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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Piven Theatre named NEA grant recipient for supporting artists with developmental disabilities

Sofia Sorochinskaia/Daily Senior Staffer
The grant will help support instructors and keep the class free, according to Piven Artistic Director Jennifer Green.

Kevin D’Ambrosio has worked as a stage and voice actor for more than two decades, but he said he’s rarely seen projects like the Piven Empowerment through Enrichment Program.

“As a person with a disability, to have a community that is supported and celebrated — that’s the meaning of life right there,” D’Ambrosio said.

PEEP, an improvisation program for adults with developmental disabilities, has run since 2004 as a part of Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop — a long-standing performance space and acting workshop located at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

Now, Piven Theatre stands to receive $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to support its PEEP program.

Donna Osowski has been a part of Piven since 2006, and is currently the education and community partnership manager at the theatre. She became the PEEP lead in June 2022, helping organize and teach with two other instructors.

“Everybody needs to be seen,” Osowski said. “I think it can be so easy to not give everyone a chance to be seen and heard in the world, and I think having theatre helps that.”

While the program initially served acting teachers, it quickly shifted to students. In the eight-class course, participants go through a variety of acting and ensemble games, like mirroring each other’s expressions and movements. 

“We don’t do scripted material so much,” Osowski said. “It’s in the moment, trying to listen to an individual.” 

The program culminates in an open workshop, where friends and family can visit and see the players’ progress —, and an invitation into the wider PEEP improv performance ensemble.

The program offers numerous accessibility options and plenty of time for actors to catch up with one another. However, both D’Ambrosio and Osowski emphasized its similarity to other theater classes at Piven.

“It’s about working with each individual to find the best way for everyone to communicate with each other,” Osowski said. “But, in some ways, that’s pretty much any acting class.”

The grant wasn’t exactly unexpected — the theater received $10,000 from the endowment in 2022 — but it was certainly appreciated, said Piven Artistic Director Jennifer Green.

“Anyone in the arts is pleasantly surprised when funding continues,” Green said. “But we were thrilled that, after taking a look at the program, they saw that it was meaningful and important to the community for it to continue.”

While the roughly 15-person class sometimes requires a waiting list, it’s also always been free, thanks to a variety of grants throughout its nearly 20-year history.

Green said the grant is unlikely to go toward any specific expansions in the program and will instead help support the instructors and keep the class free.

“It’s not just the cost of the individual class but the wider infrastructure that supports it,” Green said. “It means that once the dollar comes in, that dollar can be used to help educate and offer new opportunities for artists.”

Spring courses will begin Feb. 28. Students unsure about the program should come by and watch a class and see if it’s for them, Osowski said.

“If you look to the wider world of theatre, often disabled artists are unrepresented.” Green said. “This was a way to really center the experiences and stories of this community.”

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