Upstream Arts: Movement, music, and theater build social skills for youth with disabilities

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When Caleb was five years old, he would sometimes attend rehearsals with his father, Matt Guidry, who was a company member with Margolis Brown, a theater company that specialized in movement. He “saw 15 people communicating with their bodies and it fascinated him,” Guidry said. Caleb would watch the performers for a while, and then go to the mirror and start imitating their moves. Caleb, who was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (CdLS), which affects his physical and cognitive development, was nonverbal.

“Everybody was spellbound,” Guidry said. Soon, Guidry found that his son was able to interact and communicate using basic mirroring techniques: One person creates a movement, the other person responds. “It’s a back and forth way to communicate with people,” Guidry said.

Guidry found that being able to communicate with his son in this way opened possibilities for him. While most patients with CdLS have difficulty with social skills, Caleb thrived on being social. Guidry said that he felt that since his son responded so well to movement as a way to foster communication, he thought maybe other children might benefit as well.

Matt Guidry, a well known actor in the Twin Cities, has performed at such venues as The Guthrie Theater, Ten Thousand Things, and Margolis Brown. He started to volunteer at his child’s school, and in 2006 he formed Upstream Arts with his wife, Julie Guidry, Caleb’s stepmother.

Upstream Arts, an organization that uses theater, poetry, music, and other art forms to build communication and social skills for youth and adults with disabilities, has been working in schools and transition programs throughout the Twin Cities since Matt and Julie Guidry founded the organization in 2006. This summer, they’re conducting several classes and camps throughout the Twin Cities, including a camp at Pillsbury House Community Center with the Autism Society of Minnesota in June and August, classes at the Jewish Community Center with the Highland Friendship Club starting June 15, a camp at the Eden Prairie Community Center with the Eden Prairie Parks’ Adaptive Recreation & Learning Exchange in July , and a class at Grace Trinity Church for toddlers with disabilities.

In addition to movement and theater, Upstream Arts takes an interdisciplinary approach. With a roster of artists that include musicians, visual artists, and actors, Guidry said the goal of the group is to “find a way to get basic communication across.”

Julie Guidry said that in addition to working with Caleb’s special education teacher, Patrick Burns, Upstream has also sought input from social workers in the school system that have helped the group develop curriculum. But she said that the area of expertise comes from the artists in the company themselves. With a roster of artists that includes actor/director Harry Waters Jr., singer Nora Long, poet Linda Back McKay, and interdisciplinary artist Kym Longhi among others, the group uses art forms to nurture communication with kids and adults with a range of disabilities.

Matt Guidry said that the group approaches the work “from an artist’s standpoint”. In addition to weeklong training sessions for the teaching artists, the company also holds quarterly brainstorming sessions, where the artists can share feedback with each other.

We go in with very high expectations,” Guidry said. “We don’t find a lot about the kids before we go in.” Guidry described one incident when they were working with a school group playing a game called “Yes, No, I don’t Know” in which the participants act out a scene using only those three words. Guidry asked an aide in the class if a certain participant would be able to take part in the exercise. The aide shook his head no, but then the participant got up out of his chair and acted in the scene for five minutes. “You are set up with expectations, and those expectations are set up with tendency,” Guidry said, “But that tendency is not always absolutely true.”

For more information about Upstream Arts, visit their website at www.upstreamarts.org.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer. Email sheila@tcdailyplanet.net

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