Fort Wayne Performance Group Provides Artistic Opportunities for People with Disabilities

The name Jesters may sound whimsical, but this performance and visual arts group is no joke and they take what they do quite seriously.

Sponsored by the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne since it’s founding in 1978, Jesters was formed after two professors -Hal Gunderson and Bernie Solomon- saw an opportunity to connect students studying special education, people with disabilities and theater and the arts.

As Director of the Jesters, Allison Ballard wears a lot of hats. Not only does she shape the vision, funding and programs of the organization, Ballard also writes, stages, and directs the final show that takes place yearly. 

"The fact that we create an original production instead of using productions that are already written and available is really significant," says Ballard. 

The 40-member Jesters group learns and rehearses this production during meetings on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. September through March.  Members are not required to audition and reside primarily in Allen, Huntington, Whitley and Wells counties, although anyone is welcome to join. The morning hours are spent rehearsing music, dance and theatre and afternoon hours are spent exploring visual arts activities. 

"This year, University of Saint Francis students worked one-on-one with 15 Jesters.  We purchased digital cameras and the Jesters shot photos which culminated in a photographic exhibition during their final show on March 3rd and 4th," said Ballard.

New to the Jesters repertoire is "I Am A Person," a touring 10-person play made possible through a string of important partnerships. Ballard explains, "I conducted a round of community interviews in spring 2011 and talked to people who played different roles within the local industry serving people with disabilities, asking what were the greatest needs, challenges, opportunities and assets for people with disabilities in our community." After reviewing the responses, Ballard realized a common theme. "It came down to removing both real and perceived barriers that keep people with disabilities separated from the community." 

Ballard uses the example of a simple conversation in the grocery store.  One might speak about the ripeness of a tomato to a person without disabilities, but be more reluctant to have the same conversation with a person with a disability. Ballard wrote "I Am A Person" to address the need for these types of human connection for all people. "The key message comes down to understanding that people with disabilities are people; you can have a conversation with them about the tomato. You can have everyday conversations with people with disabilities."

Through support from the AWS Foundation, an organization that awards grants to help children and adults enduring intellectual and/or physical disabilities live as independently as possible and to encourage inclusion among the community, Ballard was able to hire and work collaboratively with Liz Monnier, Artistic Director of the Fort Wayne Dance Collective.  Monnier and Ballard worked together with the Jesters to explore different structures and ideas to play with the theme of "I Am A Person," using very short statements and asking people to fill them in with music, language, and sound.  As the skeleton of the piece began to emerge, Ballard worked with Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana and, together with a few members of Jesters, created a 10 person performance team for the piece.  Each of the 10 artists are being paid for their work, and the pilot piece is being performed around the Fort Wayne area at schools, at the Easter Seals Arc and at the AWS Foundation's Disability Expo on Saturday, May 5. The event will be held 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne; the Jesters group is scheduled to perform at 10:30.

Ultimately, Ballard envisions "I Am A Person" to be a piece with longevity that would reach other markets and continue to provide artists with disabilities an avenue for expression. 

"I would love for 'I Am A Person' to become a touring presentation and for the performers to continue to be paid to present this piece,” Ballard said. “I'm not creating a new model; I work with other artists and we are paid to present other performance work; these artists deserve to be paid as well."

If you are an organization interested in booking "I Am A Person" in your community, please contact Allison Ballard at (260) 745-3107 or  For more information about the Jesters, including videos of past performances, please visit