Do you always eat vanilla ice cream and try nothing else? Why would you miss out on all of those other flavors? “Un-Block the Music” asks the same question about art…if you open your eyes to more than the television news channels, you will find that diversity comes in many shapes, sizes and colors and wow….flavors. I am not just talking about Oklahoma and Hamilton, I am talking about blind artists, deaf artists, neurodiverse artists. When I interviewed Broadway Musical Director Andrea Grody, she introduced me to a wonderful theater company called TILT Performance Group. With a home-base of Central, Texas, the company was created with the mission to shatter disability stereotypes through inclusive theatre. Sometimes as a journalist, you just connect with someone you are interviewing. That happened for me with Adam Roberts, co-founder and artistic director of TILT.
Adam has many sides to his career, some of it influenced by a progressive vision disorder. At 20 years old, he had to give up driving because he had this progressive disorder and optic nerve atrophy. While it might have influenced his thinking, it certainly didn’t stop him from becoming successful. Adam went to school for music theory, did a lot of musical theater direction in his home state of Pennsylvania and then moved to Florida to earn a Masters Degree at Florida State.
Adam moved to Austin, Texas in 2005 and got into vocal coaching and conducting. He is a vocal coach who works with people who have injured their voices. When he moved he thought, “Once I get established here, I would love to be involved in some sort of theatre that would be inclusive and accessible. I didn’t know what that necessarily meant, but it was always on my mind.”
Around 2010, Adam met a guy whose brother had Angelman Syndrome, a rare, non-verbal disability. “I got to know his whole family. His mom was a theatre coach. I told her I’d love to be involved in inclusive theatre, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. She said, ‘ I don’t know if I am the right person, but I will keep my ear to the ground.’” About two years later, she sent Gail Dalrymple Adam’s way. Her son Peter was about to matriculate out of school for the blind and visually impaired. She realized that would mean all of his social and creative outlets would go away too.
“Peter’s theatre teacher at Texas School for the Blind, Robert Pierson, lived across the street from me.” Adam, Gail and Robert met to discuss goals and the result was the creation of TILT Performance Group. “We had 30 different names in the running, but we always came back to TILT, which is not an acronym. It stands for TILTing Perspectives,” Adam said.
“We did two performances our debut year. The first was entirely devised by the company. There were maybe 10 people in that production that had been students of Robert. Later that same year, we did Free To Be You And Me, a licensed musical.” And, for the next few years TILT did two or three productions. Even when Robert stepped away to pursue other opportunities, Gail and Adam continued.
“We became the first resident company at Ground Floor Theatre which was created by Lisa Sheps to give physical space to marginalized voices” that includes communities of color, LGBTQ, disabled, women and those not represented because of age. The year before the pandemic TILT produced its biggest production to date. Called Pandora, Life Outside The Box, it was written by a local superstar composer Allen Robertson of the PBS TV show The Biscuit Brothers. The show offers an alternative, positive story based on Pandora’s Box. It also became an original cast recording.
Then came CO-VID 19! TILT was growing so much that they were looking to hire a full time executive director to succeed Gail who was still volunteering her services. Three days before shutdown, Amy Tarver was hired. “All of a sudden, people who were already isolated became really isolated. But, the company turned to ZOOM.” While it seemed a tragic kick, shutdown ended up giving the company time to do its most important work, Adam said.
“Throughout the two years, we did six original productions. We filmed via ZOOM and had them professionally edited. I am so proud. I had no idea how all of that was going to go. It was trial by fire; especially for blind participants. ZOOM is difficult for people who are blind. We had volunteers sit on the phone for days and walk them through the process. Even though they couldn’t see themselves, they were still able to be seen by other company members,” Adam explained.
TILT’s reputation continues to grow and word about their productions and mission continues to progress as well. “For the first couple of years we didn’t know how to present the company. Did we say upfront that performers were people with disabilities or did we let people come and discover that for themselves. We didn’t know if people would be upset. Once we started doing the shows, the word got around and we started selling out. And, I have never seen so many people stay around for talkbacks afterwards. People were blown away, and had an experience they didn’t expect. I would have to cut off the questions…people kept going,” Adam said.
Having artists like Andrea Grody become involved with TILT brings even more attention. “Un-Block The Music” interviewed Andrea last spring when she was musically directing SUFFs, the Shaina Taub musical at the Public Theater in NYC. That by no means was her first show. She has worked on many shows including Broadway’s The Band’s Visit and Tootsie. Andrea has another side to her. She wrote a musical called Strange Faces which examines the trials and triumphs of three families navigating autism, perfect for TILT to produce.
It was a win win. Great for Andrea, but TILT was also “able to leverage her Broadway experience,” Adam said. “That was beneficial in getting funding, press coverage and our company was so thrilled to work with her. Andrea is incredibly special,” Adam said.
In addition to the productions offered by TILT during CO-VID, the company was able to realize another goal, TILT U. “We began offering daily online classes in acting, music, creative writing, dance and dramaturgy. We brought in guest artists. Our company members really were able to grow as perfromers. We are still offering all classes online, but in our next phase we hope to create in-school programming that furthers our mission to shattering disability stereotypes through inclusive theater,” Adam said.
For all updates about TILT performance and TILT U, go to https://www.tiltperformance.org/
Interested in Andrea Grody, check out Un-Block The Music’s story at: https://unblockthemusic.blog/2022/04/26/music-director-andrea-grody-brings-19th-amendment-quest-to-life-thru-music-in-suffs/
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