Arts Access Leaders and Pioneers to Be Honored June 18th | New Jersey Theatre Alliance

Arts Access Leaders and Pioneers to Be Honored June 18th

  • Theatre artists with disabilities develop their plays with professional actors through the Matheny Medical and Educational Center’s Arts Access Program. From left to right, in back: actors Heather Kelley, Samuel Stricklen, and Cara Gansk of Premiere Stages; in front: playwright Tatyana Manousakis, Matheny Performing Arts Coordinator Burt Brooks, and playwright Cheryl Chapin. Photo by Jerry Dalia.
    Theatre artists with disabilities develop their plays with professional actors through the Matheny Medical and Educational Center’s Arts Access Program. From left to right, in back: actors Heather Kelley, Samuel Stricklen, and Cara Gansk of Premiere Stages; in front: playwright Tatyana Manousakis, Matheny Performing Arts Coordinator Burt Brooks, and playwright Cheryl Chapin. Photo by Jerry Dalia.

(West Orange)  On June 18th the Cultural Access Network Project (CAN), a program of New Jersey Theatre Alliance and New Jersey State Council on the Arts, will host the 7th annual CAN Awards at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ.

Attended by leaders in the state’s arts and cultural community, the CAN Awards is a day-long event with an educational element. It begins with a networking breakfast and panel discussion on model patron-engagement programs in the areas of autism, arts and healing, veterans, and creative aging. The featured speaker is Betty Siegel, Director of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, who oversees national and international disability, arts, and education programs.

Registration for the CAN Awards runs through June 11th, and is open to the public.

The following organizations and individuals will be honored at the CAN Awards for their advocacy, innovation, and commitment to increasing access to the arts for people with disabilities:

Matheny Medical and Educational Center’s Arts Access Program, located in Peapack, NJ, will receive the Leadership Award for enabling people with disabilities to express themselves with true creative liberty, and to share their works with the public.

“We at Matheny are thrilled and honored to be receiving the Leadership Award,” said Eileen Murray, Director of Arts Access. “The fact that a program such as CAN exists here in New Jersey is a sign that the future of arts and disability is a bright one. It’s the start of an accessibility revolution and I’m proud to say that it’s starting right here in my home state.”

The Arts Access Program at Matheny uses a unique method to ensure complete creative ability for their clients, most of whom are in wheelchairs and have limited mobility of their arms and legs—and many of whom are non-verbal. Facilitators who are trained artists work with Matheny clients to execute the artwork they envision, whether it’s painting, choreography, playwriting, or other disciplines. The facilitators learn how to communicate with the clients without making assumptions, and how to take direction from them in order to allow complete freedom of creativity. Much like Michelangelo’s studio assistants, they are the artists’ arms and legs; they offer no creative suggestions.

Pamela Gaston of Maplewood, NJ, Community Involvement Specialist at the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, will receive the Champion Award for over 40 years of service.

“I started working for the State of New Jersey on February 4, 1974 at the age of 20,” Gaston recalled. “I was hired by Lenore Golden and Irv Kruger. Mr. Kruger told me that he didn’t want me to think of myself as “just a state worker” and he said if I was just here for a paycheck, he didn’t need me because what we do here is about people’s lives. Some years later, Anne Klein, who was the State Commissioner for the State Department of Human Services, asked staffers to approach our duties as if we were doing what we do for ourselves. She called it the GEM (Good Enough for Me) principle. Even though it’s been over 40 years, I still try to live up to both of these ideals.”

As Community Involvement Specialist, Gaston organizes and presents large events, and writes and designs publications. She was also recognized by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for helping establish a library for blind children in Ghana. But she claims that her greatest achievement is a list of names: the names of the blind and visually impaired people whom she has assisted in some way.

“I really appreciate being selected for the Champion award,” Gaston said. “It fills my heart to have my work recognized in this way, as I quickly approach the end of my career, because  it  lets me know that I did it right—I wasn’t ‘just a state worker.’”

Jason Weiland, of Highland Park, NJ, and Field Representative at the New Jersey Division for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, will also receive a Champion Award for his service to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

When he was seven years old, Weiland, who is Deaf, saw his first play, Jack and the Beanstalk, at the Erie County Playhouse in Northwest Pennsylvania. Although it was a sign-interpreted performance, he didn't know sign language at the time, and within 15 minutes fell asleep. He didn't attend another theatre performance until he was 23. By then he had learned American Sign Language (ASL) and attended an all-Deaf performance at Gallaudet University. That was the beginning of his passion for theatre and for ensuring that the Deaf/HOH population has access to captioning and ASL-interpreted performances.

Weiland, who has worked in the human services field for 19 years, trains companies, state and private agencies, and non-profit organizations that provide services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. He also educates Deaf/HOH consumers on technology, culture, and other resources available to them. Among his many achievements are bringing movie captioning to theaters, improving communication access in hospitals, providing access to emergency management for the Deaf/HOH, and establishing an ongoing conference for families of Deaf/HOH children.

“Without the work of advocates,” said Weiland, “I wouldn't be able to enjoy theatre with my seven-year-old daughter Catellina, ten-year-old son Jason, and other family and friends who are able to hear. I'm truly honored that I was even considered for the Champion Award. For me, this award is about continuing the amazing work we are doing for future Deaf audiences to come.”

Music for All Seasons of Scotch Plains will receive an Innovator Award for Voices of Valor®, a program that helps veterans heal through musical expression. Voices of Valor, currently in its fourth year, brings together a group of six to ten veterans working with two professional-musician facilitators and a psychology mentor to write lyrics about their experiences, and then compose and record an original song. 

Peak Performances, a project of Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ, will also receive an Innovator Award. Dedicated to engaging audiences as well as artists with disabilities, Peak Performances featured three innovative productions in its 2014/2015 season. In Robert Whitman’s Swim, each audience member had a distinct experience, employing all the senses—not just sight and sound. Working with consultant Emilie Gossiaux, a blind visual artist, Whitman crafted a performance of sounds, movement, smells, activities, and events in which the visual was only one part of the experience. Heidi Latsky's Triptych featured dancers with various physical disabilities, and Liz Lerman's dance piece Healing Wars featured a Navy veteran who lost his leg in the Iraq War. Healing Wars inspired a workshop with the choreographer in conjunction with Atlantic Health System in which medical professional caregivers explored movement.

The staff of Peak Performances developed new audience-services and marketing protocols such as braille programs, resources for transportation options to and from the theater, buy-one-get-one ticketing for patrons needing companion assistance, and sensitivity training for ushers and staff.

The Harmonies: A Therapeutic Singing Group, an initiative of the Atlantic Health System at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, NJ, will also receive an Innovator Award. The Harmonies is a community choir music therapy program for people living with Parkinson’s disease, their families, and caregivers. The program, which launched in fall of 2014, has improved the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s by enhancing movement, breathing, memory, and verbal and non-verbal communication.

Plays in the Park, a summer outdoor theatrical program of Middlesex County's Office of Parks & Recreation, will receive the inaugural County Achievement in Cultural Access Award. Plays in the Park produces musicals in the outdoor facility at Roosevelt Park in Edison, NJ. The staff is dedicated to providing open-captioned performances, assistive listening devices, sign-language interpreted performances, and audio description for selected performances. For those with physical impairments, they offer reserved seating, with all pathways to the theater wheelchair accessible. Their goal is to allow people with disabilities to participate like everyone else, even in an outdoor setting which is more difficult to navigate.
The Cultural Access Network Project is a co-sponsored program of New Jersey Theatre Alliance and New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Since its inception in 1994, CAN has facilitated accessibility among the state’s cultural community through training, workshops, a comprehensive online resource bank, an online theatre performance directory searchable by access services, and a tool that streamlines cultural organizations’ ADA planning and reporting. CAN’s innovative programs and services have earned national recognition and have framed New Jersey as a model state in the cultural access field.

“The State Arts Council is pleased to join New Jersey Theatre Alliance in recognizing these outstanding individuals and organizations,” said Nicholas Paleologos, Executive Director of New Jersey State Council on the Arts. “Accessibility to the arts is a fundamental right for all people, and our commitment to achieving this is reflected in the 23 years we have partnered with the Alliance on the Cultural Access Network Project. It is gratifying to see that representatives from independent organizations and from the State’s Department of Human Services are embracing arts accessibility to enhance the lives of the people they serve.”

“I am impressed by the wide range of access programs being offered to patrons around the state,” said John McEwen, Executive Director of New Jersey Theatre Alliance. “The Alliance and the 18 members of the Cultural Access Network Project committee are proud to play a role in making such innovative programs possible, and we are thrilled to recognize the outstanding work of our award recipients.”

This event is made possible in part by the generosity of Johnson & Johnson. In addition to support from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, New Jersey Theatre Alliance’s access initiatives are made possible by The Fund for New Jersey Blind, Kessler Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Wallerstein Foundation for Geriatric Life Improvement.

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