It will make your day: Interact Center for the Arts brings arts to St. Paul

Artists at work in the studio space in their new St. Paul location. Photo by Margie O’Loughlin
Artists at work in the studio space in their new St. Paul location.
Photo by Margie O’Loughlin

A one-time St. Paul industrial building turned charter school has gone through yet another transformation. The Interact Center for Performing and Visual Arts has found a new home in the heart of the Midway area, at 1860 W. Minnehaha Ave. Interact is a licensed adult day program, which means that clients across the spectrum of disabilities come from all over the Twin Cities to participate in structured activities. At Interact, all of the activities center on making art in a multi-cultural, intergenerational environment.

Interact’s mission is to create art that challenges the perceptions of disabilities. The organization has been opening those doors for nearly 20 years, creating an atmosphere where both artists and audiences are challenged by what they see. That is the moment of interaction – when the idea of what is possible as human beings begins to change and grow.

Interact was founded by Executive Director Jeanne Calvit in 1996, and was housed in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis for 18 years. Calvit is an accomplished actress and director herself, a graduate of the Lecoq School of Theatre in Paris and a veteran of acting on stages across Europe for more than a decade.

Photos by Margie O'LoughlinCalvit was trained in a type of acting called physical theatre, which is how the performing artists work at Interact. The actors on stage have a strong sense of physical presence, emphasized with hand gestures and body language. They are a combination of artists with and without disabilities, from mainstream and marginalized communities, whose stories and life experiences drive their ensemble-generated work. The artists start with improvisation, trial and error. Even within that final form, every performance is slightly different – keeping the work fresh and alive.

Calvit and the other staff are excited about their new space in the Midway neighborhood. While they miss the “buzz” of downtown Minneapolis, the tradeoff has been well worth it. The search for this space was difficult but, according to Calvit, “we knew we would thrive here as soon as saw it.” The many amenities include larger classrooms, huge windows, a community/lunch room, storage space, free parking and, best of all, everything is on one level.

Interact has two components: performing and visual arts. The performing arts department puts on two full shows annually, with opportunities for all involved to sing, dance, act and create with a contagious spirit of joy. This year’s spring show, called “Fool’s Cap World Map,” will run April 23 – May 16. As in every show, the performing arts staff (all of whom are practicing artists themselves) will perform alongside Interact artists, showcasing the organization’s mission of radical inclusion.

The visual arts department recently moved into its new space with ease. On any given day, there are between
30-35 artists seated at tables painting, drawing, working with clay, weaving and making jewelry. The four staff members, led by studio and gallery manager Kathleen Richert, offer suggestions when asked, pulling from their own professional disciplines. The studio artists have two gallery shows each year and their hand-crafted artwork is available for purchase in the Interact Gallery during regular hours of operation.

Lori Leavitt, director of marketing and communications, is quick to point out that Interact is not an art school, but is a base for creating art on a professional level. All performing and visual artists are paid for their performance time or sale of their work through the Interact Gallery and private commissions. This model goes a long way toward giving artists with disabilities a sense of identity and stronger self-confidence. While artists do not need to have previous training in the arts to join Interact, they do need to have a professional work ethic and an earnest desire to work and live as an artist.

“Our goal is that each client feels happy, healthy and fulfilled as an artist and as a human being,” Leavitt said about the expectations of Interact artists.

Each of Interact’s 115 artists is paired with an artist mentor in their area of performing or visual arts – one of the professional artists they work with who sees them every day they’re there. In addition, each artist has a client care coordinator who serves as their case manager.

“Clients and staff alike come here and stay for a very long time,” Calvit said.

Photos by Margie O'LoughlinKaren Prince, client care coordinator for performing arts, has a rich background in social services and theatre. When she takes off her case manager hat, she works on every show backstage. “There’s a whole lot of choreography going on back there too: the timing of props and costume changes, helping people to get in their places on cue,” she said. “It’s an exciting place to be.”

The only requirements for placement at Interact are to fit somewhere in the spectrum of disabilities, be over 18 years old, have an interest in the arts and be willing to do your best work. If you or someone you know would like to explore the options for adult day placement at Interact, call 651-209-3575 to arrange an “experience day.”

(A version of this article recently appeared in the Midway-Como Monitor newspaper.)