Estin Kiger knows some people think it's insensitive to ask about a person's disability, but he wants to be asked about his. "Sometimes, you have to break the rules," he says. "I would be honored if somebody asked me what I need to succeed. I am learning disabled and most people don't realize that because I'm a higher-functioning person with a disability."
One place that does ask is PHAME, the Northeast Portland nonprofit performing arts school for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities where Kiger has been a student for nearly 30 years. Founded in 1984, the academy has become a prominent fixture of the local theater scene, producing everything from original works to renditions of My Fair Lady and The Nativity Story.
The school's new rock opera, The Poet's Shadow, is its most ambitious venture yet. Created and performed almost entirely by PHAME students, the production blends melodrama and magical realism to create a musical journey that Lea Mulligan, who plays a leading role, says is "about every feeling—anger, excitement, sadness, energy and love."
The Poet's Shadow beckons us inside the mind of its heartbroken heroine, Elizabeth (Tess Raunig). Tormented by the collapse of her relationship with her ex-boyfriend—the appropriately named Beautiful Love (Aaron Hobson)—she barricades herself in her room, retreating into her moody poetry and away from her worried mother, Mrs. Peacock (Mulligan). There's also a surrealist twist: Elizabeth's art literally takes on a life of its own, propelling the production beyond the confines of straightforward drama and into the realm of the bizarre.
The opera's story coalesced after Portland Opera's Alexis Hamilton saw In a Single Breath, a 2017 play inspired by the experiences of PHAME students. "I was struck by the quality of the voices," Hamilton remembers. "I was struck by the depth of the performances." She began teaching a class at PHAME in libretto writing, during which eight students sculpted the characters and narrative of The Poet's Shadow.
The challenge of translating the ideas of the writers into music fell to the show's composers, most of whom also play in PHAME's iPad Ensemble, which will perform the opera's score with a string quartet from the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. The ensemble was pioneered by conductor Matthew Gailey as a way to give students who lacked the motor skills to play a traditional instrument the chance to become musicians.
While PHAME staff and students speak of the school rhapsodically, they don't deny the rigor that it demands. "People with disabilities are often, honestly, bubble-wrapped and are sort of told they are doing a great job when they might not be, and that's dehumanizing," says executive director Jenny Stadler.
Accordingly, the school seeks to empower its students by holding them to towering standards—as evidenced by a recent rehearsal in which director Bruce A. Hostetler challenged the performers to enrich their scenes by zeroing in on minute details, like a fleeting moment when Mrs. Peacock contemplates trying to connect with her daughter, then dejectedly turns away from her.
"He knows what he's talking about," Mulligan says of Hostetler. "He's very good at saying, 'You're doing this very well, but maybe this could be a little bit better,' and then we correct it and then it turns out better than it was the day before or maybe even better than it was that same day."
This Friday, audiences can experience every facet of The Poet's Shadow, from Raunig's luxuriant vocals as Elizabeth to the iPad Ensemble's gift for playing melodies that sound simultaneously timeless and futuristic. They will also get a glimpse inside a school that has grown into a nurturing community. "I would say we're like a PHAME family," Mulligan says. "Some of us call each other sisters and brothers."
If there's anyone who can appreciate PHAME's evolution, it's Kiger, who has seen the school expand over three decades. "Way back in the day, PHAME was a very small group," he says. "We would have rehearsals in a church basement, maybe do one or two performances a year and that was basically it. And then here we are 30 some odd years later, and we've kind of blossomed into a whole new organization. I'm thankful I stuck around."
SEE IT: The Poet's Shadow is at the Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers St., phamepdx.org. 7 pm Friday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, 7 pm Wednesday-Friday, 2 pm Saturday, Aug. 23-24, 25, 28-31. $5-$30.