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For Atlas O. Phoenix, who has mental disabilities, art is a key tool in communicating life experiences.

"You have to tell your own narrative," Phoenix says.

Artists with disabilities need platforms to normalize their experience as humans, says the filmmaker, who will perform in Off-Leash Area's new program, "Off-Kilter Cabaret: Organ Recital," for a four-day performance starting Thursday.

Phoenix, who uses they/them pronouns, has shown their works at 30 film festivals around the country in the past two years. They include shorts like "Little Men," and "Do I Qualify for Love?" The latter was nominated for best short documentary at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, where it was also voted to be part of Best of the Fest. They are currently working on a documentary about gender transition called "Beautiful Boi."

Recently, Phoenix made a declaration of taking a break from being identified as Black, biracial, homosexual and transgender.

"I actually made a resignation of identities," says Phoenix. "Since childhood, I've had to deal with others saying things in regards to me not being enough of this or that. I just want to be seen as a human being."

Atlas O. Phoenix, who has multiple mental disabilities, will perform a piece that is about all aspects of the skin in “Off-Kilter Cabaret.”
Atlas O. Phoenix, who has multiple mental disabilities, will perform a piece that is about all aspects of the skin in “Off-Kilter Cabaret.”

Evan Frost

There's one identity that Phoenix continues to hold — being mentally disabled. Phoenix has complex post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD and unspecified dissociative disorder for the past 14 years. So creating art forms such as films and dance is one way to keep engaged with the world for the filmmaker.

Phoenix's piece in "Off-Kilter Cabaret" called "Ordinary" is about all aspects of their skin.

"Originally I was just going to focus on the color of my skin, and then I decided it was probably more important to focus on as many things as possible regarding my skin," Phoenix says.

Phoenix looks at racism, fatphobia and bigotry in the piece, all while looking at their own personal intersections in regard to race and gender identity, and more.

"I am talking about how we can appreciate each other as human beings," says Phoenix. "Regardless of what color our skin is, the shape of our skin, what we do with our skin, or the condition or tone of our skin."

Off-Leash co-directors Jennifer Ilse and husband Paul Herwig hope "Off-Kilter Cabaret" is the first of an ongoing program that features different artists with disabilities. Herwig himself has low vision, and the couple have several connections with the disability community.

"As more veteran artists in the community, we've been really thinking hard about where we want to put our efforts toward supporting other people in the community," says Ilse. "And this seemed like a really organic one for us, with all the relationships we had already built."

The impetus was even stronger since the closing of Patrick's Cabaret, which had a strong program showcasing artists of various identities, including those with disabilities. While Off-Leash didn't want to replicate Patrick's exactly, the company wanted to fill the void left when the theater closed.

"We're really interested in kind of pushing more boundaries because of who we are as artists ourselves and the mission of our organization," Ilse said. "We want to be a springboard for where artists can be supported and grow further."

Prior to COVID-19, Off-Leash had instituted an advisory board for the "Off-Kilter" show, made up of artists with disabilities and advocates. The company also supported artists with transportation funds as well as mentorship opportunities in certain cases. The pandemic forced delays and precipitated the closing of its physical space, the Art Box.

Ilse and Herwig are thankful that when the cabaret performance returns Thursday, it will be at the Tek Box at Cowles Center, a venue with high production capabilities like lighting and sound.

Off-Leash has partnered with Young Dance, a St. Paul-based dance company and school that has its own abilities program and seeks to transform lives through movement. Students, including ones in wheelchairs, will participate in the cabaret.

"They've been talking about trying to find ways where they can find universal movement with everybody, rather than finding what people can and cannot do, based on their abilities," Ilse says.

Besides Phoenix's piece and performance by Young Dance, the show features storytelling by Amy Salloway, who is on the Off-Kilter advisory board. Also performing is the poet Braille, who gives insight into how she experiences the world by having the audience wear sleep shades. Other performers include Daniel Reiva, Pat Samples and Scott Sorensen, who each bring their own perspective to the theme.

Throughout the process, says Ilse, Off-Leash has focused on working with the disability community.

"We're constantly asking, 'What do you need and want?' And then looking at what makes sense for us to support [people] from the place of who we are and what we do best," she says.

'Off-Kilter Cabaret: Organ Recital'

Where: Tek Box at Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat. & 2 p.m. Sun.

Tickets: $5-$30; off-kiltercabaret.eventbrite.com