BWW Interview: TILT Performance Group is in the Business of Shattering Stereotypes
TILT Performance Group's Executive Director Amy Tarver and Artistic Director Adam Roberts discuss the unexpectedly positive impacts of COVID-19, upcoming projects, and shattering stereotypes on and off the stage.
Madelyn Geyer: Tell me a little bit about TILT and your role within it.
Adam Roberts: So TILT is an Austin-based theatre company composed entirely of artists with disabilities. I am the artistic director as well as one of the co-founders. The three of us-Robert Pearson, Gail Dalrymple, and myself- co-founded TILT in 2013. I'm primarily responsible for directing productions, handling auditions, working with guest directors or guest artists, and helping the cast devise any of the original pieces we do.
MG: What made the three of you decide to create TILT?
AR: I always knew I wanted to be involved with a company that used theatre as a platform for disability awareness and stories. Gail and I met in Austin through mutual friends, and she had the idea to start TILT because her son Peter was matriculating out of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired at the time. She realized his entire community had come from the theatre program there. And she thought: "what is going to remain for him after this?" And so the third co-founder, Robert Pearson, is the theatre director at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. So for adults who had matriculated out of situations where theatre had been their community, we wanted to create a group where that could continue.
Amy Tarver: The idea of community in theater is something everybody can relate to. I was a theater kid in high school and all my life. I mean, that was it for me. Imagine after getting out of acting school, and there was nothing. There wasn't a place for me to go. TILT was born out of one person, Gail's son, not necessarily having that access. So that's why it's great organizations like TILT are around.
MG: Amy, coming into TILT from the outside (not one of the founding members), how did you see it and how do you see it set itself apart?
AT: To me, part of an executive director for any nonprofit or arts organization is to support the art that's there and then manage the relationships internally and externally. I'm blessed that our company members are so incredible and talented. That is something that blew me away. I think that the biggest headline for TILT is our mission, which is to shatter stereotypes surrounding people living with disabilities. And the way that we do that is through performance art. A lot of the work that TILT has produced in the past is original. Historically, the original work is what makes the company members really thrive because they're a part of the creative process from the foundation, all the way to strike.
Telling stories through the lens of disability is not necessarily popularized yet. That's one of the reasons TILT creates all of our own original work, because those stories haven't been communicated to the broader audience. We're going to shatter those stereotypes by looking at the world, our communities, and human interactions through the lens of someone living with a disability. For able-bodied individuals, many of the things discussed in our shows just doesn't even occur to them. For me as the executive director, my entire goal is to promote that mission.
Something else that sets TILT apart from a majority of arts organizations that we pay our actors. Meaningful employment is one of the most important things we do as an organization. That's above everything else. Looking to continue with our mission of shattering stereotypes surrounding people with disabilities and paying them for the creative content and amazing work that they do are the highest priorities we have.
MG: Does COVID-19 impact TILT differently than other performance groups?
AR: Saying COVID-19 affected one positively is not something you hear a lot. I think it has forced our hand to move on things we have talked about but always got shelved. There have been positive outcomes and new programs we know we will carry forward. We had always talked about doing educational initiatives through TILT both externally and internally. We want to not only be focused on productions, but having a through line where we are educating and training as other companies would.
Once everything shut down, we wanted to keep everyone together and involved, so we quickly started an online class series called TILT U. In one of the main programs called TILT Together, we asked company members to create a series of artistic expressions reflecting what we're all going through. We shared the incredible stuff to our social media. It's been fulfilling because our company members are actually more engaged with each other than they would have been had we gone about business as usual in person. Since we've developed a robust beginning to a world class education initiative for actors with disabilities, we're looking to continue to offer our classes when we've moved out of the pandemic.
I personally also perceive a lower stress level from many of our company members who have disorders that involve sensory overload. To be together online has really has really provided a lot of access emotionally and physically.
AT: I agree, response is great. I'm so excited for TILT U. We've done improv classes, a creative writing series, and our company members are writing plays with one of our board members. We're also in talks to bring on more people to contribute to those classes.
MG: What does the rest of the year look like for TILT?
AT: Our show All Access is premiering online on July 11th. We've recorded it in Zoom calls and edited it together. It looks really good! After that we are doing an animated production called Going Graphic in September. We had thought about: was disability being represented in animation? I can't think of storytelling that's happened in that way. We're also planning a show called Grati-tunes around Thanksgiving. And then we're doing A Tilted Christmas Carol radio play for the holidays. Everything will be an original work, so that way we can highlight the perspectives of our actors and company members.
MG: You guys seem to have adjusted beautifully to your new circumstances.
AR: We have. I've also been advocating for TILT and other arts organizations that we still need to keep our mission as our North Star at all times. At all costs. Quick story: One company member is completely blind and lives alone. The idea of her joining our Zoom calls for our show All Access seemed impossible. Through a truly collaborative effort between some contracted staff and other company members, she was finally able, after months, to join us on Zoom. That is an example of shattering stereotypes that doesn't necessarily have to do with the story we're telling on stage or the way TILT uses theater, but just the process alone. So disability stereotypes were shattered for me through this through this trying time in this process. And keeping that missional alignment alive in that way.
MG: TILT is a theatre group whose members are from a marginalized community. With the current racial injustice that we've seen in this country, how are you responding?
AR: We immediately postponed our premiere of All Access a month because we wanted to yield that space and not center our voices in this moment. We are also reaching out to former black actors and actors of color who have been part of TILT as we're committed to diversifying our company base. At our next board meeting, we are starting the creation of an initiative that will help us not think "well, we're already diverse and marginalized so that's enough", because it's not. Our eyes have been awakened. A new fire has been lit under us to continue to reach out, to be very active in diversifying our board makeup and leadership and also in terms of our company and members. We also made a shift so our first production in our upcoming season will showcase poetry and monologues that center around a vigil theme. It's called Candles in the Night.
MG: What do you think the future of TILT holds due to COVID-19 and the pivots you've had to make?
AR: I see a future for TILT that is brighter than ever because of many things, but one of the primary reasons is the ability to provide access. Video conferencing is a means of access that has literally been in front of our faces for 6 years, but we never used it. Obviously when we can one hundred percent ensure the safety of actors and audiences we'll get back together in person again, but I can't imagine a situation where we don't continue to hybridize that with the virtual world we have, because the access and the and the success we've had with it has been great.
I also have to say, Amy coming on at the exact same time we made all these pivots has been really fantastic. It's because of her leadership and planning that we're doing what we're doing because all of that is tied to funding, strategy, and pursuits. We have also gained massive amounts of discernment. We have been thrown into a situation where we didn't have a choice but to do what we did. And we found a lot of success from doing those things.
AT: I see TILT's future as bright, too! The virtual medium is a medium that's been available to us for years, but it wasn't historically what you do in a theatre company, so it wasn't necessarily looked at. But I can only imagine the classes increasing. I can only imagine TILT U becoming a staple in the Austin theatre community and collaboration with other organizations. There's a lot of exciting things that can happen with a lot of different organizations going online.
I'm also astounded and grateful for all the amazing people that I have been able to meet and work with in TILT. And that specifically speaks to Adam and how we've been able to pivot and work together on figuring this out, because everybody is just doing their best and making it up as they go along. But I think what we're making up is really good.
ALL ACCESS: THE AUSTIN ARCHIVES streaming link:
TILT Performance Group proudly presents All Access: The Austin Archives, an original production created by the company and guest director Kelley Abell, this July.
Based on conversations with local residents who experience Austin through the lens of disability, this virtual production weaves interview footage into a unique original story about what it means to be offered access. The sitcom-style event takes place in a fictional Austin bar, welcoming audiences into a community where all are served and celebrated.
TILT is an Austin-based theatre company composed entirely of paid artists with disabilities. All Access is the second production of the company's sixth season and was written, rehearsed, and produced online amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is made possible by generous funding from The National Endowment for the Arts, the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, Capital Metro, Superior HealthPlan, and The Cipione Family Foundation.
All Access: The Austin Archives premieres July 11th at 7 pm CST on https://www.tiltperformance.org/ . In lieu of traditional tickets, a $20 per-person donation (payable during the premiere) is encouraged when possible. The production contains moments of adult subject matter.
TILT is on a mission to shatter stereotypes about disability through theatrical performance. For more information, visit tiltperformance.org or follow TILT on Facebook and Instagram @tiltperformance.
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Photo Credit: Adam Roberts