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Theater Spotlight
Wheelock Family Theatre

Live Theatre Transforms Lives

Thirty years ago, a group of friends and colleagues embarked on a mission at Wheelock College: to enrich the lives of children and families through theatre. The Boston theatre scene as it exists today was in its infancy in 1981. Then along came Andrea Genser, Anthony Hancock, Susan Kosoff, and Jane Staab intent on bringing to the stage the best of what theatre could be—for children and families. It was a natural match, with Wheelock's commitment to early childhood education and the founders' experience in theatre.

"We wanted to bring to the stage literary and theatre classics, great stories with important messages, not just fairy tales or fluff," Staab said recently, seated in the college's spacious yet intimate 650-seat theatre, its home for its entire 30-year history. "We also pride ourselves in creating plays that appeal as much to the adult as to the child, even with our children’s production, of which we do one each season. The other two usually include a family musical and an adult play suitable for teens and up."

WFT's Alice in Wonderland, 1981

And so, with the support of the college, Wheelock Family Theatre was born. WFT's first show was "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", with music by Staab and lyrics by Hancock. Kosoff's production was a huge success due in part to Genser's marketing skills. Wheelock alumni and students helped fill the house for every performance, getting the word out to schools and families.

WFT's Lord of the Flies

WFT's second show was not nearly as successful as "Alice", but it pointed to the heart of the theatre's mission. The play was Lillian Hellman's “Watch on the Rhine” and it didn't do as well in part, perhaps, due to the show's serious anti-fascist themes. Despite the cool reception the play received, Staab says that they felt that "young people needed to see these kinds of plays. Children aren't brought to see serious plays as often as they should. Good theatre helps people of all ages gain a perspective and an understanding of humanity that we all need."

In addition to tackling serious subjects in their plays, WFT has also had a commitment to intergenerational and non-traditional casting. WFT casts children alongside professional adult actors, as eight of the actors in each production are Equity actors (some of whom may be children), while some are community actors. Staab explains that, "If there are only adults on stage in a children's play, it's harder for children to connect to the characters.WFT's Sound of Music That's why in a play like "Charlotte's Web" (which WFT has produced three times since 1990), for example, where we wanted children to understand the importance of friendship and sacrifice, and what they would do for a friend, it was important that children could see themselves up there and in the characters being portrayed alongside the adults in the production."

Staab knew from her experience at Harwich Junior Theatre on Cape Cod (along with Kosoff) that it was important to have children playing children's roles and adults playing adults. Moreover, adds Staab, “It's a learning experience for the children to work with adult professionals. We want them to see a serious person working seriously. The creative process is serious business and yet so fulfilling; if children see it as anything less than serious, they won't learn what they need to learn about what is important in the theatre." And yet, often the adult actors learn a lot from their younger colleagues on stage: "The learning experience works both ways, and many adult actors are amazed and impressed with the seriousness, talent and professionalism of the kids who work at WFT."

Similarly, Staab and her colleagues have always wanted WFT's productions to be accessible to all audience members and families: "We wanted to have what I call 'colorful' casts which reflected who was in our audience, and for whom theatre wasn't always accessible or affordable. We wanted to bring in all families from all backgrounds, and wanted the cast to reflect that. Children, like adults, need someone on stage with whom they can WFT productionidentify in order for the story and message to resonate." WFT's theatre is fully wheelchair accessible and all of their performances are open captioned, with listening devices available for use by audience members. Some performances are ASL-interpreted as well as audio-described for the visually impaired. And Wheelock offers reduced-price and free tickets to families who could not otherwise afford tickets to their shows.

With WFT celebrating its 30th anniversary this year (spanning over 80 productions), Staab took a moment to reflect on what she hoped their audiences had learned: "What we can learn from being in an audience or working on plays that have meaning is to not judge people but to better understand them. Through theatre, we can make an attempt to understand why, to understand what's going on in people's lives. My hope for every audience member and the actors on stage is that they gain an understanding of what it means to create a character, being in their shoes instead of standing outside and looking in at them. We can become better people and I've always believed that live theatre transforms lives."

WFT's current production is "The Secret Garden", an adaptation of Francis Hodgson Burnett's classic story, written by Kosoff with music by Staab, with performances through February 27th. For more information, visit Wheelock Family Theatre's website or call 617-879-2300.

WFT's Secret Graden, 2011