Caring for our community
Arts for All Loudoun
The Arts for All Miracle
Actors sing in Beauty and the Beast Jr., March 2023. (Photo: Loudoun County Parks Recreation and Community Services/Ben Curtis)
Tamma Payne has seen every Arts for All Loudoun show since 1992, when her former brother-in-law, William Muncaster, first performed in a production of Peter Pan at the age of 8.
“It’s very dear to my heart,” said Tamma, a MainStreet Bank assistant vice president and relationship manager. She immediately knew she wanted to donate her Making Change funds to Arts for All.
William has Down syndrome. He’s been acting with Arts for All for over 30 years. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1989, offers performing and visual arts programs to people with disabilities.
“You see a different side of them when they get up on stage,” Tamma said. “If you watch a show, it just brings tears to your eyes.”
“We call it the ‘Arts for All Miracle,’” said Amanda Barr, who directed the group’s last three musicals. “When you give individuals with special needs access to an environment that is just the right amount of stimulus to them, it’s like they’re an entirely different person.”
Tamma told coworkers Jackie Lester, Rita Rani, and Shazia Sarwar about her love for the organization and together they donated a total of $4,000.
Arts for All began as a theater organization under the umbrella of “Very Special Arts” (VSA) International, a program run out of the Kennedy Center. In 2001, they added a branch for visual arts: the DaVinci Fine Arts Program, and in 2019 they officially changed their name to Arts for All Loudoun.
“We don’t actually ask about anybody’s disability,” said Huyen MacMichael, DaVinci director. “If they share, that’s awesome… Most of the time, we just take everyone as-is.”
Amanda says she sometimes hears confused comments from people who expect the participants to look a certain way.
“They’re looking at our actors at face value,” she said. “‘They don’t look like they have autism.’ Well, what does someone [with autism] look like?”
The theater program casts everyone over the age of eight who auditions. No one is asked to disclose their disability status, and no one is turned away.
“Not all disabilities are visual. Not all special needs are visual,” Amanda said. “You don’t know what’s going on in somebody’s brain.”
People come to Arts for All because they have a need for what the organization offers, she says.
“Whether it be crippling anxiety, ADHD… or they have Aspergers and just need a better way to make friends… we really don’t look at them as just their disability. We look at them as a person that’s coming to this community for a reason,” Amanda said. “And we’re going to accept them for that.”
Left: William in Arts for All’s Beauty and the Beast Jr., March 2023 (Photo: Tamma Payne); Right: MainStreet Bank presents its donation to the Arts for All Loudoun Board of Directors. From top left: Rebecca Anderson, Tamma Payne, Jackie Lester, Jody Rodgers, Shazia Sarwar, Lynn Jarman, Rita Rani, Suzanne Robinson, Amanda Vitello. (Photo: Tamma Payne)
Huyen became director of the DaVinci Fine Arts Program in 2017. She has a masters degree in art therapy, and started working with the program as a volunteer.
“A lot of the work that we do is more like art as therapy,” she said. “We’re very focused on the process. . . . I tell them all the time: it’s nice if they sell something, but that’s not why we do it. We do it to connect with each other.”
The DaVinci program started with just one student (who still attends classes today, over twenty years later). Now DaVinci has two regular groups, one of which often sees over a dozen participants.
“There are a lot of people that are new to the arts,” Huyen said. “We have one of our participants who had never drawn before. And her first time she finished drawing a picture, she was so excited.”
Huyen thinks some of their more recent growth may be due to an unmet demand for programming for adults with disabilities. She says there are plenty of programs for children with disabilities. But once they graduate from school, the options are scarce and the waitlists are long.
“After having all-day programming for five days a week – suddenly they’re done with school and they have nothing. Families don’t know what to do,” Huyen said. “They just have to cobble something together while they wait for a full-time program to do either work or skills.”
The two DaVinci programs, an open studio group on Wednesdays and an art class on Mondays, meet during the day. Each session is about two hours long. This can provide some respite for families of participants who need a higher level of support.
“It offers the participants something, it offers the families something,” Huyen said. “I’m glad that it serves the community so well. I think that’s why we’ve been growing a bit faster than we thought we would.”
The open studio group meets at the Franklin Park Arts Center during the school year. But in the summer, the county needs the space for its programming and Huyen’s Wednesday regulars are left hanging.
“They’ve tried out the Monday group but it’s a completely different atmosphere,” said Huyen.
The Monday group is bigger, younger, and more social. They meet on the campus of the Arc of Loudoun, a private school for people with disabilities.
Right now, they have access to the space year-round. But Huyen says the Arc’s lease is up in 2024 and things could change in the future.
“We have been so lucky to have gracious hosts who offer us space in their studios,” she said. “But we are dependent on them.”
Huyen would love to see DaVinci get a permanent space one day. But with limited funds, they make do with what they have.
“We try to keep the costs very low,” said Huyen. “We haven’t changed the fees at all in all the years I’ve been there,” she said.
The spring theater program costs $95 per participant, with a $20 discount for siblings. Art classes are $10 for one session, or $15 for two.
“If we can get grant funding, if we can get donations, then it makes it affordable for families and participants who may not have very many options,” she said. “Art classes are never ten dollars a class.”
Participants paint together in a DaVinci Arts class. (Photo: DaVinci Arts)
Amanda Barr directed her first show with Arts for All in 2019, but she’s been a part of the group since the age of 8.
Her mother worked as a choreographer for the group. Amanda’s performed in two shows, been on the backstage crew for two shows, and worked as stage manager for two shows. She got her bachelor’s degree in theater at Radford University, and after graduating, applied to become the new director.
“Ultimately, my goal is to give our participants the most professional experience possible. Because they don’t necessarily have the opportunity to partake in mainstream professional shows,” Amanda said.
Auditions for the spring musical start in November, but behind the scenes work starts as early as July, when the board of directors picks the next musical.
The troupe usually performs “junior” versions of musicals, a shorter version with less violent or potentially disturbing content, which can help accommodate people who might have trouble sitting through a longer show or dealing with heavier topics.
Amanda works with a handful of paid staff, including a music director and a choreographer, to make sure everyone can participate in the production.
All the music directors she’s worked with come from a background in music therapy. She says they use lots of repetition to help actors that have more trouble learning music.
The choreographer adapts dances for those with physical disabilities, often focusing more on arm movements so actors in wheelchairs can participate.
The adaptive recreation program specialist for Loudoun County, Michelle Waugh, comes to every rehearsal to provide support to any participants that may be struggling.
If participants or audience members struggle with sensory issues, they can access “sensory backpacks” that have tools like fidget toys or noise-blocking headphones.
“They’re getting the support they need from everyone around them and it’s really just incredible,” Amanda said.
She says most participants feel so comfortable in the environment Arts for All creates that issues like overstimulation are rare.
“It’s just the most positive environment you can be in,” she said. “You can walk into rehearsal and you could be having the worst day ever. And your participants will come up and hug you and tell you how excited they are to be there.”
Amanda says it’s the attitude of the participants that separates Arts for All from the other theater organizations she’s worked with.
“I would so much rather work with Arts for All for the rest of my life than deal with professional theater,” she said. “The amount of gratitude that you feel from the Arts for All participants and their families, it’s just a whole different world. . . . They could say one line on stage the entire two-hour rehearsal and they’ll leave saying it was the best night ever.”
“The arts is really, really important for every single person in this world. Everybody consumes some sort of art in some sort of way every single day,” Amanda said.
One of the best compliments she’s ever received, she says, came from a family who had never seen an Arts for All production before. They told her they had no idea any of the cast had special needs until they read the program at intermission.
“That’s what we strive to do,” Amanda said. “We want people to look at them as who they are – not for their disabilities.”
MainStreet’s Tamma Payne encourages others to come see the magic for themselves.
“If they would just go to one show and just see how amazing it is,” Tamma said. “That’s all they have to do.”
Actors on stage and behind the scenes in Arts for All Loudoun’s Beauty and the Beast Jr., March 2023. (Photos: Loudoun County Parks Recreation and Community Services/Ben Curtis)
To learn more about Arts for All Loudoun visit artsforallloudoun.org