Take Down the Wall Café: Breaking barriers with music

If art is shared experience, then Take Down the Wall Café is making sure everyone gets to be part of the picture. The monthly open mic, hosted by Alternatives Inc., encourages people to come together, regardless of disability, artistic medium or level of talent, and share whatever they’re passionate about in life.

In fact, this open mic was created to provide a social outlet for people with disabilities, to “take down the wall,” as it were, and to encourage the coming together of people with and without disabilities.

“It’s part of a larger national movement that swims against the current of people being separate,” said Nat Needle, the project’s creator, coordinator and host.

Needle, a musician, performer and songwriter, created the project to bridge the gap between people with disabilities and a world they usually don’t get to see. Needle teaches music and plays regularly in Worcester, and his weekly event, Thank Friday It’s Dr. Nat, is featured at Nick’s Bar on Millbury Street in Worcester.

Take Down the Wall CafeNeedle is also a contractor with Alternatives Inc., a Whitinsville-based care program for people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities. The agency has five locations and 55 program sites across the state, including a location in Worcester where Take Down the Wall is held. Alternatives’ mission, according to its website, is to “be a bridge between those who need our services and the community at large.” The agency works to place people in jobs, provide homes and encourage the development of lasting relationships.

Additionally, the agency seeks to foster a shared sense of community.

According to Needle, many people with disabilities only interact with other disabled people and caregivers, in part due to logistics. “Imagine if your life was defined by your biggest weakness,” he said. “There’s something not right about that, but it’s not in the treatment plan.” He also noted aptly that “segregation of any kind keeps us from our full humanity”.

ENTAlternativesBUltimately, Take Down the Wall was created to be an event rooted in sharing strength and humanity, rather than distant sympathy. Needle said he wanted to find an inclusive event for people with disabilities to “share social space” with others. As such, the event brings performers and patrons of the arts together.

Take Down the Wall’s first show included a cavalcade of musicians and poets, but it’s not limited to your typical coffeehouse acts. “It’s a little free-wheeling,” Needle said. Spoken word, storytelling, juggling, magic and jokes are all valid performances, “as long as it’s someone getting up and presenting their thing,” Needle said.

Signups takes place at the door, and the night features live acts from about 10 performers at approximately 10 minutes each. The schedule, however, is flexible. Needle advises artists to keep the content family-friendly, “but it can get emotional,” Needle said.

For example, one individual with disabilities took the stage to deliver an impromptu spoken-word piece. Each stanza began with an emotional “I’m tired,” as he cited his life’s various struggles and frustrations. After his performance had reached an emotional crescendo, he finished with a simple and abrupt exclamation: “All right, I’m done!”

Such moments of expression are a window into the human experience. It’s the sort of catharsis and emotion that draws us to the arts in the first place and reminds us of the vibrant and tumultuous experiences we all share.

Take Down the Wall CafeOverall, the cafe’s first night in October was a huge success. According to Needle, the event received more attention than he initially expected. “We had more people than we could seat,” Needle said.

In the end, Take Down the Wall gives people the chance to congregate and enjoy the raw brand of art that comes with such a grassroots movement.

“We all have a lot more in common than we think,” Needle said. “When you come out of Take Down the Wall Cafe, you leave feeling more fully and authentically human because you had a wider experience of being human. It’s not just ‘birds of a feather.’”

Take Down The Wall Cafe’s next event will be from 6:30-7p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, at 454 Grove St., Worcester. For more information, contact Nat Needle at natneedle.com/contact or at (508) 579-5997.

By Sean M. Haley