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Reaching for the Stars

For the actors and artists of Alchemia, theater is life



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Alchemia, founded in 1998 by Lorin Kaufmann and Julia Macdougall, is a steadily expanding, community-based day program with weekday activities in Novato, Petaluma and Santa Rosa. Created to serve adults with developmental disabilities, Alchemia provides a wide array of arts instruction, including painting and ceramics classes, dance and choreography workshops, creative writing classes, musical theater and singing instruction, and—using space at Santa Rosa's Sixth Street Playhouse—its own designated theater company.

Funded by a generous grant from the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities, Theater for Life—along with Alchemia's other programs, like the art gallery Artists Without Limits—was designed to meet the needs of adults with learning disabilities, Down syndrome, Asperger's and other conditions, specifically targeting those who identify as artists. Currently, the cast of Pin Pin, which launches several months of touring on May 4, range in age from 22 to 35 years old.

"What distinguishes the Theater for Life program from other vocational work-oriented programs," explains Jahren, who began as a theater instructor seven years ago, "is that our program encourages them to think of themselves as artists—because they are artists. For real. Some of our actors are huge divas. If it weren't for their disability, they'd be rockin' it in L.A. They are that good. So we provide a space for them to rock it right here."

For Jahren, recognizing the performers as artists includes giving them a stipend for their work in shows like Pin Pin. The majority of donations collected at performances go to the actors.

In her office at Sixth Street, Jahren sits at her computer, calling up photos from past productions. Since joining Alchemia, her troupe of actors has presented Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, and several original musicals, including Little Red, a play about stranger awareness that was toured to thousands of students in the North Bay.

The current show opens its tour with a four-performance run at Santa Rosa's Glaser Center and then to the Studio at Sixth Street for several more performances. Jahren is still scheduling the rest of the show's itinerary, which is expected to continue through spring and summer.

The Adventures of Pin Pin, which contains musical lessons about how to handle bullying, was inspired, in part, by one of Alchemia's actors.

"Vince didn't speak until he was five years old," explains Jahren, "and when he did finally speak, he was speaking in complete sentences. One of the very first things he said to his mother was, 'Mama, I am just like Pinocchio. I'm not a real boy!' That's how a lot of these artists feel, like the world doesn't see them as one of them—so that was the genesis of this play."

In the show, Vince, 22, plays a number of characters, including a playfully menacing cheetah with hip-hop moves.

"When I first came here, I came to see Little Red," Vince says, "and I was surprised by it. I was inspired by the idea of being an actor. I was thinking, 'Wow! I wish I could be up there, too.' Now I'm in this show, and I really like who I am. When I'm acting, I'm happy. So it's a dream come true."

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