Thursday, December 29, 2016

Wishes for the New Year

For many, 2016 was a difficult and divisive year. We lost many creative heroes, from legendary musicians to cherished actors and actresses, but still saw the emergence of new talents and wonderful works of art. We also survived one of the most contentious elections in American history. As we peer into the future, hoping for the best, here are our wishes and other thoughts for the year ahead:

My wish for 2017 is for our veteran programs to take off. The work we are doing in our exhibitions and writing classes for Texas Veterans has been very meaningful work and I would like to see these services reach more people across the state. I believe this is a very achievable goal because we have a great team of staff, teaching artists, partner organizations, and of course the veterans working on the project. So keep an eye out for bigger and better creative work by Texas Veterans in the coming year!
Untitled, an acrylic mixed media by Salina Loriaux, an Iraq War Army Veteran from San Antonio, TX

I hope in the New Year that we all have more time for being together with friends and loved ones in person. May it be possible to give more real hugs than virtual ones.

My wish for the New Year: Peace on Earth

My wishes for the New Year are that I would be able to simplify my life and be more present for my family and kids. I want to learn to speak with eloquence and honesty about issues that are hard and difficult with people who matter to me. And to be able to continue to learn while teaching dance and movement to diverse populations. Hyvää uutta vuotta kaikille toivottaa Silva!

  1. Get published in a higher end literary magazine. Advance my writing techniques and become a better writer overall.
  2. Perfect the art of cooking three different tasty meals, meals I prepare on my own, so good people ask me for seconds and thirds.
  3. Sell ten pieces of my art under Outsider Art on eBay.
  4. Love myself more.
  5. Get an iPad and transition from drawing in journals to doodling on an iPad.
  6. Swim.
  7. Love others more and talk less (definitely talk less).
  8. Go to Maine and Niagara Falls.
  9. Visit a maple syrup factory and see how syrup is made.
  10. Get businesses to donate to VSA Texas.

Here is what the Chinese Zodiac has to say about the upcoming year. From Astrology Club:

The Year of the Rooster (2017) will be a powerful one, with no middle of the road when it comes to moving forward. This year, impressions count. You’ll want to look your best and be clear on your intentions concerning love, money, and business. Stick to practical and well-proven paths to ensure success, rather than risky ventures. In a Rooster Year, all of the Chinese animals can reap great rewards by tapping into Rooster traits. Loyalty, commitment, hard work, family values, and top-notch appearances are just some of the characteristics that will be rewarded this year. This will be a year that the most vital promise made will result in a flawless job no matter what it takes to achieve it. It will be a year when it is truly better to do less, but do it perfectly.

The year of the Rooster teaches the lessons of order, scrutiny and strategic planning. The sage advice of Sun-Zi, which is still taught in modern military circles, advises one to “achieve psychological advantage over the adversary and use force only as a last resort.” I think we can all take heart of that advice in 2017, the year when diplomacy wins!

As a Rabbit in the Year of the Rooster, I plan to use my skills of diplomacy and strategic management to broadcast my essence for the greater good! Click here to read more about the Year of the Rooster.
White circle over purple background featuring the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac with a rooster in the center for 2017.

My wish is for healing: of fresh and old wounds, of past pains that still feel new, of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, of families torn apart by seemingly unreconcilable differences, of friendships that have withered with time and change, of the Earth itself with its vast scars we ourselves have made. May the New Year bring a fresh start, an opportunity to focus, dig in, and work harder than the year before, a chance to grow closer to our dreams, to accept our limitations as well as our strengths, and to let the regrets that distract us from the present wash away with the rain.

I am wishing for those Peaceful Waters. From Gordon Lightfoot:

The dead leaves of autumn
That cling so desperately
Must fly before the cold October winds
Their simple lives have ended
Must they be born to die again
Oh may the light of freedom shine
For all the world to see
And peace and joy to all mankind
Through all the years to be
For soon the leaves will die
And the long hard wind will blow
May this world find a resting place 
Where the peaceful waters flow
The VSA Texas crew outside Magnolia Cafe. From left to right: Janelle, April, Celia, Eric, Lynn, Adrianna
What are your wishes for 2017?? Tell us in the comments below!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

What is a Professional Actor?

Recently, several audition notices have turned up in my inbox, seeking actors with disabilities. This has caused me to think about what it means to be an actor, with or without a disability, and what it means to be a professional actor versus someone who just enjoys playing a part. And how do you get to become one or the other?

I have worked in and around the professional theater for the greater portion of my life and I have seen many people work very hard and never make it big, and some people who just seem to be in the right place at the right time. Some of these folks are on Broadway, some are big stars in Hollywood, and some are right here in Austin. All of them have worked hard developing their craft, through hundreds of classes, rehearsals, performances, auditions… the work of the actor. And all of them study the human condition to delve into themselves and find the honesty and vulnerability necessary to embody their role, their character. But the question remains, what defines a professional? Is it the money? Nah, then many of my friends who go to rehearsal prepared to work hard and discover new aspects of themselves, and who then bring this discovery to the audience night after night, would be left out.
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones
Respecting the rehearsal process, learning your lines in a timely manner, listening to the director, honoring your fellow actors, showing up 100%, these are all part of being a professional. But they are also elements of just enjoying the dressing up and playing a part bit. However, if you are serious about being an actor, you have to audition, and if you want to do well with an audition, you have to prepare. And that doesn’t mean just for the day, it means prepare to not only try out for the part, but to win the part and then do the work that comes next.

The first step to prepare for a successful audition is to attend some classes, so you can learn what goes in to becoming an actor. Doing a little research reveals not many opportunities in the Austin area for someone to attend such a class. But wait, you say. There are a lot of acting classes for children and adults offered at the various theater companies and community colleges in town, as well as private classes offered by local directors, actors, vocal coaches, etc. Anyone can sign up, can’t they? Yes, and no.
Actor RJ Mitte dons crutches for his role as Walter Jr. on Breaking Bad. Both the actor and the character have a mild form of cerebral palsy.
A person with a disability may be challenged by an inaccessible class location – and many stages in Austin are also not accessible – or a bias on the part of the instructor against teaching someone whom they don’t feel may be up to the task. Most people can get some basic theater experience in their middle or high school years by participating in the drama club or taking a theater class – if offered. But as a person with a disability, are they offered a meaningful role that will provide the experience and inspiration to want more?

Being a professional anything requires hard work, and it is no different for actors. However, having a disability can add extra challenges to realizing your dream. The passion, the drive, the talent may be present, but if the opportunity is not, then the road ahead will be bumpy. I applaud the directors who sent me their audition notices and I trust that they will not only provide the opportunity, but the barrier-free access required for all of their actors to succeed.
Promotional image for the short film Guest Room shows Glee star Lauren Potter holding a blanket over part of her face.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Michael’s Story

Every day I come to work, I love my job a little more. I could try and explain the magic of VSA Texas to everyone I know, but experiencing it firsthand is the only way to truly grasp what we do here. No other time do I feel more connected to our cause than when I spend time with our artists and their loved ones.

Last weekend, we had our second Meet the Artist Reception for our Annual Holiday Art Show and I had the chance to sit down with Michael Noriega. Michael is a musician with a CD for sale in our show and he provided the musical entertainment for our reception, but he is also an actor, filmmaker and has his own YouTube channel. He heard about VSA Texas last year through friends and the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.
VSA Texas artist Michael Noriega practices a few chords on his guitar before he performs at our Meet the Artist Reception
“Everybody here is really nice and cool with everybody. I’m meeting a lot of people with disabilities. It’s great to feel part of something. My whole life I felt left out.”

Michael hopes to work for VSA Texas in some capacity as he grows up. He sees his experience with us as life changing and says that it has helped him discover more things he is interested in. One of his favorite experiences with our organization was being chosen as a participant in our Side by Side Film Internship where he worked on a documentary that was filmed in the AGE Building, where VSA Texas’ offices are. The building was built in 1908 and was originally the Confederate Women’s Home and is considered to be one of the most haunted places in Austin.

“My first project with VSA Texas was A Ghostly Encounter on Cedar Street, about the AGE Building being haunted. It was a lot of fun reporting and writing and editing the documentary. And we got paid for it! Which was really cool.”

Title shot from A Ghostly Encounter on Cedar Street, the mini documentary Michael worked on for our Side by Side Film Internship in 2015
I also got the opportunity to sit down with Michael’s mother, Lisa. One of the perks of working here is the built-in network of other parents of children on the Autism spectrum I get.  As I spoke with Lisa, I saw so many similarities between our kids and it was like viewing my future. I got to talk to someone who actually really understands my life.

“VSA Texas has given my son Michael a way to express himself. He is actually proud of his disability in a way. He now sees how it can benefit him.”
Lisa Noriega sits out on the AGE Building veranda and discusses her experience raising her son and his journey with VSA Texas
I asked Michael what the best thing was about our organization and his response brought tears to my eyes:

“I’m just so glad it exists. I wish I had created it. It almost feels too good to be true. Everybody here gets a chance to do something and build each other up.”

So, next time you ask me why I love my job so much, think of Michael and his mother and the joy and understanding our programs have brought to their lives. I want to ensure VSA Texas is around to help my son when he is old enough to join our programs.

You can follow Michael Noriega on YouTube or stop by our Holiday Art Show at 3707 Home Lane and pick up his CD Vivid Dream.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

April's Book Review Series Returns!

Our Holiday Art and Gift Show is under way and I wanted to tell you about some of the merchandise we have besides our standard art and jewelry. We also have some CDs by local musicians and books by people with disabilities and their advocates. Here is a review of a few of these items:

The Sulak Family is a story about autism and hope by Sandra Sulak. The Sulaks live in the small town of Louise, TX and I have been happy to know them for several years. David Sulak is an artist with autism who has been involved with our Artworks program since the early 2000s. He creates detailed drawings and constructions of trucks, cars, and buildings. In 2015, on a trip back from Corpus Christi I got a chance to visit the Sulaks at their home. It was great to see David’s home studio and gallery and to visit with his mother who is always so pleasant on the phone. Getting to know her better, I learned more about the troubles her family went through raising two sons with autism. She mentioned she had a book coming out, which luckily was published just in time to include in our holiday show. I just finished reading it and I recommend it as a quick read and powerful book to gain some insight into one family’s struggles with the school system in the 1970s. A simple farming couple is thrust into a world of medical diagnoses and disability rights legislation in order to secure a good education for two young boys with very different versions of autism. Danny, older than David by 13 months, has anger issues and is placed in a group home. David, negatively affected by his older brother’s behavior, is treated badly in school until lawyers get involved. The book moves swiftly through their schooling and into adulthood where they both become as well adjusted to life as they can thanks to the hard work and determination of their mother, Sandra Sulak.
The cover of The Sulak Family features a photo of Sandra Sulak, smiling, wearing a white dress with red polka dots, and holding her infant son dressed in a bright red outfit.
We also have two CDs of original music in the holiday show. One is called Vivid Dream by Michael Noriega. We met Michael in 2015 when he was one of our summer film interns. He is a friendly and intelligent young man who is driven to succeed. I didn’t know he was a singer and musician until we received his CD for the holiday show. Listening to this 16-track album, I am blown away by Michael’s talent. As he says in his liner notes, “This concept album took me three years to complete. I based it on personal experiences. It’s about spirituality, daydreaming, romance, imagination and my thoughts about reality.” The title is Vivid Dream and the CD has an overall dreamy quality to it with the keyboards, orchestration, and overdubs. Michael does a great job of arranging the songs to a nice arc that starts off strong and upbeat, moves into darker and dreamier songs, then back up. Overall it is a very well-conceived group of songs that can transport you to a dream state while listening. Listen to a sample below:

The other album in our shop is This Was Never Meant To Be Permanent by Eric Clow. Eric is our Opening Minds, Opening Doors Project Coordinator. We were all excited when this album came out because we have been listening to Eric perform at our monthly open mic for a few years now and his music is always a big crowd pleaser. This CD contains 8 songs, mostly originals with a few well placed covers. Eric has a unique vocal and playing style that makes you instantly recognize his music when you hear it. His songs are a strange mix of positively upbeat and utterly bleak all at the same time in the same song. His tunes are catchy and make you want to listen again and again. My favorite song on the album is "Whiskey Sours." Here's a sample from his CD:

This book and these two CDs are just a few of the unique works created with talent, love, sweat, and tears by our friends of VSA Texas. We encourage you to come out to our Holiday Art and Gift Show to check out all of the meaningful pieces that our artists put their heart and soul into creating. We are open Monday-Saturday from 10-4 through December 23rd in Room 101 of the AGE Building, entrance at 3707 Home Lane in Austin.

You can hear Michael Noriega play his music at our Meet the Artists Reception this Saturday, December 10th from 1-4 pm. And you can hear Eric and Michael plus other great acts at Library Live: Special Edition featuring Musicians with Disabilities at the Carver Branch Library on Saturday, January 28th from 2-4 pm.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How to Make a Human Sculpture: A Reaction to On Display with Heidi Latsky

I have to be honest, folks. I am a fly by the seat of my pants kind of woman. Learning in the moment and trying not to have too many expectations usually works to my advantage, particularly as a dancer. I approached On Display with the same mentality. Before rehearsal, I watched one video so I knew it wasn’t exactly a dance. I also knew this piece originated out of an audience member’s reaction to another work of Heidi’s called The GIMP Project. Lastly I knew On Display explored the age old question, at least in my mind anyway, to stare or not to stare?

At left: Venus de Milo statue by Alexandros of Antioch; at right: Body Shift dancer, Alison Kafer in “Crippin’ the Streets” (Photo by Camille Wheeler)

Fast forward to the first rehearsal, can you say awkward? Because that’s exactly how I felt, like a bull in a china shop. I remember heads turning at the sound of my purse as it thudded across the floor into the corner of the studio. I could feel my face turning the slightest shade of red as my sticks aka crutches tingled and clanked to the floor. My butt was happily surprised by the cushiony folding chair as I sat joining the circle of bodies. Heidi’s description of the project moved quietly past my ears and up and around my brain, “We’ve always been taught not to stare; not to look at someone deeply because it might offend them; that if someone 'different' catches our eye we have objectified them. This is the life of the viewer. Alternatively, should we possess a birthmark, a glorious height, or unknown disability we risk being too noticeable and often ostracized or worse. This is the life of the viewed. On Display is a deconstructed art exhibit/fashion show and commentary on the body as spectacle and society's obsession with body image. It turns a cast of diverse and extreme bodies into a sculpture court where the performers are the sculptures. And so, I’m going to teach you some meditation techniques.” My comprehension came to a screeching halt! “Did she say meditation? Oh crap! Meditation might as well be a four letter word,” I silently groaned trying to control the horror as it floated across my face. Then I heard, “This piece is not about performing; this piece is for you.” Those words instantly took my fingernails off the chalkboard of my mind. I decided there was something to learn here and I was in it for the long haul. Maybe this meditation technique will stick and I can finally be part of the Zen crowd like I’ve always wanted.
At left: white marble statue of muscular man, title and artist unknown; at right: Body Shift dancers (from right to left) Susie Angel, Dany Casey, Errin Delperdang, and Tanya Winters strike a pose with heads turned to the sky in “Your Way of Thinking” (photo by Leon Alessi)

Where was I? Oh yeah, meditation. Take a minute to quiet your thoughts, hold the palms of your hands over your face, close your eyes, and let the weight of your palms slowly press into your face. Breathe slowly and deeply. Now repeat (to yourself) after me, “I am…right here. I am…right here…I am…right here…” When you feel ready open your eyes. You have just completed the quick and dirty version of a portion of the meditation Heidi taught us. My experience, at least for the first bit, was more like, “I am (still wearing my work badge. Why didn’t I take it off) right here…I am (having an enormous spasm. I will never get up off this floor) right here…I am (going to the grocery store after this. I need coffee).” Strive for my experience and you’re missing the point. ☺
At left: The Belvedere Torso statue (early drawings by Amico Aspertini); at right: Body Shift dancers Susie Angel and Errin  Delperdang at rehearsal (photo by Michael Joplin)

Try to keep your mind on your breath and those Zen feelings with you, as I move on to my favorite part of the rehearsal. If you’re like me and you grapple with spasticity on a daily basis, you know we move about as fast as a herd of turtles. Add aging to the equation and you’ve got a herd of turtles slugging through molasses. So you can imagine the pure joy that beamed out of every part of my body when I heard Heidi say that our goal was to stay as still as we could for as long as we could. When we did move we had to move as slow as we could-keeping our focus inside. Our intention was to explore every glorious nook and cranny of our insides as we changed position. Halleluiah! I was on it. As soon as I closed my eyes, I felt like I was the only person on the planet-floating in a bubble that gently hovered above the ground. I was tuned in to every tiny flutter of every muscle. Priceless, gratitude, beautiful, and precious are the only words that begin to describe how I felt. Validated, genuine, worthy, and valuable were my only thoughts. Finally I get to be me; for me, and nobody else but me. This, this is what dance should be about. How can we dance with others if we can’t dance with ourselves?
At left: The Winged Victory of Samothrace statue, artist unknown; at right: Body Shift dancer, Silva Laukkanen from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installment (photo by Kelly O’hare)

Listen friends, I hate to say it, but it’s time for me to wrap this up. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this blog post is a tiny sliver of my experience. There is so much more to tell both as the viewer and the viewed. To get the full effect of On Display Austin: A Movement Installation you must see it/feel it live and in person for yourself. I am over the moon grateful to have had the chance to be a part of it! I hope you’ll join me and many other Body Shifters on Saturday, December 3rd as we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with two showings at The Blanton Museum of Art located at 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Austin, TX 78712 from 12-1:30 PM and 2-3:30 PM!
 Body Shift dancer Susie Angel from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installation (photo by Kelly O’hare)

 Body Shift dancer Michael Joplin from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installation (photo by Kelly O’hare)

Body Shift dancer Jae Hoon Lim from On Display Austin Pfluger Bridge Installation (photo by Kelly O’hare)

Only you move like you. Feel it; celebrate it!