Surround Yourself with Knowledgeable People — When you start hiring staff, you want to hire people for their strengths.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeanne Calvit.
Jeanne Calvit is the Founder and Artistic/Executive Director of Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Founded in 1996, Interact was the first — and remains the only — multi-arts visual and performing arts organization, nationally or internationally, that creates professional theater productions and visual arts exhibitions by artists with disabilities.
Jeanne has grown Interact from five artists with disabilities in 1996 to more than 120 artists today. They range in age from 18 to 70+ and come from African, Native, Asian, Latinx, Pacific Islander and Euro-heritage backgrounds. They represent the entire spectrum of disability labels, fulfilling Jeanne’s dream to see an exchange of experiences, abilities and collaborative creativity that can transform lives.
Interact has been honored with two Ivey Awards (Minnesota’s Tony Awards) and has garnered support from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York’s prestigious Multi-Arts Production Fund and many more arts investors. Interact’s work is shown in high-status galleries throughout the region and presented in theaters such as the world-renowned Guthrie in Minneapolis.
Jeanne founded Interact in the spirit of radical inclusion — the concept that everyone has a voice and everyone brings a unique talent to the mix. She believes there is a creative spark in everyone, and that anyone can become a professional artist if they have passion, drive and support. To sustain creative energy through the pandemic, Jeanne and her team lead 50 visual and theater arts workshops every week through Zoom, engaging the entire company in the continual production of new work.
Jeanne lives in Minneapolis, and Interact Center is located just across the Mississippi River in Saint Paul. Minnesota’s Twin Cities is a thriving, internationally recognized arts destination.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I grew up in Baton Rouge, not far from New Orleans. In my twenties, I left home for Europe where I lived for a decade. After touring with an international theater company, I went to study at the famed Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre whose unique approach to acting has been the basis of my life’s work. In the Lecoq method, actors develop theater through improvisation, drawing from their own creativity rather than working from a playwright’s script. Lecoq gives performers the chance to be creators and not just interpreters of someone else’s vision; it fosters an environment of radical inclusion, the concept that everyone has a distinctive voice, and every voice should be nurtured as part of the creative mix.
When I moved back to the U.S., I began creating theater workshops in nontraditional settings. One of the first was at a summer camp for people with disabilities, and that led to more invitations to work with people who had all kinds of disabilities. The more work I did, the more I realized how talented these individuals were, and I began to envision a place where everyone could work together regardless of their disability — an idea that was unheard of at that time in the social services programs people with disabilities depended on.
With the spirit of radicalinclusion at the heart of my vision, I started Interact Theater for performers with disabilities in 1992. That grew into Interact Center, a multi-arts visual and performing arts center for adults with disabilities, which I formally established in 1996. I surrounded myself with other professionals who had the expertise and the drive to help me make the center happen.
In the beginning, we had around six people who were interested in joining the company. Because this was such a revolutionary idea, I had no way to gauge how many people would want to join, so we thought small and planned for 30–50 people. Within a year and a half, we outgrew our space. We expanded our space and just kept growing. By early 2020, with 120 people in the company and more on the waiting list, we were close to bursting at our seams again.
While some folks opted out when the pandemic forced us to temporarily shutter our physical space, we’ve continued to welcome new artists in our virtual space. Right now, we’re presenting 50 virtual workshops each week to keep the creativity going, and sales of artwork are reaching national and international collectors for the first time through our new online gallery. We also premiered our very first virtual theater production, Zoomtopia.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your nonprofit?
I consider myself an entrepreneur in the nonprofit world. I saw a need for a place like Interact and decided to go for it. Throughout the theater work I was doing in the 80s, I kept noticing all the untapped talent that people with disabilities had. But there were no outlets for them to discover their talent and put it into practice on a daily basis. Instead, most people with disabilities often end up doing menial work. A good example of this is one of our artists who used to clean bathrooms before she joined Interact. Her greatest passion was to become a dancer, but instead, she was part of a crew that went to work early in the morning cleaning toilets in a mall. She was not happy with this job. This broke her mother’s heart because she wanted her daughter to realize her full potential. When she learned about Interact, she brought her daughter in for a visit, and she was a natural. She’s been featured in all of our shows and even performed with us at the internationally acclaimed Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis multiple times.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
People with disabilities make up 20% of the world’s population and represent the largest minority group. They are not typically recognized in conversations around high-quality artistic work and are typically seen for what they cannot do, rather than for their talents and abilities. Interact’s mission to “create art that challenges perceptions of disability” aims to re-calibrate those misperceptions.
The disability field is historically based on the medical model, which focuses on limitations, seeing what’s “wrong” with a person, rather than seeing the disability as part of that person’s unique humanity. At Interact, we operate from an assets-based perspective, focusing on the gifts and talents each person contributes to the mix.
And we go further than philosophy: Rather than being siloed into “for a good cause” kinds of arts events, Interact artists with disabilities appear professionally on stage and in gallery exhibitions alongside nationally recognized artists with whom we collaborate, such as actor/playwright/NPR guest commentator Kevin Kling, or the widely collected urban photographer, Wing Young Huie.
We know that the artistic process has the power to change things, to give us those “ah-ha” moments that can blow your thinking wide open. Here’s an example:
We have a performer at Interact who has been with us for around five years. He has Down syndrome and is absolutely a comic genius. He uses sign language because his speech is hard to understand, so his performances typically center around physical comedy and not around spoken dialogue. Taking advantage of the spectrum of creative workshops we are now offering in the virtual space, he opted to take a poetry workshop. We immediately recognized his huge talent for writing and a capacity for expressing big thoughts he had never been able to share before.
Those kinds of revelations and new understandings change how we think about people with disabilities, and that is where Interact makes our most significant social impact.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
Right away, I think back to another performer with Down syndrome who has since passed away. His mother had been a professional dancer when she was young, and his brother was a radio announcer. Show business was in his blood. He started watching comedians on TV at a young age and would even bow as a toddler after standing up from a fall.
Before this performer came to Interact, he vacuumed carpets at a restaurant for a living. His movements were slow on the job, but he really came to life on stage. We were able to convince his support team that being paid as an actor was a better fit for him.
He auditioned for the first play Interact ever did when we focused solely on theater in the early 1990s. The show was called “Bubba Nelson: Endangered Species,” and he played a character who couldn’t adapt to changes in society — your typical Archie Bunker. He was so funny and played the role incredibly well! A world-renowned expert on persons with Down syndrome came to the performance and was amazed by what he saw. He came up to me after the show and said after 25 years of teaching and writing about people with Down syndrome, he did not believe that someone with Down syndrome would be able to improvise, create and memorize lines for a two-hour show!
This performer ended up coming with me to Australia to help develop a show that was part of two Interact European tours. When a small group of us from Interact went to Thailand to create plays alongside people with disabilities in a Thai hospital arts program, he came along as a co-teacher. He was also involved in many of our co-productions with other theaters in the Minneapolis area.
Unfortunately, this performer developed a rare cancer when he was 42. We were in the middle of a play at the time and the doctors insisted he not participate so he could rest. He ended up telling the doctors he’s not dead yet, and he went on performing. He finished out the show with us and passed away a few days later. To this day, he is one of the most incredible examples of what Interact is able to do for someone.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I think more needs to be done to ensure society and government agencies that support people with disabilities have an expanded vision of work to include careers in the arts. There needs to be greater awareness of the creative potential people with disabilities possess. There are many highly talented people that need outlets and programs like Interact.
I think if someone wanted to start an organization like mine today, they would find it incredibly difficult. When I started Interact, it was licensed by the Department of Human Services as a program for artistic people with disabilities, and it still is today. That comes with funding and with regulations that ensure health and safety, but back then agency staff were willing to take a risk on this new idea, and we had a lot of flexibility. I’m not sure that is the case today.
Today in our increasingly legalistic society, new regulations draw more and more rigid lines around what can and cannot be done. It seems to be more about ticking off boxes rather than developing new and innovative ways to support people with disabilities as creative individuals and not as a one-size-fits-all demographic.
I think society needs to take time to better understand the contributions people with disabilities can make. I founded Interact to encourage that process. As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of attention focused on people’s deficits. We are missing out on so much untapped potential. I would love for people to re-think what it means to have a disability. Rather than focusing on what someone can’t do, let’s focus on what they can do extremely well.
I would love for society to also become more aware of the challenges people with disabilities face in their daily lives and to explore ways we can improve their quality of life. Access to timely and accessible transportation continues to be an issue for people with disabilities, as well as the continuing pervasiveness of limited work opportunities and loneliness for those who don’t have a community to be part of. During the pandemic, many of our artists told me they felt like they were seen as disposable — particularly experiencing fear around whether they would be at the bottom of the priority list if medical shortages demanded quality of life decisions. In response, Interact created a virtual arts exhibition called “We Are Not Disposable” to bring awareness to this situation.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is someone who is able to think “big picture” in the organization. They have to have a vision that is very inclusive and can expand over time. Leadership doesn’t mean you need to know everything, but a leader should have the ability to inspire people who can do the parts of the job the leader can’t do. I bring a great deal of passion to work each day through my role, and I try to channel that throughout the organization. My hope is that others then feel empowered to show their passion for what they can do in their own work.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non-profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
Fill A Need — Your organization should be serving an unmet or unfulfilled need.For me, I saw so many people with disabilities who were intrinsically artistic, but who were doing menial work. I wanted to create a place where these individuals could practice their craft rather than scrub floors. At Interact, artists are paid for their work, so this pervasive limitation in opportunity is based on perception, and not on economics. Find a need in society, understand the unmet need, and then act.
Think Glass Half-full — If you’re one of the people who always sees problems and stumbling blocks, your organization is not going to make it through the first five years. The first 3–5 years are the toughest because you have to do everything. You just have to be an optimist. Early on, some people told me it would be a multi-year project to make Interact happen. I told them it had to be a one-year project. At the time, I was a single mom without a lot of money. I didn’t have a few years. We ended up making Interact happen in about 13 months. Had I focused on the stumbling blocks that others were focusing on, I never would have gotten anywhere. I kept moving forward and focused on a positive outcome.
Flexibility — Things will change, and when that happens, you have to be able to reinvent yourself. A perfect example of this was Interact’s transition to virtual workshops during the pandemic. In March 2020, we were forced to temporarily close our building. It severely disrupted many of our artists’ lives and led to a lot of issues with loneliness. Within two months, we launched programming online that includes 50 workshops each week for our artists. It reconnected our community of artists, and we were able to expand on what we were doing previously in new ways.
Persistence — You have to have incredible persistence. Approach problems with the mentality of how to make things happen versus shying away from them. When we had to close the building, we got right to work on finding another way of doing things. The key is not to just sit there, but to push forward.
Surround Yourself with Knowledgeable People — When you start hiring staff, you want to hire people for their strengths. For instance, I had always hired professional artists as mentors and collaborators for our artists with disabilities — that was central to our mission. But early on, we didn’t have a managing director. I was just doing that role along with everything else. Eventually, I couldn’t keep operating that way because there just weren’t enough hours in the day, and we hired a professional. As you grow, you are going to be doing more and more, so you need talented people who can support you. These trusted advisors will help you navigate big decisions when the chips are down.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would choose Oprah. I think she would love what we do. She loves stories of people who defy the odds, and I think someone with a platform like hers could help amplify what we are doing.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
Things always change. So I like to say that it’s important to be ready, be flexible, and be okay with reinventing yourself. Life can throw you all types of curveballs, like the pandemic, but you have to keep going.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!