The chaos begins just before noon as about a dozen people exit slowly from transit vans at Encore Studio for the Performing Arts.
Some stroll purposefully. Others wobble, using canes. A few wheelchairs emerge. Staff members greet people at the door of the Mary Dupont Wahlers Theatre and direct them down a long hallway.
The arrivals are actors in Encore Studio’s Not Always a Parent, and they have an hour to eat and mingle before rehearsal begins. Some people are too amped to sit, but staff members work the room, helping everyone get settled at round tables arranged in an open area behind the banks of seats. The atmosphere is loud. Through the din, one of the staff members says “Five minutes to warm-ups.” The volume drops momentarily. A number of actors reply “Thank you, five.”
This gesture of thanking the stage manager for the time warning is a longtime theater tradition, one of many practiced at Encore. If it sounds professional, that’s because it is. Encore is a professional theater company that has existed for 15 years in a city that provides little paid work for artists, and even less for actors. All the actors and staff involved in creating Not Always a Parent and the company’s other shows are compensated for their work.
Encore is the only professional theater for people with disabilities in Wisconsin — and one of a handful of such companies in the nation. But the company stands apart for other reasons as well: Its consistently high-quality shows are tailored for its diverse cast. And the result is an unvarnished — sometimes painful, often hilarious — look at the world of disabilities.
At warm-ups, one of encore’s longtime actors, Dawn Ciescynski, props a cane under each hip and calls for the group to make a big circle. People step or wheel up and bring their hands to their hearts, as she leads the group through a series of stretches and breathing exercises that bring a noticeable calm to the room. They finish by saying “Namaste.” The lights are adjusted to bring focus to the stage.
Like many of the people who form the identity of Encore, Ciescynski, 35, radiates optimism. In an interview, the first thing she does is roll up her sleeve, revealing a tattoo on her shoulder: It’s the Encore logo, a version of the comedy/drama faces that represent theater.
Encore is “like a family” for Ciescynski, who has acted with the company for 10 years and works as a staff member several hours a week. Not too long ago, she had to miss weeks of rehearsal when she was hospitalized with fluid around her heart. In a company primarily populated by people with disabilities, hospitalization is a frequent occurrence. Staff and fellow actors reached out to her. “I got lots of phone calls from people saying ‘Where are you? How are you?’” she says. “It’s just wonderful.” Ciescynski contracted spinal meningitis when she was 15, spent months in a coma and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Now she says working Encore has allowed her to stretch as an actor. “In Walk with a Vampire, I played a mean person,” she says. “I’m not a mean person, not at all. It took me awhile to actually get that character to be mean. But I was good at it.”
Nearby, Jenny Kopp, who also uses two canes to walk, is eating her lunch, a chicken pot pie. Kopp, 41, is the actor with the longest tenure with the company. Like all the actors at Encore, she describes herself as a professional. “This is a lovely job. I would never quit this job,” says Kopp. “I would not go and bartend. I would not work at an animal hospital because I wouldn’t enjoy it. It’s a lot of work but it makes you a lot of money.”
Kopp says she gets paid to help in the office when she’s not actively rehearsing a show, and the job has helped her learn to handle anxiety. On occasion, she has toured with the company. “Theater gives me an opportunity to see what other actors can do, and to see the disabilities in other people.” She gives much credit to Encore’s iconic founder, KelsyAnne Schoenhaar.
With the warm-up session coming to a close, Schoenhaar sits in front of a music stand at the edge of the stage. As the rehearsal starts, she flips through her script and gives firm direction, often asking actors about their intentions or to repeat a scene. She shares directing duties for Not Always a Parent with Heather Renken, a part-time staff member who is also the artistic director of Broom Street Theater. She reminds the cast that the rerun of a Badgers basketball game playing on a screen above their heads is part of the show. “You need to get used to that,” she says. “Don’t get distracted.”
Schoenhaar, who is 6’5”, exudes a magnetic combination of warmth and authority. Before rehearsal, people approach her with questions, usually about logistics, sometimes about the show’s content.
Encore works with people with physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities and mental health issues; a number of them are on the autism spectrum. They often seek reassurance and routine. Schoenhaar calmly guides people back to their seats or steers them to an available staff person.
Schoenhaar understands them because she is like them. She says she falls within the autism spectrum, as do her two adult daughters, now 24 and 23. “For me in my life, anxiety is huge,” says Schoenhaar. “Without medication I’d be sitting here with you and I’d be feeling like I was having a heart attack. Little things have really changed my life and allowed me to be out there.”
At Encore, Schoenhaar writes and directs plays, applies for grants, coordinates tours, manages the finances and staff, and attends to myriad other details that have kept the company running. She has become friends with actors and staff, many of whom stay around for years. “I am a very, very high functioning person, there’s no question,” says Schoenhaar. “I get that, and it’s cool. And I’m so grateful to the mindset that autism/Asperger’s can lead you to. You’re always learning and studying, and you want to know about everything. That’s who I am. I like to learn and try everything, and so I do.”
Schoenhaar took an unusual route to this job. Her first paid work was as a gigging musician. Starting when she was 12, she played bass in weddings, clubs and theater productions; later, she attended Northern Illinois University on a music scholarship. She switched gears and earned two business degrees, including an MBA in health care and administration and human resources management. But she maintains her music obsession, and plays more than 30 instruments. A baby grand piano, horns, guitars and dozens of stringed instruments cover every available inch of her Encore office.
One of the early productions that put Encore on the map was an autobiographical musical Schoenhaar wrote called Real Life. The show follows four characters, all of whom fall on the autism/Asperger’s syndrome spectrum. Kenneth Burns, who reviewed the 2004 show for Isthmus, called the production “the year’s most beautiful show…one of the most moving theatrical productions I’ve seen in some time.”
When Schoenhaar moved to Madison in 1999 she worked with REM, a for-profit organization that supports people with disabilities. After a Minnesota theater company for people with disabilities performed here, REM asked Schoenhaar if she wanted to create a similar project. “They provided a chunk of seed money and told me I had six months to make it work,” says Schoenhaar. “I hit the ground running.”
The model that Schoenhaar conceived was creating professional theater for people with disabilities using vocational funds that would normally be used to support people in other types of assisted work. “A job coach might train someone to vacuum out the seats in a movie theater, and they’ll know that and they’ll know it forever,” says Schoenhaar. “But in theater, coaching never ends, and that’s the model for professional theater.”
Encore actors are always rehearsing a show, so the coaching needs are ongoing. In addition to occasional tours, the company creates three productions each year, one of which is a new work. Most productions involve approximately 20 actors. It’s an epic undertaking, and Schoenhaar estimates she’s written 40 to 50 plays of varying lengths since launching Encore.
About three quarters of Encore’s approximately $250,000 annual budget comes from Dane County, with state funding, private donations and grants making up much of the rest. She says county funds have decreased every year since the company began. More trouble is ahead: “The Walker administration is threatening disability funding,” says Schoenhaar.
Despite these challenges, Encore manages to pay at least Dane County’s living wage ($11.33/hour) to four part-time staffers and pays actors, on average, between $250 and $1,000 per production. Schoenhaar sometimes reels in more lucrative film work for Encore actors as well. “We pay as high as we can,” says Schoenhaar. “I think pretty much all our actors are making far more than they made working piece rate in factories and a lot of the work they’ve done.”
Once Encore was launched, Schoenhaar quickly realized that actors with disabilities brought a distinct set of challenges and strengths to the realm of theater.
Schoenhaar already had experience writing for children’s theater. At an Episcopal church in a small Illinois town, she had tried writing material for the actors, rather than squeezing them into preexisting roles. “I decided I hated little kids’ theater where it’s really canned and hard for them to learn,” says Schoenhaar. “When I started writing to them, rehearsals were nothing; they loved the roles.”
But things didn’t go well with the church, says Schoenhaar. “Coming out of the closet and having your church turn on you and getting death threats was a problem.”
Schoenhaar’s coming out was a major one. “I was born genetically male,” she explains, noting she had gender reassignment surgery about 17 years ago. “I am a woman. I’ve always been.”
But growing up in rural Wisconsin was rough. “It took me awhile to come out. I wish I could have sooner, but I think growing up in West Bend I would have been killed,” she says. She has found Madison a welcoming home: “It’s got a lot of flaws, too, but it’s pretty good for me.”
Schoenhaar’s life story helped her tune into others’ stories, especially those who exist outside the mainstream of society. “My transition certainly had an effect,” she says. “When I came out, even before surgery or any interventions, I felt like I could breathe for the first time. I didn’t have to be constantly thinking about how to be a man. How to walk like, talk like, interact like someone I wasn’t. It probably honed my focus as a writer.”
Creating an atmosphere of acceptance is part of the core mission of Encore. So too is making theater that does not glorify or cast pity upon people with disabilities. “There’s little repertoire for the stories we tell,” says Schoenhaar. “There’s a need for it. I think of theater as putting a mirror up to the world.”
Brutal honesty is one of the company’s hallmarks. “The stories we tell are almost always adult stories,” says Schoenhaar. The shows deal with the myriad issues that people with disabilities face, including such painful subjects as sexual abuse and bullying. The characters swear and talk about sex, laugh at each other and themselves.
Schoenhaar is often hired to consult with theater companies that work with people with disabilities around the country. Sometimes she finds they are doing plays that depict people with disabilities as heroic or “special,” a term she finds derogatory. “I’ve had to come out and say ‘this is not what you want to do; this is degrading, this is just not fair.’”
In her writing, Schoenhaar draws from her own life and from interviews with the people around her. “Having a good rapport is always important,” she says. “Once I know the stories and I know who they are as people, I can write to the highest level, whatever their acting skills are or their verbal abilities or their physical abilities.”
The professionalism that Schoenhaar expects and demands from her actors comes from a belief that they are capable of more than most people know.
Another trademark of Encore’s approach is to hire Madison theater professionals to support and act onstage alongside people with disabilities. Co-director Renken, who has experience as an actor and theater director, is one example. Theater veterans Marcy Weiland and Jessica Jane Witham have worked with Encore and make a point of coming back as guest actors even though they no longer work as staff. In Not Always a Parent, Francisco Torres, an accomplished newcomer, makes his Encore debut.
The Encore actors benefit from working with experienced professionals, and the casting choices (where people with disabilities play people without disabilities, and vice versa) appear to erode the boundary between “us” and “them.” Schoenhaar puts everyone on stage, even nonverbal people. One actor uses a communication device to deliver lines.
In this environment of broad acceptance, even people who faced profound difficulty fitting into mainstream society have found a home. “This is vocational, we are not therapeutic,” says Schoenhaar. “But anyone in theater, music or the arts knows that by its nature, it is. It’s cool to see lives change.”
Schoenhaar says when she started the company some of the actors would become so agitated they would harm themselves. Jenny Kopp was one of those people.
“She would come to work and she would scream and pound on the wall. It took a long time to trust. And she was sick. She ended up in the hospital, and they were pretty much going to let her die.”
Schoenhaar says she wrote a play for Kopp, based on that hospital stay, where her character has a conversation with someone from the beyond while she’s in a coma. Kopp’s performance was “amazing,” says Schoenhaar. And it was a turning point for Kopp.
Now, says Schoenhaar, Kopp has learned to control her energy: “She’s Jenny 2.0. She’s done it. She’s taken it seriously. She’s a disciplined actor. She studies. She’s focused. I think sometimes it’s just being in a place where you can trust people and you feel valued.”
Kopp’s performance on May 1, opening night of Not Always a Parent is perfect. She enters using two canes, and transforms into Rachel, a daughter who is talking on the phone to her dad about what might be a first date. Clearly, this is new territory for Rachel and her father. She is confident and relaxed as she recounts details from a frustrating day working at a drive-in. Then she complains about her date’s overprotective mother and the fact that he is bringing support staff, hinting that she wants some privacy with the guy.
The short plays, co-written by Schoenhaar and Wendy Prosise, Encore’s other salaried staff member, examine multiple perspectives on parenting and disabilities. The stories are delicately told, running the gamut from side-splitting funny to gut wrenching. Despite a spate of hospitalizations for company members in the weeks leading up to the opening, the show is one of Encore’s most polished and emotionally devastating works. As the crew arranges sets between pieces, we see videos of Encore actors saying what family means to them. “Poignant” doesn’t begin to describe them.
In “Not Always a Parent,” Haley (Christie Stadele), sits in what appears to be a doctor’s waiting room. Julie (Malissa Petterson), a frazzled parent, enters, raging about her husband and the ineffectual treatment her daughter, a troubled 14-year-old, is receiving. Haley says parenting isn’t for her. “I don’t want to be a parent. It’s not an adventure I’d choose — no way, no how.” Julie asks if it’s because she’d be worried that she’d have a blind or autistic child (the actor and character are both). “No, I hate the smell of poop,” says Haley. “But mine isn’t so bad.” Time and again, she delivers laugh lines with perfect comic timing that has the audience roaring. Afterward, Julie feels like she’s had a cathartic therapy session, and so do we.
In “I’ll Fly Away,” Encore’s first play that does not include an actor with a disability, guest actor Francisco Torres delivers a harrowing portrayal of Jeff, a stay-at-home dad at the end of his rope. “I can’t do it,” he says to his wife, Lynn (playwright Prosise). Their daughter has a disability, and they are unraveling from lack of sleep and lack of hope. “I have thoughts,” he says. When we hear those thoughts I wonder what it’s like for the people with disabilities to hear him speak the unspeakable.
But that’s the gist of what Encore is. Schoenhaar has worked to create a community where everyone has a moment in the spotlight and often untold stories are shared with the world. They tell stories of difference, yes, but also sound universal themes.
“The stories are pretty much everybody else’s stories: love and being hurt and living lives,” says Schoenhaar. “That’s what we’ve tried to portray from the start.”
Not Always a Parent
Friday-Saturday, May 8-16, 8 p.m. (May 9, 2 p.m.)
Mary Dupont Wahlers Theatre, Encore Studio for the Arts, 1480 Martin St., Madison.