Senior Arbittier focuses her two theses on disability issues

June 4, 2020 12:33 p.m.

As the pandemic shut down theaters across the country, it also created a significant challenge at Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts: Many senior thesis projects include a live performance of an original work.

Rosie Arbittier

Rosie Arbittier

One of many senior projects affected  was “BLOOM: The Musical,” Rosie Arbittier’s thesis work to complete a certificate in the Program in Music Theater. Arbittier developed the musical in partnership with Best Buddies, an international organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

Arbittier’s interest in providing equitable opportunities for individuals with IDD began in middle school, when she was turned away from sitting at the special education students’ lunch table because their teacher said, “These kids are nothing like you.” In eighth grade, she began tutoring in the special education classroom. In high school, she grew more alarmed with the social situation of these students and constructed an after-school independent study project for these children in order to end their isolation while increasing useful and effective socialization skills, named “Rosie’s Class” by the students. What started as community service, “showed me how gifted and capable all of these individuals were,” Arbittier said.

At Princeton, she became involved with the Best Buddies Princeton chapter and in spring 2019 proposed as her thesis to produce a musical that involved a cast of young people with and without IDD. When she did not find an existing musical that met the goals she hoped to accomplish, she began working on devising a new work. In October she held a daylong workshop of theater games, activities and auditions for members of the local community with IDD and, joined by a group of Princeton students, assembled the cast and production team for the project. In November the group began creating the new musical and rehearsing weekly on Sundays for seven months. Early in the process, Arbittier heard the song “Bloom,” composed by her friend Lily Webb; that song became the springboard for the new musical and the title song.

Jane Cox, senior lecturer in theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and director of the Program in Theater, was Arbittier’s faculty adviser and the Program in Theater engaged theater director and activist David Bradley to serve as an additional adviser and resource to Arbittier.

Just a few weeks before opening night, the University moved to remote classes and canceled all events and activities for the rest of the semester. While this meant the production as envisioned by Arbittier and the team would not happen, they embraced the spirit of “the show must go on.” Arbittier organized the cast of performers with and without IDD in a virtual presentation of the musical’s title song, “Bloom” in stay-at-home circumstances, with orchestration by Vince Di Mura, musical director of the Lewis Center. View the video.

zoom still of an ensemble musical performance
Play Video: Virtual presentation of the title song of Rosie Arbittier's senior thesis theater work "Bloom"

When the live performances of senior Rosie Arbittier's senior thesis production of an original theater work were cancelled due to the pandemic, she organized the cast of differently abled performers in a virtual presentation of the musical’s title song, “Bloom."

Arbittier called the video performance a “virtual culmination.”

She said: “I may have directed the show and ‘written’ the script, but the entire musical was generated through a completely collaborative devising process during our rehearsals. ‘BLOOM’ was developed through the same devising process often used in professional theater in order to (1) amplify the voices of all individuals involved with the project, regardless of ability and (2) emphasize that working with artists with disabilities can and should follow the same processes that professional artists use.”

Arbittier noted that “this devising process has an intentional focus on inclusivity — rather than simply allowing individuals with differences to exist in one space — that promoted complete collaboration and contribution.”

While she is disappointed that a live performance was not possible, Arbittier said that the collaborative experience was the most meaningful aspect for her.

“With the knowledge that social inclusion for people with disabilities will never be achieved if they are seen as ‘less than,’ reinforced by my Best Buddies International experience, I have learned how an impact can only be made through building friendships based on sincere connection — in my case, musical theater and love of the arts,” she said.

Arbittier also wanted to create an opportunity for the non-IDD members of the cast.

“It was my hope that an inclusive musical theater experience would allow not only community members with disabilities the opportunity and encouragement to explore their own abilities and interests, but also provide Princeton student actors a deep knowledge of difference in addition to friendship and understanding,” she said. “The case study of musical theater represents only one way in which inclusivity can be expressed; any shared interest can create a bond between two seemingly disparate populations.”

At the Lewis Center’s June 1 virtual Class Day celebration, Arbittier received the award for a senior show that most expanded our sense of community.

Looking at disability issues through a ‘human rights lens’

Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber was Arbittier’s adviser on her thesis in her area of concentration in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In her thesis, titled “Defining ‘Reasonable Accommodation’: Reframing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Through the Disability Human Rights Lens,” Arbittier argues that under a human rights lens, a redefined “reasonable accommodation” term in the ADA should be applied to artistic/cultural scenarios as well as employment situations. Both thesis works uphold the human right to dignity as a deeply held moral commitment and fight for inclusion in all aspects of society.

"Rosie wrote an excellent thesis,” Eisgruber said. “Her application of human rights law to artistic and cultural life was especially original, insightful and thought-provoking. As is often the case with a first-rate senior thesis, I learned a lot by supervising it: Rosie's scholarship has changed how I will think about disability rights in the future."

BLOOM lyrics by Lily Webb

(VERSE 1)
Plant your feet [PURPLE], look around [GREEN].
Like they are seeds [YELLOW], deep in the ground [RAINBOW].
Find your sun [ORANGE], and water too [BLUE].
The things that make you grow the way the flowers do.

(CHORUS)
Any place can be your garden;
if you find the things that make you grow.
But don’t forget the place you started,
or the only thing that I really know for sure.
[1, 2, 3, 4] There are good things all around you.
Just look around and I think that you will see.
Or at least, say thank you, for the good things that you are handed, and bloom where you are planted.

(VERSE 2)
As you bloom, you might grow tired.
For best results, it’s kind of required.
Just push on through, and then you’ll know.
You’ll feel so proud when you see just how strong you grow.

(CHORUS)
Any place can be your garden;
if you find the things that make you grow.
But don’t forget the place you started,
or the only thing that I really know for sure.
[1, 2, 3, 4] There are good things all around you.
Just look around and I think that you will see.
Or at least, say thank you, for the good things that you are handed, and bloom where you are planted.

(BRIDGE)
Growing isn’t easy, but we all still need to do it.
Just look for the ingredients [Oooh, where is that?] that will carry you through it.
And if there are times when you can’t find them.
Try your best to look inside and know:
you’ve got what it takes to grow.

(CHORUS)
Any place can be your garden;
if you find the things that make you grow.
But don’t forget the place you started,
or the only thing that I really know for sure.
[1, 2, 3, 4] There are good things all around you.
Just look around and I think that you will see.
Or at least, say thank you, for the good things that you are handed, and bloom where you are planted.