Supporting inclusion in performing arts: Emily List Fund has given more than $100K to 25 groups since 2012

Emily List’s own work was about helping young people explore their lives through theater, so when she lost her life at 26 to a rare form of cancer, her family established a fund to honor her memory as an actor, a dancer, a reviewer and a teacher of the performing arts.

Emily List’s own work was about helping young people explore their lives through theater, so when she lost her life at 26 to a rare form of cancer, her family established a fund to honor her memory as an actor, a dancer, a reviewer and a teacher of the performing arts. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

By KAREN LIST

For the Recorder

Published: 10-06-2023 9:47 AM

“What if it’s a Musical,” last year’s co-Act performance at the Northampton Center for the Arts, explored the actors’ experiences as gender-queer young people through words and music, including the songs of Sam Smith and ZZ Top.

Shai Kuper, co-director of Translate Gender Inc., says the 2024 spring show will be another original production based on the groups’ personal and collective stories, and the performance will be supported by a grant from the Emily List Fund for Performing Arts Therapy.

Emily was a big fan of ZZ Top, and she would have been a fan of co-Act, a trans, nonbinary, gender expansive youth community theater collective that creates a space to share stories and to explore identities through theater. Emily’s own work was about helping young people explore their lives through theater, so when she lost her life at 26 to a rare form of cancer, her family established the fund to honor her memory as an actor, a dancer, a reviewer and a teacher of the performing arts.

Since 2012, the fund has given more than 50 grants totaling $100,000 to 25 different groups who work with those who are under-represented or disadvantaged in the hope of making their lives better and brighter through the performing arts. These grants have touched the lives of hundreds of artists and their audiences — one play, one song, one dance at a time.

Emily’s grants have gone to extraordinary projects like Me/2, an orchestra made up of musicians with mental health challenges; Shakespeare in Prison, which supports incarcerated women staging plays; several theater troupes and music therapists who work with young cancer patients; dance classes for those with Parkinson’s disease; and a performing arts component for Grace Episcopal Church’s summer school in Haiti, to name just a few. (For a complete list of grant recipients, see emilylistfund.org.)

In addition to supporting co-Act, Emily’s Fund this year is also awarding larger grants to three longtime recipients whose work we’ve admired and supported for half a dozen years: Whole Children, headquartered in Northampton; the SciTech Band of Springfield; and Born Dancing in New York City.

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Emily herself was born dancing and continued dancing to her last days. So supporting Born Dancing and its founder Melissa van Wijk with seven grants since 2016 has been a joy.

Born Dancing produces original full-scale performances in which students with physical and intellectual disabilities appear with professional dancers. The group teaches classes that transition into its productions, and students with disabilities perform and work with professionals on every aspect of the shows.

Born Dancing this year will expand its education programs for students with disabilities in New York City public schools and for children who are blind at Lighthouse Guild. Its new season will include performances at New York Live Arts and a one-act dance featuring dancers ages 8 to 68 with and without disabilities.

Emily played drums in her schools’ bands, and from the moment we saw the SciTech Band march into a fundraiser chanting the “SciTech Cheer,” we loved their high energy and spirit. We’ve shown them that love with six grants since 2018.

The SciTech Band’s website notes that building a quality band in a city with the sixth highest child poverty rate in the United States was thought to have been impossible. But that’s exactly what student leaders along with conductor Gary Bernice and his colleagues have managed to do.

Bernice says the mission of the band is to “create an environment through music that will challenge and motivate students to strive for excellence in all facets of their lives.” Since January of 2007, the band has grown from 20 students to more than 500. Students who join the band for more than one year are three times more likely to stay in school than those who don’t.

But students “are overwhelmingly unable to purchase or rent their own instruments.” Emily’s grants help them do that so they can play in concert and jazz bands as well as wind, stomp percussion and chamber ensembles.

And finally, Whole Children and the Milestones troupe stages an exuberant show each year that gives teens and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to explore their passion for acting, dancing and singing. The actors create the show, which is performed to sold-out audiences at Hallie Flanagan Studio Theatre.

This experience that allows students with special needs to work on their performing arts skills, practice teamwork and build confidence has been supported by six grants from Emily’s Fund since 2017, including one for the 2023 show, “WonkAvengers.”

Valle Dwight, director of development and communications at Whole Children, describes the show as “a mashup adventure full of comedy, song and kung-fu that had the theater packed and audiences on their feet.” Work on next year’s production is already under way.

Dwight once said the theme of all the performances is a celebration of individuality and differences, and that “each demonstrates to the community that people with disabilities should not be relegated to the sidelines in theater or in life.”

That has been the focus of Emily’s Fund for the past 12 years, supporting those who make sure no one — despite whatever barriers they may face — is left on the sidelines in the performing arts.

Karen List is Emily’s mother and professor emeritus in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Journalism Department.