Katrina Cathcart
Top Drawer Art Center
East Providence, RI

Rhode Island artist Katrina Cathcart is a winner in the VSA arts/Volkswagon “Green Light” competition for young artists with disabilities. Along with the other winners from across the country, Katrina’s artwork will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC from September 17, 2008 – January 4, 2009. It will then tour the United States for approximately two years. To learn more about Katrina, her artwork and Top Drawer Art Center CLICK HERE.

For more information on the Green Light Competition click here

Call For Art

VSA arts of Rhode Island is proud to announce the upcoming schedule for the 5th Annual Sherlock Show at the Atrium Gallery in the first floor lobby of the William Powers Administration Building at One Capitol Hill in Providence for the months of February and March. 

ELIGIBILITY artists must be residents of Rhode Island, age 21 or older and have a disability.  The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.

For more information, or to get an entry form and guidelines, please contact VSA arts of Rhode Island. 

The deadline for submitting work is MONDAY, JANUARY 28, 2008.

Now It’s Your Turn!

THANK YOU to everyone who participated in the VSA arts RI pre-show discussion panel before the Gamm Theatre’s production of the Elephant Man.  While the show and discussion has finished, we still want to hear from YOU.  So, whether you were at the discussion or not, we encourage you to leave your thoughts on the essays below and help us to keep these important conversations going strong.

VSA arts of Rhode Island

Vision Strength Access

History & Mission

VSA arts of Rhode Island is a statewide, nonprofit, arts and education organization dedicated to providing opportunities for children and adults with disabilities to actively participate in the arts.

VSA arts of Rhode Island creates high quality programs in literary, performing, and visual arts for inclusive audiences throughout the state. Through its collaborations with partners from the arts, cultural, disability, and educational communities, VSA Arts of Rhode Island increases public awareness of the creative talents of people with disabilities, integrating their achievements into Rhode Island’s mainstream community, and providing cultural experiences for all.

VSA arts of RI is accredited by the national VSA arts, founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith as an educational affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There are 50 VSA arts State Organizations and more than 60 organizations worldwide. While the VSA arts national organization provides “seed money” and regional coordination, all VSA arts organizations function autonomously. VSA arts of Rhode Island was incorporated in September of 1986, and was awarded non-profit status under section 501(c)(3) in March 1988.

VSA arts of RI creates individually designed artist-in-residency programs which place professional artists in classrooms and in community sites in order to provide intensive “hands on” arts experiences for children, youth and adults with disabilities. Each program is designed to leave both teachers and students with a legacy of new skills and a greater understanding of the importance of arts education for all children and adults.

VSA arts of RI provides training to professional artists, teachers, administrators, service providers, and parents on the design and administration of high quality arts programs thus enabling them to discover new ways of recognizing, developing and promoting the artistic skills of individuals with disabilities.

VSA arts of RI sponsors exhibits, performances and general public events to showcase the artistic accomplishments, and increase public awareness, of the talents and abilities of children and adults with disabilities. VSA arts of RI advocates that all public arts agencies actively promote their programs to include persons with disabilities, and present fully accessible programs and events.

VSA arts of RI is the only agency in Rhode Island which exists solely for the purpose of providing opportunities in the arts by, with and for individuals with disabilities. Annually, more than 20,000 Rhode Islanders benefit from VSA arts of Rhode Island’s programs, exhibits and events.

What does VSA stand for?

V – Vision
    S – Strength
  A – Access

Don’t forget to join us TONIGHT, OCTOBER 5th AT 6:30PM for a FREE pre show panel discussion before the Elephant Man at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, RI.  You are also invited to meet the panel members and actors at a reception following the performance in the lobby. 


If you are unable to attend this evenings discussion, or if you want to continue the discussion after the event has passed, please feel free to discuss the essays from panelist’s Victoria Lewis and Dennis Hurley below.

 Written by Dennis Hurley, featured panelist at the VSA arts RI sponsored preshow discussion of the Gamm Theatre’s production of The Elephant Man on Friday October 5, 2007 at 6:30pm

As someone with albinism, I’d like to discuss my perspective on how Hollywood filmmakers and novelists continue to spread negative and fictional stereotypes.

 Since albinism involves a visual impairment, some consider it a disability. Certainly attitudes toward albinism are similar to those experienced by other disability and minority groups, including a lack of understanding, fear of the unknown, and prejudice based on appearance. Like The Elephant Man, many people with albinism exhibited themselves in sideshows.  

I can tell you that albinism affects the pigment of the eyes, skin, and hair; vision problems are a key part of the condition—probably the most important part. In “The DaVinci Code” the character Silas has red eyes, shoots people from far distances, and drives in a high-speed car chase at night. The activities that Silas engages in are nearly impossible for someone with albinism (at least for any that I’ve met, and I’ve met a lot of folks with our trademark paler-than-pale skin).

Dan Brown supposedly did his research in the area of religion, but he seemed to skip the albinism research entirely when he created Silas. Silas bears no resemblance to a real-life person with albinism. As a result, Mr. Brown reproduces stereotypes of the evil albino with red eyes and/or supernatural powers that Hollywood has perpetuated for years. This film is the 68th movie since 1960 to feature an albino portrayed as villainous, deviant, mystical or sadistic including End of Days, The Matrix Reloaded, and Powder.    

Admittedly, I did try my best to audition for the role of Silas, not to further the stereotype, but to bring my own sense of realism to the role that ultimately went to Paul Bettany, a non-albino. Instead of complaining endlessly, I wrote a short film parody, entitled “The Albino Code”, with the following premise: “What if the story of The DaVinci Code could be told from Silas’s point of view? And what if Silas were an actual person with albinism thrust into a world of secret codes, mystery, and assassination?” The Albino Code is my way of mocking certain novelists and filmmakers and give movie-lovers some insight into what having albinism is really like. It was released on May 11, 2006 (one week before the release of The DaVinci Code) and has played many film festivals.

For those of you who think I’m overreacting, let me just say that when both “Powder” and “Me, Myself & Irene” were released, it was often an adventure for me to walk down the street and I worry about children and adults with albinism that get harassed by insensitive people making fun of us. During our shoot, a random woman on the street told me I needed “more white on his face” to look like a real albino.To learn more about albinism, as well as an upcoming theatre production Diamond in the Rough (an albinism awareness benefit) visit www.albinism.org  or www.positiveexposure.org.

Now it’s your turn! Discuss Dennis Hurley’s essay here at the VSA arts of RI blog and then come see him speak in person at the pre-show discussion of the Gamm Theatre’s production of The Elephant Man on Friday October 5, 2007 at 6:30pm. For more information click here for the full pdf or to purchase tickets visit www.gammtheatre.org      

Written by Victoria Lewis, featured panelist at the VSA arts RI sponsored preshow discussion of the Gamm Theatre’s production of The Elephant Man on Friday October 5, 2007 at 6:30pm

Back in the day, the day being the late 1970’s and early 80’s, well before the quirky, dark dramas of HBO became the water-cooler rage, some astonishingly fresh and unlikely stories and stars appeared on stage and screen.  In 1980, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the story of sideshow exhibit Joseph Merrick and his doctor Frederick Treves, won the Tony for Best Play.  The next year Mark Medhoff’s Children of a Lesser God, a drama featuring a romance between a Deaf woman and a hearing man, took home the Best Play prize as well as awards for Best Leading Actress (Phyliss Frelich) and Best Leading Actor (John Rubenstein).  In cinema, similarly, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, a film whose emotional core rested on the sexuality of a disabled man, won Oscars (1978) for Best Screenplay, Best Leading Actor (Jon Voigt) and Best Leading Actress (Jane Fonda).  What, one might have asked, was going on?  When did disabled characters become leads?  When did audiences come to accept disabled characters as complex, autonomous human beings, instead of heroic overcomers such as Franklin Delanor Roosevelt in the old warhorse Sunrise at Campobello or the victims and villains so familiar from melodrama (Tiny Tim, Dr. Strangelove, Captain Hook, etc.).  But as we know there is no such thing as “overnight” success: years of unrecognized labor more often than not proceed a brilliant “debut.”  So too with ideas.  In the early 1960’s a new disability identity was being formed on the streets and in the courts of America.  Disabled activists fought discrimination in education, employment, housing and transportation and, less concretely, but no less profoundly, challenged the old stereotypes of disability.  Inevitably, this struggle for identity found its way into our national storytelling.

No play better captures that moment of transformation than Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.  The drama represents and then undercuts the two primary cultural lenses that have been used to interpret physical and mental difference through the ages–lenses that have operated both on the legitimate stage and in the mass media.  The first is the so called Moral (or religious ) Model in which the physically different body is explained by an act of divine or demonic intervention.  “Who has sinned, this man or his parents?” the Pharisees asked Christ about the blind man.  In the medieval era a spinal deformity was explained by the presence of a devil curled up inside the hump.  Choruses of devils babbled in the ears of the deaf.  Children born disabled were proof of intercourse with the devil, and their mothers could be burned as witches. Famous stage roles that rely on this character shorthand include the stigmatized Oedipus, Richard III, on the dark side, and saintly characters like Tiny Tim, the special child who represents pure goodness, on the other.  When the Elephant’s Man’s manager Ross promises the crowd at the play’s beginning that they will see “Mother Nature uncorseted and in malignant rage!” he is tapping into the crowds’ fears and superstitions, giving them a brush with a taboo and a chance to reaffirm their own normality and goodness.

But beginning in the Victoria era and continuing well into the 20th century, a new idea of disability began to take hold in Western societies.  Fueled by advances in the sciences and the growing professionalization of physicians, the so-called “Medical Model” radically revised the meaning of disability.  The “impaired,” whether in body or mind, were no longer viewed as supernaturally good or evil, but sick.  Under the Medical Model the disabled person is no longer a saint or a sinner, but a patient and must either be charitably removed from society, through institutionalization and in some cases death, or cure themselves, or at least “pass” as cured.  Extreme proponents of this view used Social Darwinism and the pseudo-science of Eugenics to justify segregation and elimination of “defective” human beings in pursuit of a perfect human race.  Plays and films that reflect the medical model include:  Sunrise at Campobello, The Magnificent Obsession, Heidi, Of Mice And Men and Whose Life Is It Anyway?  In The Elephant Man Frederick Treves represents the best of the medical model: kind, compassionate, intelligent, and seemingly selfless – an idealistic man whose control of Joseph Merrick is always “for his own good. “

The conflict between Ross, the crass “carny,” and Treves, the humane healer; between superstition and science; between public display and institutionalization was a quarrel that would play out in civic dialogue over the course of the 20th century  The Freak Show was one cultural hotspot where the two met head on.  Cities passed ordinances closing down the shows, accusing the operators of inhumane exploitation of the ill and unfortunate.  By 1932 a New York Times reviewer commenting on Todd Browning’s horror film, Freaks, wrote: ” the difficulty is in telling whether it should be shown at the Rialto [movie house] —where it opened yesterday—or in , say, the Medical Centre.”

Interestingly, the objects of this early 20th-century “culture war,” the side show exhibits themselves, held with neither model.  Many considered themselves legitimate entertainers and, more importantly, prized being employed and financially independent.  Anything was better than being in the hands of the doctors.  Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1968) protested that they “loathed the very tone of the medical man’s voice,” and feared that the doctors would take them from the stage and “punch and pinch and take our pictures always.” 

In the sideshow exhibits’ desire to control their own lives we hear the beginning of a new expression of the disability experience that emerges in the late 20thth century–one that rejected both the moral and the medical models and argued instead for independent living and social integration—the social model.  In great part the issue of institutionalization provided the catalyst for the entire disability civil rights movement.  Advocates argued then, and continue to argue today, that institutionalization of people who are physically dependent is much more expensive than providing support services so that people can live in their own homes, integrated into society. Independent Living came to mean, not physical autonomy, but the ability to make decisions about one’s own life.

And what of Joseph Merrick and Frederick Treves?  Pomerance wrote about a time, the Victorian era, and in a time, the 1970’s and 80’s, when questions and assumptions about power fascinated and activated the public.  Some twenty years later these issues continue to trouble our public life:  Who controls our bodies? What is the value of charity in medical care?  Is health care a right or a privilege? What constitutes “quality of life?”  And the simplest and the most difficult:  How do we care for one another? 

A final note on the question of casting.  As The Elephant Man premiered in New York in 1980, disabled actors had begun to organize within the performing unions seeking access to wider casting opportunities—the chance to play disability-specific roles as well as so-called “non-specific” roles –lawyers, moms, etc.  All minority actors have fought such battles.  When William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory set out to create a Irish/Celtic literary theater that would “reveal the true nature of Ireland,” they drew the line at casting Irish actors.  Instead Yeats and Gregory traveled to England where they cast and rehearsed their revolutionary plays with English actors.  Not surprisingly few Irish actors of the day could make a living on the stage relegated as they were to playing the Irish drunk in melodramas. 

Victoria Ann Lewis, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts, University of Redlands; Founding Director Mark Taper Forum’s Other Voices

Sections of this essay were published in Victoria Ann Lewis, ed.’s  Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights.  New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2006. 

Sources: Robert Bogdan.  Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.  Paul Longmore.  “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People,” in Why I Burned This Book and other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

Now it’s your turn! Discuss Victoria Lewis’ essay here at the VSA arts of RI blog and then come see her speak in person at the pre-show discussion of the Gamm Theatre’s production of The Elephant Man on Friday October 5, 2007 at 6:30pm. For more information click here for the full pdf or to purchase tickets visit www.gammtheatre.org