains, recalling her initial hesitation to learn movement techniques. “When I started [at Access to Theater] I realized [movement] was no longer a painful thing I did for physical therapy. It could be beautiful.”

Through many years as a student, an intern, and now a staff member at Access to Theater, Maureen has come to see movement as a tool for self-discovery. “It helps people accept who they are. [Access to Theater] gave them confidence.”

As the Movement Director for Partners’ for Youth with Disabilities’ Access to Theater Program, Maureen Finnerty teaches children and adults with and without disabilities that “everyone has a place in theater and that each person enriches the creative process when he/she keeps an opened mind.” She has been a resident artist for VSA Massachusetts for seven years and has assisted with workshops that focus on teaching the elements of improvisational theater to participants of all ages and abilities; included in these workshops has been the concept of access for all through universal design. She also performs in community movement productions.

Self Portrait by “Tommy”

Self Portrait by Doug

I bought this piece last June at an amazing art show at The State House sponsored by the Mass. Department of Youth Services. (“Tommy” is an assumed name, to protect the artist’s anonymity.)

The piece drew me from across the room because it was familiar—it reminded me of so many young men I see on the T and around my neighborhood.  I was also drawn by the drama of the color choices, and I was moved by the emotions revealed in those eyes.  I knew I had to purchase the piece, though, when I read Tommy’s simple artist’s statement:

“I was really intimidated by this project, but I finally finished it.”

I love that I live in a state where there are art teachers within the Department of Youth Services.  And I love that Tommy’s art teacher pushed him to do something really hard, and that the art teacher knew he could accomplish it, even if Tommy didn’t.  And I love that Tommy stuck with it.  But most of all, I love that Tommy had the courage to admit he had been intimidated.

Giving young people the opportunities and supports to succeed at things they couldn’t imagine they could accomplish—isn’t this what powerful youth development programs accomplish?  And in the arts, the added benefit is that young people produce a powerful connection with others, whether they know it or not.

Tommy was able to work through his fears to create something very strong and beautiful.  Now, hanging on my wall, I can look at Tommy’s work to encourage me to push through my own fears and get a difficult job done.

Thanks, Tommy, wherever you are.

Impact: A Two-Way Street

Kate McGuire and Daryl backstage at the Colonial
Kate McGuire and Daryl backstage at the Colonial

Pittsfield’s Juvenile Resource Center (JRC), a collaboration between the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office and the Pittsfield Public Schools, provides education, casework, counseling, and employment services to young people at high risk of dropping out of school. With the help of YouthReach funding, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) launched a partnership in 2012 with the JRC, using theatre tools to build confidence and communication skills while placing the young people in jobs throughout Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre. Kate McGuire, Artistic Director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group, reflects on the partnership’s first year:

In the theatre, we learn to listen. For me, I was able to hear and understand the nature of these kids’ lives and learn about the challenges they face minute to minute.

At the beginning, there was so much noise.  They were loud, and so aggressive towards each other in their language and sometimes, physically. By the end of the semester, we all learned to attend to each other, to listen more carefully. Order and calm and a real sense of joy set in.

The first week of the program, we went to see a movie. It was a disaster.  I was amazed they didn’t get thrown out as they could not keep quiet, keep still, or keep their hands off each other.

Over the course of six months, we used actor-training exercises to encourage each young person to find new tools of expression and at the same time, sharpen our awareness of ourselves as part of an ensemble, a community.  Meanwhile, BTG staff worked with each participant’s interests and ambitions to build custom internship experiences for each.

In the final week of this first year, we all went out to dinner. The youth were polite, well spoken, and we might as well have been celebrating Christmas. There was such a warmth and genuine care among us all.

We had accomplished something remarkable, and we were all aware that each one of us had changed, grown, and learned to care about each other and each others’ lives in profound ways.

The Colonial Theatre must be comfortable for everyone to walk through. We have succeeded with these young people.  By the end, the kids were not a part of the BTG. They were integrated into the entire organization. Three of them continued through the summer:  one in the box office, one onstage for Peter Pan, and one providing technical support. JRC staff noted the value in the relationship, and the region’s Sheriff lauded our work to one of our trustees.

Years ago I entered the theatre with the belief that we could transform lives profoundly. This work is serving that belief.   What I did not know was how deeply I could still be impacted by the power of the theatre to help and change lives.  I am grateful to the young people I have worked with through the JRC, and I can’t wait to meet a new class later this fall!

Kate McGuire
Artistic Director and CEO
Berkshire Theatre Group