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Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts is a 23-year-old pioneering and progressive non-profit visual arts studio and theater company that challenges perceptions of disability. In the spirit of radical inclusion, Interact transforms lives by inspiring artists, actors and audiences with and without disabilities to explore the full spectrum of human potential.
Founded in 1996 in St. Paul, Minnesota, by visionary Artistic Director, Jeanne Calvit, Interact has been a longtime international leader bridging the adaptive and mainstream communities. It not only diverse visual art works and original dramatic and musical productions for local and worldwide patrons with other actors and artists, it compensates its artists, giving them professional standing and enhanced self-worth.
- Interact is a creative hub that includes more than 125 artists with disabilities, 5,000 audience members, 250,000 social media and web visitors.
- It is the first of its kind in the world creating full-time, professional-level work in both the visual and performing arts.
- Interact began with four unpaid positions and has grown to over twenty-five employees.
- It has expanded the meaning of “accessibility” well beyond physical structures for artists with disabilities, to making them active players in the creative process.
- Interact pushes the boundaries of traditional art forms by including the unique perceptions of people who have traditionally not been part of the creative class.
- It has produced for the world, potent and powerful art that would otherwise have been lost, by giving a voice and vision to a marginalized group, allowing theater audiences and art patrons to rethink their perceptions about disability and the human potential.
- The experience of playing an integrated creative role with other artists and actors – as part of a larger community – has a healing effect and improves the well-being of all the participants.
The Interact visual art studio – and the creation of a new worldwide e-commerce portal in 2019 at shop.interactcenter.org – is where Interact artists work across disciplines, including painting, drawing, sculpture, jewelry, fibers, and ceramics.
- With its physical building closed due to the pandemic, Interact offers remote learning classes to artists via Zoom, delivering art supplies directly to their homes!
- When the studio reopens, it will provide more than 500 new works in public exhibitions each year.
- Interact’s Visual Arts department is made up of 74 artists and 10 staff, who are also practicing professional artists.
- Artists are trained and supported through the long process of aesthetic maturation and evolution, and they are challenged to complete work for Interact’s exhibition season.
- Because artists with disabilities face even greater economic and space/mobility challenges than most mainstream artists, Interact provided generous, accessible studio space and all necessary art supplies to facilitate painting, drawing, sculpture, clay and other media; these facilities will reopen post-COVID.
- It regularly provides a full roster of visual arts seminars, guided by professional staff as well as guest artists, in areas such as life drawing, mosaic, art history, sculpture and multimedia forms.
- Its Gallery season is complemented by special invitation exhibition events at other art galleries, museums, and artist-run spaces throughout the Twin Cities metro area, including the 2019 event, “Underwater” with Paralympic gold and bronze medal swimmer, sports correspondent, disability advocate, and entrepreneur, Mallory Weggemann; these exhibitions are currently housed online.
- Interact’s curatorial process is often collaborative, with involvement from the Artist Advisory Council — a group nominated by their peers to advocate for the interests of the larger community.
- It is committed to artistic equity by paying industry-standard commissions on sales of artwork to all artists. The rest of the proceeds go back into supplies and programming. textile work and other media.
Interact Theater produces original, fully staged productions along with more informal works-in-process that attract a wide, eclectic audience.
- Through the decades the pioneering company has performed on five continents; Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and Australia — including Thailand, where the Princess of the country was so enamored of the model that she was inspired to create a company in her own country to begin to change perceptions about disability.
- Its original work features ensemble-generated creations and a developmental process where artists with disabilities fully participate in conceiving with other theater professionals. Together they work at developing original material, writing scripts, and incorporating everyone’s ideas through improvisation and other ensemble-building techniques. The result is maintaining an authentic voice in the creative process – a social change message transformed through an exceptional artistic experience.
- Participants experience a rigorous schedule of daily professional workshops in acting, improvisation, vocal work, music, movement and technique; currently these classes are done remotely.
- Past collaborations with major guest artists include internationally known storyteller, playwright and National Public Radio commentator Kevin Kling, plus well-known theaters such as the Guthrie, Mixed Blood, Theater Latte Da and others.
- Actor fees are commensurate with other regional mid-sized theaters.
- Based on the high quality of the work, Interact Theater members have become an integral part of the Twin Cities and regional arts community.
Jeanne Calvit began writing and staging performances for artists with disabilities beginning with workshops in 1980. The following 16 years would prove to become the testing ground for the world’s first and only visual and performing arts organization for professional artists with disabilities.
In 1995, after performing a hit show called “Bubba Nielson Endangered Species” by the newly formed Interact Theater, Jeanne expanded her vision with the dream of creating a multi-arts center for artists with disabilities.
In 1996, Calvit was a single mother with a leaky roof and no regular paycheck when she learned of a grant due in a week for $15,000 that would launch her dream. She wrote it by hand and asked a friend to type it. She was awarded the grant, chose to forgo a salary—invested initially in infrastructure— and Interact was born. In August of the same year, PBS produced a documentary about Interact, called “Out on a Limb,” which ultimately ran for five years.
Within a year and a half of opening its doors, the organization grew to 40 and Calvit realized she was thinking too small. Today Interact has increased nearly 30 times its original size. But it’s still about creating art and transformation that touches everyone both on and off stage.
Performances are so inspiring and life-altering that artists of all abilities are eager to share the stage. This includes world-class musicians, celebrities and actors who say their experience in Interact productions is the most meaningful and joyful work they’ve ever done.
With No Exposure to Theater as a Child, Calvit Became a Champion of the Arts
Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with no exposure to theater, Calvit has long been passionately drawn to community building and inclusivity through creativity. As a child, she cooked up projects like neighborhood circuses or haunted houses, with every kid playing an acting role. After beginning a degree in psychology, she left college for what started as her family living in Greece and resulted in her hitchhiking around Europe where she remained for nearly a decade. It was a chance meeting with performers in a Prague café that opened the door to what would become her life’s work.
“The first time I rehearsed with them,” she says, “I knew this was my path.” Her career continued to unfold as she performed throughout Europe and the Middle East, studied languages, puppetry, mime and spent a life-changing two years at the esteemed Jacques LeCoq School for Theatre, Mime and Movement in Paris.
As she immersed herself in improv and began creating her own work, Calvit moved to Minneapolis to make a living in the arts. In 1980 a friend suggested doing theatre workshops for people with disabilities and the following 16 years became a dress rehearsal for what would eventually become Interact—which opened its doors in 1996.
With hundreds of live, original performances and scores of art exhibitions to their credit, Interact has now toured five continents to rave reviews as performers and artists challenge the paradigm about disability— by giving voice to artists on the entire spectrum of disabilities. Today, Interact is the first and only organization of its kind in the world creating full-time, professional-level work for both visual and performing artists.
Calvit is a sought-after speaker, director and trainer to organizations throughout the globe who are following her pioneering path.
She has received numerous awards and honors including:
- 50 over 50 Award
- ARC Legacy Award, created to honor her pioneering work
- McKnight Artist Award
- Minnesota Public Radio Art Hero Award
- Lin Leadership Award
Kevin Kling, nationally known storyteller, actor, writer:
When I first joined Interact Theater Company, I had recently been in a motorcycle accident and lost the use of my right arm. Interact is a group of performers with disabilities. As soon as I joined, it felt like home. Over the years I’ve learned so much from this company. The shows are often personal stories of triumph or heartbreak, and every day I laugh to tears. There are posters [throughout the building that speak to me] that say, ‘Work with your quirk!’ or ‘Dancing with the scars’ or ‘Hurt ‘til it laughs.’ Going to an Interact Performance makes you feel better about being a human being.
Mary C., Interact Center Artist:
Interact Center has been a life changer for many of us that attend here. Before coming to Interact in 2002 I would end up in the psychiatric ward about once a month — that went on for many years. I figured I was probably hospitalized some 50 times. By being at Interact I now find a purpose in my life.
I have not been in the hospital in the past 3 years. There are actors and artists with all types of disabilities” including down syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injury and mental illness. There are other disabilities” too. We have our own theater, studio and gallery. When we sell our artwork, we receive 50%, the remaining 50% goes back for supplies.
Actors also receive pay. We have professional artists and actors instructing and supporting us every day. The people here at Interact are unique individuals.
Parent of Interact Center Artist:
My daughter has experienced pride in being part of the acting company at Interact and the joy of having a place to go where she can be in a group and work together. She recognizes how important Interact has been in helping her live productively despite a serious brain injury.
Naa Abashie Moreaux, proud mother of an Interact performing artist:
My daughter Naa has Down syndrome. Her first job was cleaning a local mall in the early mornings before the stores opened — before anyone would see her. I was told she was lucky to have this job, but I knew that she had more to offer the world. And then I found Interact. My daughter is now recognized as a talented artist, bowing alongside her colleagues to standing ovations from audiences who watch her dance in Interact Theater productions.
Gina A. Galli, Luzerne-Wyoming Counties Mental Health and Developmental Services
We were so impressed with the staff and Interact Theater as well. In the time we spent together, I truly mean that I felt so attached to everyone … You were all terrific to work with and I know at times it became frustrating but that is the nature of the systems we work in. It was a most favorable experience meeting everyone and likewise you have touched the lives of the people here. Who knows what the future may hold for us!
Parent of Interact Center Artist:
No amount of individual counseling could achieve what the laboratory of Interact provides through its integrated creative process. Interact has proven that it can change lives for the better.
Curator Welles Emerson:
“The artists who come here, as soon as they see the art, they stop seeing the disability and just focus on the art and the artistic process. The art is exceptionally interesting and is being created outside of traditional parameters.
Chris Larson, visiting artist and 2014 Whitney Biennial winner:
I love Interact! I had a great time working with artist Eric S.
Julie Johnson, Twin Cities Actress:
I have performed for a number of Interact shows and I always feel excited, welcomed, inspired, and exhilarated during the entire process. I truly feel like a member of the cast and community. This is not something I always feel when playing for theatre productions. I can’t wait to play for another show!
Cayla Pierson, Artist:
I had full time jobs, part time jobs, and volunteered a lot, but I failed at everything. I wanted to do something with my life, though I didn’t know what. I was in a writer’s group and had always loved the creative arts. My therapist suggested I try Interact Center and thought it might be a good fit for m e– they were right! It has been a tremendous opportunity and given me confidence in myself. I love being on stage in the limelight and the acting process helps me get out of myself. My anxiety has subsided, and I have become a confident person. Now that I’m a theater artist, I want to go further — write and direct!
Lucy Picasso, Interact Artist:
Before I came to Interact Center, I worked at a day program where I assembled pieces of dental equipment. It was really boring and I wasn’t happy. Luckily, my sister, Debb, heard about Interact from a friend and brought me there.
When I walked into Interact, I fell in love with its creative and energized environment. I had never made art before, but thought I’d give it a try. One day at Interact, I came across a book on the painter, Marc Chagall. I felt inspired and created two paintings after him. Everyone who saw them thought they were wonderful and that made me happy! That was just the beginning, and now I work in many mediums including painting, weaving, and mosaics. I feel like a great artist, so I sign my name Lucy Picasso!
This absurd, diverting evening, in the best sense of the word, engages every individual and audience member in the company’s heartfelt Hot Dog Daze.
Hot Funky Butt Jazz glistens with numerous sparkling performances … is masterfully interconnected with beautiful music and lyrics … a contribution to the American theater tradition.
Hot Funky Butt Jazz is a challenging show in the best sense of the word … an immersive experience fusing music, history and the combined energies of more than 50 cast members into a lively, pointed and heartbreakingly genuine piece.
Hot Funky Butt Jazz is a delight, with bright music, a host of winning performances, a company that is committed to having the audience enjoy themselves, and a look into a moment of sharp transitions in our American culture, when radical new music emerged to accompany, or perhaps to egg on, a continuing quest to define an American life that is inclusive and just.
In one of the finest examples of inclusivity in theater, (Interact’s What Fools These Mortals Be) provides opportunities for artists with disabilities to share their work, which allows the audience to see beyond the disability to the artist and the art that they create.
In creating the new play Feast of Fools actors see disability as a creative advantage.
- Aimee Bryant — Actor
- Barbra Berlovitz — Actor, Teaching Artist, Director
- Sonya Berlovitz — Costume Designer
- Marcus Dilliard — Lighting Designer
- Jon Ferguson — Director
- Josh Fox — Award Winning Filmmaker and Theater Director
- Lori Greene — Mosaic Artist
- Pao Houa Her — Photographer
- Seitu Jones — Multi-disciplinary Artist, Community Organizer
- Kevin Kling — Storyteller, Actor and Playwright
- Chris Larson — Visual Artist
- Ifrah Mansour — Multimedia Artist and Educator
- Eriq Nelson — Actor
- Chiaki O’Brien — Textile Artist
- Marie Olofsdotter — Illustrator and Creative Writer
- Wang Ping — Writer
- Wayne Potratz — Sculpture and Metal Artist
- Kimberly Richardson — Actor
- Kate Sutton-Johnson — Set and Installation Designer
- Wing Young Huie — Photographer
- Larry Yazzie — Native American Fancy Dancer