Interact's Jeanne Calvit raises the bar for artists of all abilities

Jeanne Calvit, Interact founder and director
Jeanne Calvit, Interact founder and director, in the center's gallery space Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012 in Minneapolis. More than 125 artists with disabilities work in Interact's theater and studio arts programs.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Art Heroes is an MPR News series about people who have chosen to use their artistic talents to make the world a better place. These are people who commit themselves day in and day out to transforming their communities through their art. We benefit from a wealth of artists in this area who are also great community leaders.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A decade ago, Gail Harbeck was getting by on disability checks, constantly struggling against the overwhelming depression that accompanies her severe and persistent mental illness.

"I was spending many, many hours, sometimes several weeks in a row, laying in bed, lying on my couch, thinking about ways that I could end the pain," the Twin Cities woman said recently. "I felt incompetent. I felt totally afraid of everything, and it was paralyzing."

But that was before Harbeck's case manager noticed some drawings she had made, and recommended she spend some time at the Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Minneapolis, which serves 130 artists with a range of physical and developmental disabilities. Artists there are paid for their time -- time that helped turn Harbeck's life around. She has shown her work extensively in galleries, universities and churches in Minnesota, and her work is also in the permanent collections of Westminster Presbyterian Church Gallery, Hennepin County Medical Center, People Incorporated, Medtronic Corp. and numerous private collections.

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"Interact and my work as an artist has given me a clarity about myself and the world that I did not have before," she said. "I've been paying income taxes since 2004. I feel competent. I feel confident, strong."

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And that's the point, says Interact director Jeanne Calvit. She created the organization 13 years ago and has grown it to the point where it puts on four gallery exhibitions and two stage productions annually, and regularly goes on national and international tours. She started working with people with physical and developmental disabilities in 1980, to help pay her bills as a freelance artist. She used the skills she learned at the prestigious LeCoq School in France to create summer theater workshops for people with physical and mental challenges.

Artist Gail Harbeck
Artist Gail Harbeck paints Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012 at the Interact Center in Minneapolis. When she first started painting in 2003, Harbeck said she painted themes from nature, but now she's gravitating toward self portraits.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"We would brainstorm an idea and then we'd have four days to put a show on," she said. "We'd just work all day, make all the props -- and we did it."

The popularity of the workshops led to a year-round afternoon program. Eventually Calvit realized that her "side job" had become her true calling.

"There was a certain point where I just felt like, there are plenty of fabulous theater artists in town and great directors, but what I'm doing, nobody seems to be doing this. And there was a need for it, and it really did transform people's lives," she said. "And not only the artists -- the person with the disability -- it transformed their family's life, it transformed everyone in their circle's life."

An example of Calvit's work was in development recently during rehearsals underway for Interact's current show, "Madame Josette's naughty and nice Cabaret." Some of the performers are in wheelchairs. Some have Downs Syndrome. Others suffer from brain injuries. But at Interact they are not defined by their disabilities, but by their abilities -- whether they have perfect pitch with which to sing, a great sense of comic timing, or perhaps some slick dance moves.

It's all part of an atmosphere of contagious joy: An artist might greet a visitor with a handshake, and then continue to hold their hand for the next several minutes as they talk; studio artists are always eager to show you their latest work; hugs are commonplace.

Interact founder Jeanne Calvit
Interact founder Jeanne Calvit, center, talks to artist Luke Lyons about his drawing during an afternoon open house for the Interact visual artists Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012 in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

At the same time, emotions can also flare -- people take their work very personally. Calvit remembers one actress who was particularly upset at being assigned an understudy.

"In the theater world this kind of thing would happen too, but you wouldn't be chasing someone out of the room when they showed up at the rehearsal! It's so open and out there," she said. "There's freshness, and an authenticity about it."


Writer and performer Kevin Kling recently sat at the dining room table of his South Minneapolis home, his cat Millie purring in his lap, and recalled perhaps his most personally significant work with Interact, which came in the wake of a motorcycle accident in 2001.

Photo gallery: The Interact Center in action

"I didn't know if I was going to be able to perform again," he said. "I had a brain injury -- I didn't know to what extent -- and Jeanne just said, 'Hop aboard! We got a play coming up.'"

Interact staged an updated version of The Birds by Aristophanes, with Kling in the part of Hephestus, a god who --- according to Homer -- was banished from the heavens because he was born with shriveled legs.

"But he created a forge with the Cyclops and made gifts for the Gods like Apollo's chariot and Artemis' bow and arrow, and because of that he was able to bring himself literally out of the underworld using his art," Kling said. "I really think of that when I think of Interact; that through the arts, through having a job, we can really take ourselves out of the depths of despair."

Kling says the theater Interact creates isn't just transformative for the performers: It also offers a powerful experience for the audience.

"There's a thing in acting called the cathartic moment," he said. It goes back to the Greeks again. It's that moment where you touch on something very deep and very emotional inside yourself. Most actors try to get to that point; at Interact they start at that point. That's word go! In terms of those emotional wells, you get a lot more bang for your buck when you're at an Interact show."


Back at Interact, Mike Brindley recited from memory one of the thousands of poems he's written. The 37-year-old man's mother, Patty, says that before he joined Interact he was employed, but it was doing menial labor.

Photo gallery: The Interact Center in action

"He had a number of jobs, but the one I remember that was the best was he had to take cardboard, break it down, step on it, put it in a trash bin, climb up into the trash bin, and jump on the cardboard until it packed down into the trash bin so he could get a lot of cardboard in the trash bin. That was his job," she said.

Brindley's job didn't offer much in the way of social interaction. He spent his free time watching movies and writing poetry. Interact was just starting up, and Brindley's case manager suggested it might be a good fit. Immediately, Brindley's mother started seeing a difference.

Interact artist Michael Wolfe
Interact artist Michael Wolfe, left, performs with the Hat Dancers in "Madame Josette's Naughty and Nice Cabaret" Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 at Interact Theatre.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"The first thing I noticed was that he could relate to the things going on around him, politics or whatever news items were being discussed, and he would bring that home to his brothers and sisters who used to say, 'How does he know that stuff?' And it was because they were having these discussions at Interact, staff and artists alike," his mother said. Fifteen years later, Brindley doesn't just have a broader world view, he has a resume any performer would envy. As a poet he's competed in -- and won -- poetry slams, self-published several volumes of poetry, and performed on the streets of Paris accompanied by a musician. As an actor he's been on stage at the Guthrie Theater, toured with shows nationally, and taken performances to Canada, England, and Scandinavia. More recently he's traveled with Calvit twice to Thailand to help teach theater skills to other people with disabilities. His mother Patty was so impressed with Interact's work that she's now on the staff.


Kim Keprios is the CEO of ARC Greater Twin Cities, a developmental disabilities advocacy group. Keprios says she doesn't discount jobs that involve mopping floors or breaking down boxes, because many individuals take great pride in that work, and find fulfillment there.

Photo gallery: The Interact Center in action

"But I think the trap we get concerned about at ARC is that the bar isn't high enough. People with disabilities too often get pegged into a particular spot and that's what they're going to do for the long haul. And Jeanne just kind of shook that whole notion up. Jeanne doesn't have a bar," Keprios said.

For Calvit, the great lesson of her career has centered around human potential. Time and again she has witnessed people who were treated as broken or worthless discover their hidden strengths through the arts.

"If I had been told that I could only be a secretary, I would have been the worst secretary on the planet," she said. "There are certain jobs that I would have just failed at miserably because it's not my talent. And that's the same for people with disabilities. They all have talents, they all have abilities, and if you don't give them opportunities, it's just a loss of human potential."

Because of Calvit's many partnerships with other Twin Cities theater companies, more artists with disabilities are being seen on local stages. And her work in the Twin Cities is beginning to ripple around the world, as she helps to create similar programs in Australia and Thailand.