Every class offered by the CO/LAB Theater Group begins with a dance party. But that’s only one of the things that makes the program so special, says Arielle Lever, CO/LAB’s co-founder and programs director.
A New York-based nonprofit for adults with developmental disabilities, CO/LAB — an acronym for Creative Opportunities without Limits And Boundaries — offers its actors small classes, personalized attention, low or no fees and most significantly, an entirely inclusive environment where they can express their creativity.
A Baltimore native who lives in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., Lever will bring the CO/LAB experience to the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center for a June 18 workshop from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
A professional actor and graduate of Syracuse University and the George Washington Carver Center for the Arts and Technology, Lever, 29, didn’t set out to form a nonprofit.
“The kernel for CO/LAB came from a program I was part of at Syracuse,” she says. “One of our faculty members had a daughter with Down syndrome and she started a theater program for her and her friends. So every Monday night, when the theater was dark, some of the theater students came together and worked with adults with special needs to put on plays. It was really impactful for me and others. For the first time, I could see how theater could be used as an outreach and educational tool.”
After Lever and some of her drama school friends graduated from Syracuse in 2010, they went to New York to work in the theater industry. “Very soon after, a few of us wanted to get involved with a group like the one at Syracuse. We couldn’t find it!” she says. “So the four of us — women with no formal training in starting a business — started it.”
By the fall of 2011, Lever and her friends were offering CO/LAB’s first class. “Everyone who took the class wanted more,” she says. “Within a year, there were three classes, and within two years we were running five classes.”
More than 700 people with developmental disabilities have participated in CO/LAB’s weekly and outreach programs, presenting over 25 original shows in four cities. CO/LAB does not have its own space, but rents studio space from other theater groups.
Funding for CO/LAB comes from private and government grants, individual donations, online campaigns and through events.
The program’s staff has grown to include nine part-time employees, eight teaching artists, an eight-member board, a consultant with expertise in disabilities, an arts education consultant and volunteers.
CO/LAB’s current offerings include weekly classes in ensemble theater, musical theater ensemble and musical theater production and specialty classes such as puppeteering and comedy.
A guest artists program exposes students to theater professionals such as cast members from Broadway shows like “Chicago” who teach master classes. Last summer, the theater group offered Camp BlueLab, its first program for youngsters ages 9 to 13. It was an opportunity for the adult students from CO/LAB’s new leadership initiative to practice their skills as counselors.
Additionally, CO/LAB partners with other programs to provide onsite workshops at employment and residential programs, performing arts centers and JCCs. Sara Rubinstein, director of the JCC of Greater Baltimore’s special needs program, says she is enthusiastic about the upcoming workshop.
“The JCC is dedicated to becoming a fully inclusive facility where people with disabilities are able to participate in everything we offer,” she says. “We feel like CO/LAB’s theater workshop is helping us to move in that direction.”
Lever says CO/LAB’s classes are open to anyone who identifies as having a developmental disability such as autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Classes are fully inclusive and students are not grouped by their abilities.
That’s something CO/LAB parent and board member Katherine Sweeney appreciates. “CO/LAB works with all levels of ability,” the Manhattan resident says. Sweeney’s 20-year-old son, Dustin, has autism and is effectively non-verbal, but that hasn’t stopped him from studying theater with CO/LAB.
Sweeney feels it’s beneficial for Dustin to take classes with people who are higher functioning. “We collectively fall into the trap of enabling and playing to their lowest instead of their highest rung,” she says. “CO/LAB reaches high instead of setting the bar low. Dusty likes the challenge.”
Dewitt Burgess of Yonkers, N.Y., has been participating in CO/LAB programs for five years. Now a member of CO/LAB’s leadership program, Burgess, 28, describes the program as “awesome.”
“I love it,” says Burgess. “CO/LAB has given me an opportunity to perform big theater and work with theater professionals that I had never experienced before.”
Says Sweeney: “Becky [Leifman, CO/LAB’s executive director] and Arielle have created a collaborative environment where they’re so patient, so respectful and embrace whatever anyone can contribute. It allows each individual to find their voice, even if they are non-verbal.”