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Volume 26, Number 2 — February 2019

POPS: The Power of Performing Arts

Kathleen Buttolph
Kathleen Buttolph

ETSU gives Disabled the chance to be part of theater group

April 19, 2011

JOHNSON CITY, TN Local children and adults with disabilities are becoming stars on the theater stage, thanks to a new arts program established by a graduate student and faculty member from East Tennessee State University.

Having a program that utilized theater as an intervention tool for youth had already been a goal for Kathleen Buttolph, a student in the Master of Arts in Teaching program in the Claudius G. Clemmer College of Education. But when she spoke to a group of parents and family members of children with disabilities last December, the enthusiasm and interest among the group could not be contained.

"When I went to give that talk, it was not to drum up support for a new arts group," said Buttolph, who for six years served as artistic director of the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre.

Those she spoke to were attending a Families and Siblings United program, which is coordinated by an ETSU faculty member and students approximately six times per year. Held on Sunday afternoons, the event offers games, activities, and group discussions for siblings and families of children with disabilities.

"I had directed shows and taught drama classes while at the Jonesborough theater, so I shared with the parents my experiences in working with individuals with learning disabilities and exceptionalities, such as autism, Down syndrome, and Asperger's syndrome, and the positive influence theater had in the students' lives, particularly in building focus and helping them express emotions.

"The parents were "psyched' about the possibilities and wanted to get their kids involved immediately," Buttolph said.

But there were no local programs designed at that time specifically for children with disabilities.

Interest continued to build. During her Christmas break, Buttolph talked with one of her ETSU professors, Dr. Cynthia Chambers, assistant professor of Human Development and Learning, about the possibility of starting a theater group. Chambers, who founded the Families and Siblings United program, had been the one who invited Buttolph to speak at the parents meeting.

With full support and encouragement from Chambers and a little nudging Buttolph agreed, and the two women moved forward with their plans to establish the new arts organization.

"The performing arts are a wonderful outlet for people of all ages," she said. "I just really wanted theater to be an option for everyone."

And it was this "power" of theater that Buttolph used to coin the name of the new program Power of Performing Arts, or POP Arts.

Buttolph e-mailed those who had expressed interest, letting them know POP Arts was a go, and an audition was scheduled for January.

The response was tremendous.

"A lot of people came out, which was amazing since we didn't really advertise it," Buttolph said. "We called it an audition, and we treated it like one, but it really was a chance for us to determine where we should place each person and get an idea of what his or her capabilities might be."

Everyone who came to the audition got a role. The acting group includes people from kindergarten age through 30.

While Buttolph brought a background in teaching drama and directing, Chambers and her ETSU students stepped up to offer expertise in working with children and adults with disabilities, particularly in a large group setting.

"It's a wonderful partnership," Buttolph said. "The student volunteers have been a true blessing. Dr. Chambers' students are there regularly, and we've also had volunteers from other programs, like the Master of Arts in Teaching program and counseling. Other theater teachers have been there to lend their support as well."

Since the audition, the group has been meeting on Tuesday evenings and on Saturdays, either at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church or the Wayne G. Basler Center for Physical Activity at ETSU. Membership in POP Arts was extended to the siblings of children with disabilities, as well as persons from the community who do not have a disability.

"We do workshops, classes, songs, skits, and dances," she said. "We find what works and stick with it."

At the end of each meeting, Buttolph and the ETSU students stay afterward and debrief, talking about the things that went well and things that did not.

"We discuss each student and determine what needs to be done to make sure that person excels."

This weekend, the POP Arts group will display what they learned this semester during a special program for family members and friends on Friday and Saturday, April 15-16, at 7 p.m. at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church. The event will be held in the fellowship hall and is free, though donations to POP Arts will be accepted.

The cast includes nearly 30 children and adults, including 15 persons with disabilities.

Looking to the future, Buttolph who, in addition to her full-time coursework, works as a graduate assistant and is directing a children's play at another theater said POP Arts will continue, with programs planned for the summer and fall.

For more information, send an e-mail to