Children’s Theatre opens door to Waisman Center resources

By Susannah Brooks
Harry Waisman was a pediatrician, as well as a biochemist and researcher of developmental disabilities. Throughout its history, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Waisman Center has built strong relationships with children and families, providing early intervention, educational and outreach programs.

The Waisman Center Children’s Theatre series might make fewer headlines than the center’s groundbreaking research. Still, it maintains a valuable place among the center’s offerings. On Sunday afternoons during the academic year, it provides an accessible, welcoming opportunity for children of all ages and abilities to enjoy the arts.

Most importantly, the series helps families gain familiarity with the Center and its resources.

“If you say you don’t use the services of the Waisman Center, you need to add the word ‘yet’ to the sentence,” says communications program manager Marlena Holden. “The research that’s coming out of the center will benefit and affect all of us at some point. This is a great gateway to become familiar with the work that’s going on here.”

The Friends of the Waisman Center created the series in 1986, taking advantage of the available 286-seat auditorium, which has been an integral part of Waisman outreach programs for the past 40 years.

Accessibility, in many forms, is a key consideration for series organizers. The spacious entryway opens directly off of the parking lot; the atmosphere is relaxed and calming. The low stage features a shallow ramp; all performances are sign interpreted for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. In addition, the center is just down the street from the American Family Children’s Hospital, as well as Eagle Heights and University Houses.

At $1 for kids and $2 for adults, the low cost helps, too. Families who use the Waisman Center for other resources receive free tickets in their welcome packets, as do local community centers. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people attend the series each year, often with capacity crowds.

“For many kids, it’s their first introduction to the arts,” says Teresa Palumbo, member of the Waisman Center communications group and coordinator for Friends of the Waisman Center. “We’re sharing what it’s like in a formal theater environment, but with a relaxed atmosphere.”

The setup is perfect for singer-songwriter Stuart Stotts. His performances already include built-in interactivity, inviting kids up onstage to sing along. But he appreciates additional differences in the room.

“I like the space; it’s small and intimate, and it feels like families can be comfortable,” says Stotts. “Sometimes a theater setting can be really tough when you’re trying to achieve that kind of intimacy and participation. For young children, it can be a little overwhelming — big stage, big seats. [At Waisman], people are always ready to go.”

The series presents as many groups as possible that feature children: theatrical whimsy with Playtime Productions, folk dancing with Trinity Irish Dancers and Yonim Israeli Folk Dance.

Playtime Productions has been a Children’s Theatre mainstay since the series began. Artistic director Renaye Leach says that the Waisman audiences seem to skew a bit younger than those at other venues. Before each show, she shares what it means to be an audience member for theater. Younger children learn that being polite often involves both quiet observation and more exuberant reactions.

“We say, ‘This is not a DVD or a TV show,’” says Leach. “The people enacting the story on stage can hear you, so we expect quiet when we are talking so that all can hear, but they like to hear laughter and clapping. We announce if there is a scary character, and that you can close your eyes, but try to stay to see how the story ends.”

While in the audience, Leach was once distracted by a mother talking quietly to her child throughout the entire play. During a short break, Leach intended to ask the mother to stop — until she realized that the mother was interpreting the play into the child’s native language.

“Needless to say, I left them alone to enjoy the show,” says Leach. “I use this story to make the point to our cast members that we cannot know why some people may seem inattentive, but [cast members] need to use plenty of energy to make the performance the most interesting thing in the room.”

For Stotts, this is one of the things that makes the Children’s Theatre performances special.

“You get a lot of international students because of the proximity to Eagle Heights. I like that,” says Stotts. “I look out and it feels like there are families from many different countries, some of whom might not have seen a lot of live performance in this country.”

Performers also benefit from the engaging atmosphere created by pre- and post-show activities. A visit from wildlife educators at the UW Arboretum might include a seed display, arts and crafts activities or a chance to meet an owl up close. Post-show Q&A sessions thrill the audience and performers alike — as with a recent ballet performance by Dance Wisconsin.

“The dancers came out in their costumes, and all the little kids went up to them and asked for their autographs,” says Palumbo. “The kids got to ask the youth who were performing: ‘Why did you want to do this? What inspired you? How many hours do you practice?’ They take great joy in performing, but it’s also such a wonderful experience that they also get to inspire the next generation of performers.”

As younger children learn about the arts, there’s always a table by the door with information about the center’s many resources. Research studies recruit infants to elders; staff members offer everything from interpersonal support to hope for services and treatments that might lead to a cure.

Waisman Center staff members celebrate the many connections to their work. Marlena Holden has friends with children who attend the Waisman Early Childhood Program (WECP); before joining the staff, she had brought her family to several Children’s Theatre performances. Years ago, she had even participated in a brain imaging study.

For Holden, Palumbo and the community they serve, the Children’s Theatre series is a welcome component of their outreach mission.

“It’s got to be nice knowing that this place isn’t just where you got that scary test; we can say, ‘Here; come have this great experience,’” says Palumbo. “If you do have to return, or if you do participate in research, you’ve got that wonderful experience associated with the Waisman Center. It’s being part of the university in a way that is fulfilling and enriching.”