How ArtStream was Founded
Sally Kinka, Patricia (Patty) Krauss, Emilia O’Connor, Nicolette (Nic) Stearns, and Patricia (Patti) Woolsey, ArtStream’s five fabulous founding directors, met at the theatre. Not as patrons, nor as actors, nor as technicians, but as teaching artists at the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA), now Imagination Stage, where they nourished children’s imaginations, encouraged their self-expression, and provided opportunities for them to perform on stage.
It was there, at the turn of the 21st century, and at the early stages of their teaching and performing careers, that they were introduced to Sally Bailey’s original and groundbreaking Wings to Fly*, an ingenious and entirely novel approach to performance that makes possible everyone’s creative participation on stage - regardless of ability, or disability. They also experienced the profound transformative power of the arts for their students, their families, and for themselves.
It was there, too, that these five intrepid women came up with the idea that they could bring the arts to people who were typically underserved by the arts. Knowing that children benefited from the creative, playful, and joyful possibilities of performance, they were convinced that people in non-traditional settings would, too. They would also bring quality programming to people in other geographic communities, beyond the walls of BAPA, wherever they needed or wanted them.
This broad, original mission was born out of love, driven by their complementary passions, and was truly collaborative. As Patti put it: If someone came to us with a good idea and we could afford to do it… we did it! Sally was passionate about, and had experience, working with kids with cancer; Nic was determined to show that skills developed on stage mirrored life beyond it; Patty was driven by a passion for dance as artistic expression/communication for people of all abilities; Patti dreamt of empowering young girls, but focused on administrative demands; Emilia had a special affinity for people with disabilities - a passion they all shared.
As they brainstormed with others about whom they could serve, the creative possibilities blew wide open. These fearless five began to knock on doors - of hospices and hospitals, adoption agencies and elder care homes, among others - to develop partnerships where none had existed before. They were energized by the novelty of the mission, braced for the challenge, and fulfilled as artists, knowing what they were doing would be fruitful and fun for people who didn’t otherwise have creative outlets. Much of what they offered had simply not been offered before. The need was great. The opportunities, even greater.
“All of us saw the power of the arts, and we wanted to use (the arts) to move society forward in some way.”
— Patricia Woolsey, Founding Executive Director, via Montgomery Magazine, August/September 2015
Hospice Caring, Inc. - their first contract - invited them to create programs for children experiencing grief at its Camp Caring. DC area hospitals welcomed Sally, her puppets, and her storybooks into wards with sick children. Adoption agencies recruited them for creative play for parents and their newly adopted children to help them learn to express themselves and communicate more easily. With Judy Rollins’** help, they even secured a very competitive berth in the Wounded Warrior units of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and later the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where they invented ways for wounded service members to find creative outlets to express themselves as they wrestled with new realities. As word got around about what they were doing, people would approach them for help to develop expressive arts programs. They were a band of five exuberant, roaming, teaching artists.
Many of these gigs were lined up before ArtStream was even ArtStream! In February 2005, kitchen table discussions began in earnest; articles of incorporation were developed; a bank account was opened - almost too late to cash their first $750 check! But in September 2005, ArtStream was incorporated, and in September 2006, received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
With ArtStream established, Imagination Stage (IS) saw a way to refocus its mission on children’s programs only - without abandoning the many adult actors who had thrived in the context of Wings to Fly. These actors would not be abandoned as Sally, Patricia, Emilia, Nic, and Patti - the teaching artists who ran IS’s performing companies - absorbed them into ArtStream, where they continued to flourish. These Inclusive Theatre Companies, now ArtStream’s, expanded to give adults with talent, drive, and creativity - but few opportunities - a chance to perform. They welcomed people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) - including autism- who, together with actors, mentors, and volunteers, collaborated to write, act, stage, and perform wholly original musical plays for the general public.
Since ArtStream’s founding in 2005, ArtStream has passed its hospital/rehabilitation work on to others, focusing instead on offering hundreds of classes for thousands of children and adults with IDDs in the Washington DC metro area - including many in partnership with area schools and disability service organizations. ArtStream’s longest ongoing partnership with Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children (CSAAC) began in 2007. Partnerships with KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now) and the Arc of Montgomery County followed soon after.
ArtStream’s Inclusive Theatre Companies, begun in 2006, are its capstone programs. Its companies - four in Maryland and two in Virginia - were so successful that wait lists grew too long to meet the demand for participation. ArtStream’s four Cabaret Companies - two in Virginia and two in Maryland - were introduced in 2018, to shorten those wait lists and create new opportunities for people interested in performing solo and small group music, dance, and dramatic scenes.
In 2005, inclusive theatre was emerging all over the world, but the need for more opportunities for people with disabilities far outstripped existing capacity. As Patti put it, “Working to that ideal wasn’t that hard, because we knew what we were doing would be fruitful and fun. We were determined. We saw what we thought needed to be done and decided to do it ourselves.” Did they ever. This remarkable quintet of passionate, entrepreneurial, and innovative women leveraged opportunities, developed new ones, and created something novel, even radical. Exuberantly.
ArtStream’s programs are inspired by the belief in the value of every human being, and animated by a passion to help people who have been marginalized find their voices, discover their creativity and strengths, and affirm their presence in the world.
Its magic transforms participants, whose poise and confidence extends into their daily lives. It also transforms the professionals, mentors, and volunteers who work with them, and their audiences, by proving how much people with IDDs can achieve.
ArtStream owes its successful foundations to these five remarkable, visionary women.
Founding Executive Director
Patricia Woolsey served as Executive Director from 2005 to 2014 and as Artistic Director from 2014 to 2015. Patricia laid the groundwork for ArtStream’s administration, funding, and reputation for high-quality programming. She was awarded a 2009 Local Hero Award from Bank of America and a 2013 Community Award by the Montgomery County Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities. Patricia's leadership, commitment, tenacity, and talents, made ArtStream’s success possible.
- Sally Kinka BFA (Theatre)
- Patricia Krauss, M. Div. BA (Dance), MA Ed (Severe and Profound Disabilities), M. Div.
- Emilia O’Connor, BA in Theater Performance MA in Transition Special Education
- Nicolette Stearns, BA (Communication), MA Ed
- Patricia Woolsey, BA (Liberal Arts, Drama), MA (Mythological Studies, Psychology) and RDT (Registered Drama Therapist)
*Wings to Fly: Bringing Theatre Arts to Students With Special Needs Sally Dorothy Bailey (1993) (Out of print)
See also Barrier-Free Theatre: Including Everyone in Theatre Arts – in Schools, Recreation, and Arts Programs – regardless of (dis)ability Sally Bailey (2010).
**National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military - Arts Health and Well-Being Across the Military Continuum Judy Rollins (PhD, RN - lead writer) (2013) www.ArtAcrossTheMilitary.org
**Promoting coping for children of hospitalized service members with combat injuries through creative arts engagement Judy Rollins and Ermyn King, Arts and Health 0215 Vol.7, No. 2, 109-122, https://doi.org/10.1080/17533015.2015.1019707