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Stream of Consciousness

ArtStream reaches out to underserved artistic communities.

Patricia Woolsey finds the process both exhilarating and frightening. “It’s very scary and exciting to walk into the rehearsals not knowing what the play is going to be about,” she said.

But more than anything, the executive director of ArtStream finds her organization’s work to be rewarding for the actors and actresses involved.

“I think they feel real ownership of it. It’s a chance for them to be creative,” she said.

ArtStream was founded by a collection of artists who believe in the “transformative power” of the arts. “Their mission is essentially to bring the arts to underserved communities — people who have a need for the arts but in most cases do not have access to them,” said Luke Warren, a media consultant for ArtStream. Those communities include people with disabilities, in nursing homes and hospices, or children facing medical or psychological adversity.

What began as a single centralized entity in Montgomery County, Md., has grown into four different ArtStream locations — including one in Arlington that also draws from Alexandria and Fairfax.

Currently, ArtStream is producing a show with The Arlington Inclusive Theatre Company called “That Thing Called Love!” at the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre (125 South Old Glebe Road/3501 2nd Street) through Saturday, March 31. The cast includes nine actors with Down’s Syndrome.

Two years ago, Imagination Stage gave ArtStream two adult inclusive theater companies after it decided to focus more on children’s productions, according to Woolsey. This is the first season ArtStream is offering its performance company.

“Some of the actors they knew from Imagination Stage. Some of it is just word of mouth,” said Warren. “It’s a pretty tight-knit community. It’s one of the reasons they do these performances as well: to put a public face on it.”

THE CREATIVE PROCESS for “That Thing Called Love!” began last year. ArtStream holds acting classes throughout the year, and in September began auditions for its 2007 show.

What follows is something Warren called “an organic process.” Woolsey, the writer and director of the show, meets with the actors to brainstorm ideas for the production’s universal theme. Once that’s established, there are improvisations in a workshop that Woolsey records and then transcribes. She said she takes as much as she can from her actors, and bases characters around what they are able to accomplish on stage. “Our goal is to highlight the abilities of the actors. If they can initiate lines, or if they’re non-verbal, we can accommodate that,” she said.

Writing occurred through December. Blocking, memorizing and rehearsals began in January — once a week for two hours — before the show’s debut last week.

“All of us learn differently. It’s a different style of directing, a different style of learning,” said Woolsey.

But like other mainstream productions, the process creates strong bonds between the cast and the instructors. ArtStream’s Web site, www.art-stream.org provides testimonials that speak to that fact, including a letter from actor Leslie Ellen Moore to ArtStream class director Nicolette Stearns: “I got a card for you. It says that I love you so so much. Um...I'm so happy that I like my new people that I love in acting class. I love it. It's nice to go. It makes me having fun. I'm going to miss acting class tonight. I can't wait till next Tuesday. I am going to give you a hug.”

ALONG WITH THE INCLUSIVE theater, ArtStream also offers services for younger fans of the arts. “Kids Enjoy Exercise Now” is a program that teaches music and movement classes to young adults with disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy. The company’s “Puppet Series” is a series of shows for young audiences that deal with “a special healing or enlightening theme.”

Woolsey said the instructors for ArtStream are arts professionals, and that the company is always seeking more help. “We have a system in place where if people want to come in and volunteer, they can come aboard as a paid assistant.”

The organization is funded through fees for its programs, including a tuition fee for actors, as well as individual donations and ticket sales. Woolsey said ArtStream is beginning to look into merchandising and e-commerce. Warren said expansion of the company into Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County could come down the road.

Woolsey said ArtStream is ready to go wherever there’s an underserved community that art can help.

“I think it’s a human right,” she said. “It’s inherent in all of us to be creative.”