“Everybody’s an artist,” WhyArts? Teaching Artist Moira Mangiameli said. “Everyone is capable of expressing themselves creatively and artistically.”
She and WhyArts? colleague Nils Haaland recently premiered a one-of-a-kind music and dance video featuring 12 performers getting their groove on — most of them while seated in wheelchairs.
“It felt like it was empowering,” Mangiameli explained. “I think we’ve proved that there no limitations. (The participants) know that, but I don’t think the rest of world knows that.”
The video was the latest project in a long partnership between WhyArts? and QLI, a nationally recognized leader in brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation located here in Omaha.
“The music video project is a model which totally represents the mission of WhyArts?,” Director Carolyn Anderson said. “It’s easy to take access to the arts as a given, but that’s not the case for many in our community.”
Her nonprofit organization’s mission is to bring the arts to Omaha’s underserved populations, Anderson explained, and WhyArts? has delivered original programming to schools, senior centers, nonprofit groups, health and human services organizations and many other settings. Its growing roster of teaching artists includes notables in the local visual and performing arts community like Hal France (opera), Kim Darling and Iggy Sumnik (visual arts), Ellen Struve (theater) and dozens of their peers who are contracted to lead workshops and activities that entertain, educate and inspire a diverse audience.
WhyArts? and QLI have a special affinity, Anderson said.
“QLI was the very first organization we approached to partner with us. I knew about QLI because my mother was on their service guild and I had attended a couple of garage sales there. This was over 15 years ago. In the beginning their guild paid for our workshops; we now have a generous donor who is underwriting year-long activities,” she said. The programs and workshops have hailed from all across the arts spectrum: visual arts, poetry, creative writing, movement and dance, playwriting and production, and even off-campus activities at venues like Hot Shops Art Center and Joslyn Art Museum.
“WhyArts? is one of Omaha’s amazing organizations,” Mel Mixan, coordinator of QLI’s Durham Center, said. “It’s a wonderful partnership and a great thing they do for Omaha.”
She added, “We serve adults and want them to be treated like adults. Carolyn really understood us and protected what we wanted. And Mary Sheldrick (recreation director) from my team is so passionate about art in general, and that makes it even more of an amazing partnership.”
The QLI project was Mangiameli’s third with WhyArts? but her first with a group of adults, who performed to the 2014 Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars dance hit “UpTown Funk!” that contains decidedly grown-up lyrics including a liquor reference, a few mild profanities and plenty of pointed uses of the words “sexy” and “hot.” It was the QLI participants, residents of the organization’s long-term care facility, who picked that particular song.
“Definitely, having fun was a big part of it,” Mangiameli said. As a veteran actor/director/playwright and theater educator, she also wanted to fully engage the participants in the creative process. “For me, the most important component of theater is collaboration. They had ownership of the project. It wasn’t just us coming in and saying, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ They all had to work together in order to make it work, and we took their ideas as we went along.”
The group had just three one-hour sessions to learn the choreography, which they also contributed to, as cameras rolled. QLI participant Chris had appeared on camera before and said that although she was not shy about performing, she nevertheless appreciated Mangiameli’s and Haaland’s accommodating, no-pressure approach.
“You do what you can, and that is what I liked about it,” she said.
“We spent a lot of time going over and over the choreography, and we kept the choreography simple. What made it easy is that everybody was game and they loved the idea and were enthusiastic,” Mangiameli said, adding that the group of performers approaching the project with a sense of humor “just made it a really joyous experience for me.”
QLI resident Clare, who appears in the opening scene of the video, said most of the participants were recruited. “They asked me if I would be interested, and I said, ‘Sure! I like music.’” The best part of the experience? Working side-by-side with her friends and “coming up with our own moves.”
Mark, a QLI participant who wears sunglasses in the video and is spotlighted in several scenes, admitted to being a bit of a ham, but when first approached about the project, “I was a little hesitant.” His trepidation quickly transformed to “I loved it” once the project commenced, and after viewing the video at the premier event, his reaction was, “I was really so impressed. This is my first ‘handicapable’ [performance] experience.”
WhyArts? is ideal for multifaceted types like Mangiameli and Haaland, who both have experience in many areas of theater and performing arts. Teaching artists are carefully matched up to the groups the organization serves, Anderson said, but they are given ample flexibility with respect to their considerable expertise.
“We bring in an artist who is very skilled in his art and experienced in working with each population we serve. The artist and myself meet with the staff of the organization or school beforehand to determine what we want to accomplish, who will be involved as participants, the special needs of the participants, the timeline we will follow, and any other thoughts,” she explained. “Then the artist takes over, remembering it is never the end product but that the experience is good for everyone according to their unique abilities.”
“What I’ve noticed a lot about these projects with WhyArts? is that you start with one thing and you end with another,” Mixan said. “It’s the residents having their input and having it morph into something that’s uniquely ours.”
The arts play a big part in the larger mission of QLI, she added.
“Our programs are definitely individualized but art can mean something to everybody,” she said. “We try to help our residents find purpose after an injury, and a lot of times art has helped people who had had a passion in different mediums get back to it.”
Some individuals even discover an interest in the arts for the first time through the QLI/WhyArts? programming, Mixan said. “Art is so barrier-free that people can just create and feel good about what they create.”
Word about the video project has kindled talk on the QLI campus about similar future projects, Mixan said — maybe a lip dub next time — especially since the video is now accessible on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1gDQDn4Bl8).
“I would absolutely love it if this were something that happened every year,” Mangiameli said, adding that she’d like to expand the rehearsal period by a few more sessions to allow for more elaborate choreography, possibly incorporating synchronized wheelchair movements.
“The participants are really proud of it, and they want to share this with their friends and family,” Mixan said. “I hope that it gives a little insight to both of our organizations. Our residents are regular, everyday people that love life, too. They’re living their lives and having fun.”