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The rock opera 'The Poet's Shadow' stars Tess Raunig and four others from the academy; Portland Opera helps out with logistics

COURTESY PHOTO: FRIDERIKE HEUER - The principal cast of PHAME Academy's 'The Poet's Shadow' includes (left to right) Maxwell Rochette, Tess Raunig, Lea Mulligan, Anne-Marie Plass and Aaron Hobson. It stages Aug. 23-31 at Hampton Opera Center.From Tess Raunig's perspective, everybody at PHAME Academy has talent; it's just a matter of opportunities.

A Portland arts and performance school for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs), PHAME provides opportunities for its students, and organizers want to help them receive more opportunities in the theater world.

"A lot of times folks with disabilities get pushed aside as somebody who can't be talented," Raunig said. "Anyone can sing."

Raunig speaks from first-hand knowledge, living with cerebral palsy and using a wheelchair but with a mind as sharp as anyone's and a soprano voice comparable to any Portland professional's.

"It wasn't about my talent," said Raunig, a University of Montana graduate who has lived in Portland for six years. "But my disability is why I haven't been cast. Some people have had really bad experiences."

Raunig, who became a student at PHAME in January 2018 and then a teacher in August 2018, takes to the stage and plays the lead role in the group's annual performance, "The Poet's Shadow," Aug. 23-31 at Hampton Opera Center. As it seeks new partnerships with Portland arts companies, PHAME has partnered with Portland Opera on the rock opera, which has been created by PHAME students in the past 18 months. Yes, 18 months; it's quite an extensive project.

Organizers hope such a partnership elevates the standing of PHAME in the city's arts arena and, perhaps, provides more opportunities for students.

"This is the biggest project that we've ever done," said Jenny Stadler, PHAME executive director. "PHAME started 35 years ago, by families of adults with developmental disabilities who wanted to give them the chance to perform.

"How do you construct an opera? There's a lot of learning in a short amount of time," from students creating costumes to sets to the libretto itself, Stadler said. "It took us a long time."

COURTESY PHOTO: FRIDERIKE HEUER - The rock opera 'The Poet's Shadow' is about Elizabeth (left, played by Tess Raunig) breaking up with lover Beautiful Love (right, played by Aaron Hobson) and turning to poetry to channel feelings.Students take classes in all aspects of theater production and work on one musical each year — acting, writing, costumes, set design, etc. With "The Poet's Shadow," it's the first time students have written the entire story, which follows a character (Elizabeth) who breaks off a relationship with a lover (Beautiful Love, played by Aaron Hobson) and then turns to poetry to channel feelings, and poems take on a life of their own. In search of resolution, Elizabeth embarks on a quest that challenges notions of courage, strength and love.

Other principal actors are Lea Mulligan, Anne-Marie Plass and Maxwell Rochette. There are 20 people in the chorus, five in an iPad ensemble and eight in the movement group. The PHAME show also incorporates choreography by Wobbly Dance in the movement chorus, and members of Metropolitan Youth Symphony team with PHAME students in using iPads for the production's orchestra.

Bruce Hostetler, artistic director of Portland Revels, directs.

"It's so much deeper than a breakup story," Raunig said. "Poetry comes alive. It's a catalyst for deep emotion and feeling, a great allegory for depression, as anger and sadness overtake her."

Portland Opera has helped with voice lessons, libretto writing, production materials and space for performances. Alexis Hamilton, opera manager of education and outreach, actually reached out to PHAME at one point to inquire about collaborating, and then she took in PHAME's "A Single Breath" performance.

"We're excited to see it come to fruition," Hamilton said.

"What is a teacher's dream is they are open to take risks. So open to new things and working on it. It's always such a joy to find the way to communicate and see the understanding dawn."

Hamilton added that Raunig "is a beautiful singer. It's a really beautiful sound. (Raunig) is a perfect choice for this role, a classically trained soprano who has (their) own band that does contemporary and popular music."

Hobson, meanwhile, also has a "phenomenal" voice, Hostetler said, and Hobson certainly keeps the cast loose with his fun-loving nature.

COURTESY PHOTO: FRIDERIKE HEUER - HOSTETLERIt's Hostetler's first time directing a PHAME production. He feels PHAME students have "a connection to the story and how to tell stories that you don't always get with even professional actors."

With PHAME, he has learned, "there is an assumption of excellence. There's no reason that this is not going to be the most fantastic production ever. There's a lot of experience and talent out there."

Again, students do virtually everything with productions such as "The Poet's Shadow." Said costumes teacher Liliane Hunt: "We wanted to find a way to incorporate everybody's input. Kind of like cooking." Each student had a suggestion about a costume element, and each suggestion made it into costume design.

PHAME has about 120 students each term, ages 18-75. There are 10 weeks of classes in each of three terms in the school year. Stadler says PHAME models itself after a community college or arts organization.

Raunig said working with PHAME students "requires mindfulness. My mind works very quickly, and I have to slow down."

Hostetler agreed with Raunig: It's unfortunate some people don't get cast in some productions, and "let's change this, and give somebody like Tess a chance to get cast in anything (they) want."

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