The Arts and Disability – TDPS Students and Alumni in the World

John Argue

John Argue

While some students are drawn to the fields of performance for a moment in the spotlight, many TDPS students and alumni utilize the arts for healing and community building purposes.

John Argue, MA ’65, has been teaching movement to Parkinson’s patients for almost thirty years.  He also travels extensively to work with yoga, dance and physical therapy practitioners, training them to implement his teaching model. Last summer, he taught in the professional development program of Dance for PD® at the Mark Morris Dance Company in Brooklyn. “The most exciting part of my work now is passing these skills on,” says Argue.

His awareness of using the arts to serve the greater good began during his time at UC Berkeley.  “I began to explore the way theater served the community, and to see it had a purpose beyond entertainment,” says Argue.  “We studied a range of plays, and professors always emphasized their larger purpose, how theater was meant to instruct and heal the community.” 

John Argue actionIn a recent interview with blogger Jon Berry, Argue described how his upbringing in an orphanage informed his life as an actor and teacher. “I always felt like I was passing as a normal person in the world away from the orphanage,” says Argue. “So acting was second nature to me.  I’ve always identified with the person who is the odd one out, who needs to find out how to pass, how to get by. I don’t see people with Parkinson’s primarily as their awkwardness or their illness. I tend to be able to see through to the person underneath whatever mask or disability they have.”

Argue offers several pieces of advice to those aspiring to become drama or movement therapists. “You must have an intense love of your art and keep alive your ability to actually perform – whether it is acting, dance, stage combat, etc.  When doing any art therapy, you have to model that increased vitality that performers have for their art.”

He also advises students to try to avoid the medical model and use instead the “people first” language favored by disability rights advocates.  “If you are really focused on using your arts skills to help ‘disabled people,’ bill yourself as an artist who works with people with disabilities.”

Argue’s personal motto is “skills help, love heals.” He adds, “Your skills will be useful, but ultimately your love of your students is the most important thing.”

A focus on Disability Studies also runs deep in both the TDPS graduate and undergraduate cohorts.

In 2011, graduate student Scott Wallin directed Attempts on Her Life, an experimental play that explored the constant judgment and descriptions of people based on gender, socio-economic class, or other types of differences. His creative process involved consideration of disabled access from the early, generative stages of the project. Wallin, whose research focuses on psychosocial disability and performance, also completed a M.S.W in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley.

This year, graduate student Caitlin Marshall directed Kid Simple: a radio play in the flesh, which ran November 15th to 24th in Durham Studio Theater. The production questioned people’s perceptions and attitudes about sound, disability and access. “I started thinking about this particular script after a short residency at UC Irvine titled Art Inclusion: Disability, Design, Curation,” says Marshall, “where I was introduced to art and performance work that investigated sound as experiential, as something more than just a heard phenomenon.”

Associate Director and Bay Area performer and teacher Shira Grabelsky is Deaf, and her experiences dealing with sound not only as heard but experienced, seen and felt have been instrumental in crafting the production. The Friday, November 22 show featured ASL interpretation prepared by Sign Master AC Cook for the Deaf community.

Undergraduate Juan Mendoza (’15), has combined his love of performance with the study of disability as a double major in Theater & Performance Studies and Dance and Performance Studies, with a minor in Disability Studies. “My interest with the disability community was something I was born into,” says Mendoza. “I have an aunt with Down syndrome who is actively involved with the disability community back home. Growing up I would attend all the events with her and after would hear my grandma talk about the different challenges she had to confront to get assistance.”

Mendoza realized he wanted to formally combine Theater, Dance, and Disability Studies while taking TDPS’ Intro to Performance Studies course. In class, he focused his ethnography project on UC Berkeley’s disability community. “The project dealt with visible and invisible disabilities and how, when something is visible and society doesn’t accept it, you are treated differently,” says Mendoza.

Like Yve-Laris Cohen, ’08, whose senior honors project, Neither Here Nor There, explored trans-ness and disability through performance, Mendoza’s senior honors thesis project also focuses on the disability and LGBT communities. His project will tie in other areas like Gender and Women’s studies, Sociology, Ethnic Studies, and Psychology, as well. “ My goal is to create a performance piece to explore the social, cultural, economic, and experiential worlds of these people dealing with self-acceptance within a society that might not be accepting.”

When Mendoza entered TDPS, he was surprised by the deep awareness of larger world issues the Performance Studies focus in particular has given him. “I feel like a citizen of the world,” he says, “and I was never expecting that to happen when I declared a TDPS major. I have learned so much about art and how it can be used to spread messages across a large population.”

Sophomore Elissa Lee is majoring in psychology, with minors in Dance & Performance Studies and Disability Studies. “ I feel as if the word ‘dance’ nowadays has too narrow of a definition, says Lee. “So often the reaction I get when I tell people I’m a dance minor, they say that they ‘can’t dance’ or if they had another life, they would love to ‘try dancing’. What they don’t realize is that dance is inside of them; the only unnatural thing is that they are conditioned to believe that dance must be performance-based.  Dance is much more than that – people are born to move, born to dance.”

She plans to pursue occupational and movement therapy as a career, incorporating dance and yoga into her practice.  “I’m hoping to work with children with disabilities such as autism, developmental disorders, Cerebral Palsy and seniors with Parkinson’s and Cerebrovascular Accidents, helping them live more comfortable lives in spite of their disabilities.” Lee recently founded a Berkeley chapter of  “Everybody Dance Now!” a national non-profit organization offering free dance classes to underprivileged youth.

Like Mendoza, Lee’s desire to work with disabled communities partly stems from her family experiences. When she was 4th grade, her family moved from Texas to Taiwan so her family could care for her grandmother, who had suffered a stroke.  Lee often accompanied her grandmother to physical therapy appointments. “Although she lost the ability to speak and walk,” says Lee, “when we reminded her of old songs and dances, she could sing every word clearly, and sway to the beat just fine.

The philosophy of dance taught in TDPS lends itself well to the combination of her studies. “I love how while the department does teach technique, it’s not the emphasis and the purpose of dance,” says Lee. “Dance is almost a grounding, a healing, a reconciliation, an expression of a celebration of being here, being in the present.”

Her professors at UC Berkeley have also shaped the way she views what it means to be disabled. “We focus on the idea that ‘dis-ability’ doesn’t mean there is a deficit, a lack, or a deviation from some norm,” she says, “but to see disability as ‘differently abled.’ Because those with disabilities all have a way to go about life, but the structure of the world just isn’t built for them.”

These are just a few examples of the work TDPS students and alumni are doing in the world of disability. And there are more: Senior Samantha Hyde is working on a play that deals with invisible disability as it pertains to the audition process. Senior Phil Lindo is working on an honors thesis exploring how sound plays a key role in performance experiences, particularly among blind audiences, and hopes to find out how sound interacts with social and cultural knowledge to create shared experience. Mayuri Bhandari (’12) received a 2012 Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize to create a successful program to teach dance to children with disabilities in India. And Douglas Gordy (’75) recently retired as the Program Director for the California Media Access Office, a program helping people with disabilities to obtain training and career development in the performing arts.

By Marni Davis

TDPS hopes to bring John Argue to campus soon to teach a workshop. Check back for more information!

Jon Berry’s Interview with John Argue:

John Argue’s website:

Everybody Dance! Berkeley Chapter: