Courtesy of Ellie Levine Photography.

Courtesy of Ellie Levine Photography.

Courtesy of Ellie Levine Photography.

Courtesy of Ellie Levine Photography.

Thank you to everyone who attended Seesaw’s second annual Inclusive Theatre Festival, a culmination of our work in the inclusive arts, as well as a celebration of professionals working in this field! Our first annual festival last year was such a success, that this year the festival expanded to include two full days of programming, as well as presentations by artists and organizers, not just from the Chicagoland area, but from all over the United States. If you were not able to join us, read on for highlights from the weekend.


The first day of ITF, dubbed “Community Day,” focused on inclusive arts programming in the Chicagoland community and beyond. Presenters hailed from Chicago, New York, LA, Seattle, Dallas, and more.


Maddie Rostami, our Executive Director, and Christina Layton, our Internal Education Director and the mastermind behind ITF, kicked off our day with some introductions. We then got to know each other better with an icebreaker led by art therapist and educator Sharon Hyson. We broke into small groups with people we hadn’t met before and worked to create hats made of everyday objects, like egg cartons and newspapers.


After the ice had been sufficiently broken, we heard from several organizations about their work in the ever-exciting field of inclusive arts!


Julia deBettencourt of Snow City Arts started us off with a presentation about incorporating arts education in hospitals. Jamie Agnello from New York’s Trusty Sidekick Theatre Company then presented a video of their first accessible production, Up and Away, where audiences on the autism spectrum and their families experience what it’s like to explore the clouds in a custom made hot air balloon. Lastly, we heard from Special Gifts Theatre program participants about how they’ve been touched by the organization’s work in accessible musical theatre programming.


After a delicious lunch and the opportunity to chat about what we’d seen so far, we regrouped for the second portion of the day. We learned more about Evanston-based Mudlark Theatre’s opportunities for Northwestern student involvement, heard from Elaine Hall about how she founded the Miracle Project in LA after her son was diagnosed with autism, and discussed fundraising strategies with Nancy and Karl Schaeffer of the Dallas Children’s Theatre, which serves both typically and differently abled audiences. 


Interactive presentations included an improv performance and testimonials by PEEP Improv Ensemble players, a sample classroom workshop for Up and Away led by Jamie Agnello, and a collaborative Shakespearean performance by both teaching artists and actors from Chicago’s ABLE Ensemble. 

We finished off an already fantastic day with a networking gala at the beloved Evanston restaurant, the Celtic Knot, where students and professionals got to know each other better—all while eating delicious food.


Our next day of programming, “Campus Day,” was focused on inclusion on college campuses and post-graduate opportunities in inclusive theatre.


Our first presenter of the day was Julie Griffin, an occupational therapist from Aspire Chicago, who gave an informational overview of sensory processing, and how developmental differences manifest in a unique way in each person she works with.  We then heard from Christena Gunther and Evan Hatfield about practical, logistic tips for making any space accessible, followed by fundraising tips from Co/Lab Theatre Group co-founder Becky Leifman. Allison Mahoney, a Northwestern alum and co-founder of Theatre Stands with Autism, which is now Seesaw Theatre, discussed the challenges and rewards of founding Bluelaces Theatre Company in New York City after graduation.


After a break for lunch, we heard from Seesaw’s 2015-2017 Executive Director, Maddie Napel, about her Northwestern thesis project in which she traveled to several college campuses to help spread the Seesaw model and the work she has been doing with Seattle Children’s Theatre since then. We then learned more about inclusion in primary education, from Aspire Chicago’s Education Specialist/Inclusion Advisor, Greg Ward.


After a busy day of presentations, participants took part in a more interactive segment, where Katie Yohe from ABLE Ensemble led participants in a playing and devising activity. We finished off a fabulous weekend with a presentation by Seesaw’s very own research team.

Courtesy of Ellie Levine Photography.

Courtesy of Ellie Levine Photography.

We are so thankful for all of the presenters and attendees who played and learned with us throughout the weekend.  Without your passion and enthusiasm, ITF would not be possible. We cannot wait to see how Seesaw and the larger inclusive arts community continue to grow and to share that with you at next year’s Inclusive Theatre Festival! 

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