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On Saturday, November 5, from 3-6 PM, Matheny Medical and Education Center’s Art Access Program will present “Full Circle 2011: Dimensions”, an afternoon of visual and performing arts, at their facility in Peapack, NJ.

This annual event features an art gallery exhibition and reception, with gourmet food tasting and beverages, and an hour-long multi-media stage production.
On the surface, this sounds like any number of cultural offerings. But the event is exceptional because the works of art on display and the performances on stage are all created by Matheny clients – people who are challenged by severe, medically complex disabilities. They are unable to move on their own. Most cannot speak. In their everyday environment, their choices are limited, but in the Arts Access program, they are given complete control. “Full Circle,” Burt Brooks, Arts Access’ drama facilitator said, “provides a showcase for their work.”

By approaching the creative process in an unrestrained way, Brooks says, and breaking down every art discipline into its most basic elements, you make all art accessible. “You have people choreographing a dance who have never taken a step.”

Brooks and the other Arts Access facilitators are all artists. Their role, Brooks explains, is to provide the tools and develop the system for creative expression. And then they get out of the way. “We become the unimportant – and non-creative – aspect.”

The program operates on a philosophy designed to respect the creative process, offering (1) total freedom of choice, (2) complete neutrality (no suggestions, Brooks explains), (3) artists assisting artists, and (4) no preconceptions (resisting the influence of established schools of thought).

The theme for this year’s Full Circle is “Dimension.” Last year, it was “Human Condition.” “We try to keep it broad,” Brooks says, “so the work touches on a lot of different things.”

This year’s program includes theater, poetry, dramatic readings – both newly penned and reimagined pieces – drama, video and dance.

One spoken word piece is what Brooks calls a “love compilation”, performed by a professional actor, hired for the event. “The client wouldn’t be able to project well enough to present the work,” Brooks explains, “but will be standing on stage next to the actor.

Another work is movement, described by Brooks as “a dance-slash-fight piece inspired by the video game, Mortal Kombat.” The choreographer, Chris, conceived the movements, and he will be on stage with the two able-bodied dancers, calling out moves. “It sounds like war cries,” Brooks explains.

In preparing for this show, one challenge is to keep the professional actors from interpreting the clients’ works. “I insist on word perfect memorization from the actors,” Brooks says, so the performed work comes as close as possible to the original intent. “If there’s any question,” he adds, “we go to the client and ask what they are trying to convey.”

Before coming to Arts Access, Brooks was a professional actor. He was slowly transitioning into producing and screenwriting when he stumbled upon an ad for the Matheny job. “I was in the interview with the program facilitator and he was laying out the principles and goals,” Brooks says. “Before he even finished talking about it, I was hooked. The challenge of breaking down the mystical world of drama and making it accessible really got me going.”

Brooks says that others who are involved feel the same way. After doing a smaller scale performance of Full Circle for children at Trenton State Museum, one of the actresses told him that she felt a tremendous responsibility to the work she was presenting. “Without any prompting from us,” he said, “she really recognized what we had been talking about.”

The process of helping people to realize their creative potential is incredibly satisfying for Brooks. After the Trenton State Museum show, several children went up on stage to have pictures taken with the Mortal Kombat choreographer. And Brooks says that some clients are able to sell their paintings, which makes them incredibly happy.

“Just being here, seeing this facility, and all the artwork and expression all over the place,” Brooks says, “gives you a sense of how great humanity can be.”

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Shen Shellenberger
Shen Shellenberger

Shen’s been a Jersey girl for most of her life, other than living for a three-year stretch in Portland, Oregon, and six magical months in Tokyo. Shen loves the arts in all of its various forms – from the beauty of a perfectly-placed base hit to the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll – and has successfully passed on this appreciation to her three grown children. Shen’s most recent jobs include WXPN (1993-2001) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2003-present). Shen also has been a working freelancer for 25 years, and operated her own frame shop in Mt. Holly in the late-70s.