- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The actors at ArtStream Inclusive Theatre Company are brainstorming ideas for their annual original production. Should they set it in medieval days or on the moon? Should they be cowboys or doctors, students or pirates?

That’s the good thing about acting — you can be anything you want. For the men and women of this theater troupe, it is a great outlet to explore all those different personas and the possibilities that go with them.

ArtStream, founded by local drama teacher and director Patricia Woolsey, is a production company for adults with cognitive disabilities. The company meets in three locations — Arlington, Gaithersburg and Silver Spring — and culminates six months of meetings with an original production each spring.

Ms. Woolsey founded the nonprofit in 2006 to reach what she calls an underserved community.

“These are actors who did not have a chance to perform,” Ms. Woolsey says. “It helps their self-esteem, as well as challenges audiences to see what people with disabilities can do.”

Judging from a recent rehearsal, they can do a lot. Ms. Woolsey gives the group an improv assignment, and most come up with lines that are funny, surprising and insightful.

“I have been acting since I was 15,” says Zandra Martel, 31. “You can be as loud as you want.”

“I played a waitress in the show last spring,” says Sarah Miller, 26. “I really enjoyed it.”

Casey Hammeke, 31, says she loves to act.

“ArtStream is my favorite,” she says. “I have been in other shows, too. I have been in ‘Working,’ ‘Our Town’ and ‘Godspell.’ I played Tinkerbell and was in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Acting makes me realize anything is possible.”

Ms. Woolsey says it is important that ArtStream troupes develop their own scripts rather than making the actors fit into a story that might be too abstract.

“That’s what makes this program unique,” she says. “We’re not trying to fit them into ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ or something.”

Last spring, the Arlington troupe performed “Trouble at the No-Way Chalet,” a zany comedy set in a hotel, she says.

“It was very ‘Monty Python-ian,’ ” Ms. Woolsey says.

The 2007 production was titled “That Thing Called Love.” It featured scenes about relationships, a love doctor, a prom and a breakup.

“Relationships are a big thing, especially since you are dealing with adults here,” Ms. Woolsey says. “Everyone wants the same thing, whether you have a disability or not. You want your place in the world.”

Ms. Woolsey says the improv exercises help the actors with cognitive disabilities express themselves. Working off a script and rehearsing lines also helps them separate fantasy and reality. Memorizing lines and pronouncing certain words can be tough for some of the actors, but most get through that with a few modifications, Ms. Woolsey says.

“Some struggle with lines; some struggle with remembering where their body should be,” Ms. Woolsey says. “But that is true about actors with disabilities or without.”

In addition to Ms. Woolsey, the troupes depend on volunteer mentors to assist the actors. Ramee Gentry, an exhibitions coordinator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who has been acting since she was a teen, met Ms. Woolsey in a community theater play. Three years later, she is a regular volunteer with the Arlington group.

“This group is incredible,” she says. “I am constantly amazed at the natural ability and the creative instinct of everyone.”

Lauren Sucher, who works in media relations, also was persuaded to check out ArtStream after meeting Ms. Woolsey in a community theater production. She has been with the group since its beginning.

“As soon as I walked in the door, I loved it,” she says. “Volunteering here is my reality check.”

In addition to the theater companies, Ms. Woolsey holds workshops for special-needs groups, including one at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, the Arc of Montgomery County and Glebe Elementary School in Arlington. She also recently began bedside arts programs and bringing a professional acting troupe to perform for young patients at the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health.

“I just want to see people shine and do their personal best,” says Ms. Woolsey. “I like that we challenge the expectations of our audiences.”

• For information about ArtStream’s Inclusive Theatre Company, visit www.art-stream.org, or call 301/941-1008.

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