Opal Center for Arts and Education has found a way to bring its unique group of Creative Chaos performers back together in spite of the challenges posed by COVID-19.
The Creative Chaos program, run by Carmen Dowell, offers an expressive platform for people living with disabilities, giving participants creative control of performances.
Last week, members of the acting troupe met for the first time since February to organize a puppet show for Main Street passers-by.
Through the windows of the Opal Theater, Creative Chaos members brought to life string-puppet birds dancing to music, prompting pedestrians to stop and take in the show.
This manner of performance, Dowell figured, was one way to work within the safety guidance standards and let Creative Chaos actors express themselves with objects which create neither drop-lets or aerosols that can spread the coronavirus.
“We picked puppets because that way we are not talking directly to each other and we’re only touching our own puppet,” she explained.
The whole week, though, was a rekindling of connection and a daily exercise in expression.
“Every day was something a little different,” said Dowell.
Through puppetry, Creative Chaos members were provided an opportunity to emote through an alternative means, rehearse dance routines and practice taking on different voices with their avatars.
Dowell introduced the group to other forms of socializing from a distance with group hugs whereby everyone extends their arms as if attempting to take in the whole room and “throwing” high fives across the spaces between each other.
On Friday, Creative Chaos members and volunteers sat spaced out in the open performance area of the Opal Theater, all wearing face shields, and discussed the impact of the pandemic on the program and their lives.
“We miss our audiences. We miss our supporters. We miss the liveliness of it all and the excitement that builds up,” said Dowell. “And also to watch them grow. From day one of practicing the play to opening night. I think I’ll miss that the most.”
With the pandemic clearing the program’s calendar, some members found the restrictive pattern of day-to-day life a bit tiresome.
“It’s boring,” said Creative Chaos member Natasha Cosper. “There’s nothing to do at home.”
Member Ian Miller was disappointed that he can’t enjoy any of his favorite sports due to the virus, but he was happy to return to the program.
“It’s great to see everyone here after seven months,” he said.
To combat the challenges of solitude, the Opal Center came up with a couple ways to find respite in the meantime.
Because Creative Chaos members tend to not use social media or computers, organizers started a letter-writing project, sending notes and letters through mail to keep connected.
Dowell also organized a car parade in the spring in which a caravan of cars with signs and balloons drove by the houses of Creative Chaos members.
Putting programs together, however, requires time, energy and resources — all of which depend on finances. To the theater’s fortune, grants have allowed development of new ideas.
To the tune of $660, a grant from the Cottage Grove Community Foundation, has enabled the organization to pay some staff members and get the ball rolling on Creative Chaos’ first week back.
“That was enough to cover this initial camp,” said Michele Rose, executive director of Opal Center.
On top of that, an additional — and decidedly generous — matching grant of $18,000 from a donor who wished to remain anonymous will spread over a three-year period to augment programs for youths and people with disabilities.
“We will be using that grant to facilitate more things for children now and more things for Creative Chaos,” said Rose. “It’s still in the planning phase, but I see us doing another Creative Chaos thing very soon.”
Dowell is developing plans which she aims to see realized in October.
While Creative Chaos has provided a rich environment for members to be expressive, creative and socialize, Dowell is hoping to keep these experiences accessible while shifting more energy to the program’s social element.
“It’s going to be small groups … and it’s going to be tailoring to their interests,” she said.
In the coming months, Dowell is setting up gatherings of small groups of five to take part in different activities day to day.
Dowell hopes that organizing these small groups will give members a good reason to get of the house and continue socializing in safe ways.
“And we’re going to reach out to some people who aren’t actors who we think are going to benefit from this as well,” she said.
Among the new ideas is to introduce movie days, socially-distanced dances and a Jane Fonda workout.
“Leg warmers are required,” Dowell laughed about the last event.
Meanwhile, Rose is working on a children’s puppetry workshop, something akin to the project taken on by Creative Chaos.
Though not yet established, Rose said the camp will be available in October, limited to five children from ages 5 to 9.
As for Creative Chaos, Dowell looks forward to a day when her group can gather again under normal circumstances.
“As soon as we’re told that we can all be together without masks on, the disco ball will go back up and we will dance,” she said.
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