Creative Community at the CO/LAB Theater Group

Podcast Episode 78 When we go to the theatre we see a different world than the one we live in. Theatre can broaden our horizons challenge our perceptions and this is exactly what the CO/LAB Theater Group aims to do. CO/LAB provides, people with additional needs, a space to be creative and along the way change their perceptions of themselves as well as the perceptions of the communities they live in.

This week guests are Becky Leifman Co-founder of CO/LAB and Liz one of the CO/LAB actors. Becky discusses why and how CO/LAB came about, through the passion of a few friends to provide a creative outlet for a group of people who don’t always have those opportunities. She also discusses the challenges along the way including those around funding. Becky also talks about the wider role that CO/LAB seeks to have in the wider community to educate people about the talents and skills of the CO/LAB actors. Liz talks about the impact that being at CO/LAB has had on helping her develop her skills as an actor whilst also widening her social network. She also talks about the impact CO/LAB has also had in terms of her increased self-confidence.

The CO/LAB Theater Group is not only providing a space for creativity for people with additional needs it is building a community of like-minded people that understand the importance of creativity in being human.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
Debra: Welcome to Episode 78 of the Journey Skills podcast. This week we are at the theatre specifically with the CO/LAB Theater Group which is based in New York. More often than not, the topics in this podcast to focus around work and independent living so it’s kind of nice to have a change of pace in a way and focus on something a bit more around having fun.

Having said that, this week’s topic of discussion is as important as a job and having somewhere to live. It’s about building confidence, developing communication skills, finding a place to belong, and helping young people with additional needs not become isolated. CO/LAB is definitely more than just about theater and acting, it’s about community and changing perceptions.

I first heard about CO/LAB from Katie Sweeney who featured in Episode 58. She talked about the impact CO/LAB had had on her son, Dusty’s life. She talked about how they’d helped him develop skills, not just acting skills but life skills. CO/LAB is a pretty amazing project and again, it’s one of those things that happen because a few passionate people decided to go out and do something.

I’m talking to one of the founders, Becky and also to one of the CO/LAB actors, Liz. When I was talking to Becky and Liz, listening to them, it really struck me how simple the solutions that can change people’s futures can actually be. Of course, I’m not saying it was easy to set up CO/LAB, far from that and Becky talks about those challenges. But if you listen to how important CO/LAB is for the actors, and the volunteers and the parents, and carers. I hope you feel as inspired as I did.

Now I’m not about to start up a theater company and neither are you probably, but it did remind me that there is already a need to foster our young people’s creative side. And the benefits to doing that are much more wide reaching than we probably aim they could be.

Debra: Today I am talking to Becky Leifman who is the co-founder of CO/LAB Theater Group and also to Liz who’s one of the actors from CO/LAB. Welcome!

Becky: Thank you for having us.

Debra: Can I start with you Becky? Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and also about how CO/LAB got started and what it actually does?

Becky: Sure. My name is Becky Leifman. I am a co-founder and the executive director of CO/LAB Theater Group. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois and I moved out east to go to college at Syracuse University and at Syracuse there was a program where the drama majors, of which I was one, worked with individuals with disabilities every Monday night and would make a performance. And then when I moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater so did the other co-founders of CO/LAB who are also graduates at Syracuse and we all wanted to start a program like the one that we had at school. So we talked to a bunch of different theaters and a couple of disability agencies around the city just to see if they were interested in hosting a class where we would be the teaching artists and a lot of places said No, every place said No. And we said, “Okay, well we’re just gonna make a website and try and do it ourselves then.” And we started with one class of thirteen actors in 2011 and that we have grown tremendously since then.

Debra: What exactly do you do at CO/LAB? So is it some theater workshops or do you put on performances?

Becky: We have two different legs of programming. We have CO/LAB: core and CO/LAB: connect. CO/LAB: core is our weekly classes and one-off workshops where actors with developmental disabilities come to CO/LAB to take a class so they can sign up for a weekly class and then it will culminate in a performance most of the time. Or they can sign up for one-off workshops which is just like a checkpoint on a specific topic of theater or with a specific guest artists. On the other side of our programming is CO/LAB: connect. And CO/LAB: connect is when CO/LAB teaching artists go out into the community and host workshops at partnering facilities. So we’ll go to JCC in Manhattan and run a hour-long workshop with them every week that will culminate in the sharing. So in those partnerships a lot of the time, the partner is supplying the participants and we’re providing the workshop.

Debra: My next question is actually about the impact that CO/LAB has on people’s lives and families and actors. So, I guess both of you, Liz, you can answer this as well about the impact it has had on your life, what you learn when you work with CO/LAB? And Becky for you as well, what’s the impact being on families and volunteers?

Liz: For me, meet new people and a chance to be comfortable in the acting world. Basically that’s very much it.

Becky: I think what Liz was saying is really the impact that we’re hoping to have is.. CO/LAB’s mission is to provide a creative and social outlet through theater arts. So we really try to have parts of our programming where we are working on both that creative and that social outlet. So the social part being they’re making new friends, they’re in new classes with people every single time. Sometimes there’s returning, sometimes there’s new people. We try to have a couple of community events a year that’s really fun. And then creatively, we hope that our actors are learning how to act. If they already know how to act, building upon those skills and teaching a bunch of different acting skills, dancing, singing. But in class outcomes, I would say on a larger scale, I think that everybody who comes into a class and works with us is developing a sense of community, a sense of belonging. Listen I just had a meeting about this stuff last night actually.

Liz: Yeah! We have class last night.

Becky: And certainly a sense of self-awareness and confidence I think developing throughout these classes. Do you feel that, Liz?

Liz: Yes, definitely! Yeah, I think I’m more aware and stuff like that. And it’s fun!

Debra: That does help, doesn’t it? If it’s fun as well. I wonder for you as well, these skills that you learn at CO/LAB, do you take them outside into what you do in the rest of your day?

Liz: Yeah, like we learn how to take the lead. That helps me a lot like talking to people, my wants, and means and stuff like that. Yeah, definitely helps in real life situations.

Debra: Becky, did you say that also in terms of volunteers? There must be a real sense of as you said community but the volunteers must have learned so much about people that they’re working with?

Becky: Totally! At CO/LAB, the way we’re set up actually is we have a huge volunteer population. We call them CO/LAB supporting artists so they are both supporting the actors and the teaching artists in the classroom. And our supporting artists, a lot of them come like have a theater background and some of them don’t and they’ve joined CO/LAB because they wanna see their outlet and some of them joined because they have a sibling with a disability and they wanna be connected to that here in New York.

I would say a lot of our supporting artists, (I think all of us) really find what acceptance and respect really means within those classrooms. Meeting people where they’re at and all the different ways that you use to potentially communicate with a team. And these are all skills that anybody in the CO/LAB class can bring outside of the room.

Liz: Absolutely!

Debra: Working together and understanding each other and accepting people for the skills that they bring to… I’d imagine everyone brings different skills to theater. The things that they can do better than someone else or specific things so that’s really important and that’s what I guess I like when I hear about CO/LAB. What I like about the whole model is people just working together. Seems to me by doing it, of course theaters are one way to that. Just a question I guess for Liz as well, what is exactly have you been doing at CO/LAB? What kind of theater? Have you been doing acting?

Liz: I do mostly ensemble acting and musical for one semester. I’ve been with CO/LAB for 7 years.

Becky: What skills or specific part of ensemble theater do you remember learning?

Liz: A Hustle over the Crowd

Becky: Sure. A Hustle over the Crowd is how we quiet down our room when things get rowdy and refocus. So what about things like improv and characterized.

Liz: Yeah, mostly improv and character and things like that.

Debra: It’s a big part of your life then the sort of theater that you do with CO/LAB.

Liz: Yeah.

Debra: What are the main challenges in getting CO/LAB up and running?

Becky: Well I’m sure it comes as no surprise that funding is always the challenge. You know, we’ve been around 9 years and every year we have grown both insides of our programs but also financially. And I think one of our early challenges that just continues would probably every single organization is how to balance your bandwidth with your human resources with your program growth and making sure that our cast is supported both financially and from a emotional perspective and has like the right allocation of work in order to carry out our programs efficiently and you know we never wanna lose the integrity of our programs. So we like to grow those at the same time and it took us a while to really find that balance. And then funding is a challenge too, it’s hard when you’re new, it’s hard when you’re young and when you’re applying for a bunch of grants are asking a bunch of folks for money who haven’t had the opportunity to see your work or you don’t have enough materials that your work has been happening long enough. It takes a while to build up trust within that non-profit organization and the funding community.

Debra: So with the funding, you apply for grants and things like that?

Becky: So I would say 80-85% of our revenue comes from foundations, government, and individuals and then on the 15-20% comes from things like ticket sales or CO/LAB:connect program when partners pay to bring us in. We make a little of revenues that way as well but the main source of support really comes from grants and people.

Debra: So the guys like Liz, Liz how did you find out about CO/LAB? How did you come to CO/LAB?

Liz: I came to CO/LAB, there was a place I was at had like a workshop with different recreation things and CO/LAB was one of them. (Like a fair?) Yes, a fair!

Debra: So Becky, is that how you.. you go out and recruit the guys to come and work with you at CO/LAB?

Becky: A lot of our recruitment is truly done through word of mouth. Our actors are our best marketing tool we have and their families. So we have friends quickly because of that but then we also do takeout tables at fairs around the city primarily like disability focus like Liz was saying is if there’s a family fair or recreational fair. We try to set up a table and have people sign up or establish partnerships between organisations.

Debra: In terms of people finding you, they just come to you is there any funding that people bring with them because I don’t know how it works in the US for that, do they bring any funding or do they.. you just literally say someone wants to join you and then “We’ve got the funding available and we’ll just put together package that suits you”. And I suppose leading on to that, do you sit down with individuals and go like “This would be the right thing for you to be doing with CO/LAB”?

Becky: So to answer the second question first, at CO/LAB our core value is that all are welcome and we truly believe and live with that every day. And that being said, there’s no not being right for CO/LAB. We take actors with a tons of different ways of communicating, ways of behaving, ways of acting obviously, with the breathing. And then, to start to answer your first question about funding, CO/LAB weekly core classes are free to participants and therefore the funding that that participants could bring with them, we don’t need in the same way as some other programs that are like solely supported by that participation fee. So we are truly really funded by grants and individuals and that is how our programs can keep running. I would say families that can and want to will donate throughout the year, whether that is the gift amount ranges and it doesn’t matter. You know, whatever support anybody can give we really appreciate it.

Liz: We do like some raffles. It comes with all the surprises.

Becky: Yes, we have a raffle at CO/LABaret.

Liz: And it was like I’m a big winner.

Becky: Yes, she won the raffle so many times.

Debra: That’s so sweet.

Liz: I’m bringing people sometimes in that way. Like my whole table can just get.

Debra: So in terms of the future, (and this is a question for both of you really) what’s the future plans for CO/LAB and also Liz, what are your future plans with CO/LAB?

Becky: So last night, we actually had an advocacy community meeting which is a committee that involves some board members, some teaching artists, some supporting artists, cast, actors, and parents to really make sure that we are getting all of our stakeholders’ voices heard on a board of level and in decision-making capacity. We are in the first year of a 3-year strategic plan. And in that plan, we hope to get out into the community a bit more and understand how CO/LAB fit into this art and disability landscape in New York but also potentially beyond. We are looking to grow our programs and our budget with that like I was saying before. We are looking to push artistic boundaries so offering new kinds of classes, new lengths of classes, new topics, new teachers. Next year is our 10th anniversary so part of our plan revolve around how we can capitalize on that for funding and also how to build our resources towards the future.

Liz: For me, I’m gonna keep on going to CO/LAB as long as I can.

Becky: If we could do a show around any kind of theme, what would you pick?

Liz: I’d pick dogs.

Becky: Hmm that’s a good theme.

Liz: Yeah, dogs and pets.

Becky: Pets? All of our shows center around a theme and one of Liz’s ideas last night was that in 10 years, the actors will pick the theme (which I love). So, Liz, what makes CO/LAB unique?

Liz: Oh, CO/LAB’s unique because they only meet once a week, you don’t have to meet more than that and also they want me to experience the be right thing for like that If they want to sit, they can sit. If they want to stand, they can stand. They can do whatever they want. If you need to walk through the room, you can. And oh, yeah, we have a chart in the room where you can write how you’re feeling. So they know how you’re feeling in the class. What was that called?

Becky: The Mood Meter.

Liz: The Mood Meter, yeah. A lot of fun.

Debra: Thank you both so much for your time.

Becky: You are welcome!

Debra: Key takeaway– the chance to be creative is something we all deserve and we all need.

CO/LAB Theater Group
CO/LAB on Facebook
Theater For All TEDx

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