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"I always thought I was going to be a linguist or a translator," Roseann Sheridan says. Funny how youthful expectations can play out. For 17 years, Sheridan was part of a fluent American Players Theatre corps interpreting Shakespeare and other dramatis personae for sophisticated audiences. Now, as producing artistic director for Children's Theater of Madison, she interprets scripts for younger audiences.
Earlier in her career, she never imagined this turn of events. "Experimental, cutting-edge, contemporary adult theater" is what she had in mind, she says. But Sheridan's ambitions for the company - diversifying CTM's audience to include teens and young adults, and expanding its range to include more challenging material - do count as cutting edge in the context of children's theater.
She cites Peter Brosius at Children's Theater of Minneapolis, which has staged Antigone and the war-torn Lost Boys of Sudan in recent years, along with staples like Peter Pan. "They really span the spectrum," Sheridan says. "Brosius talks about that, how children's theater is not just Winnie the Pooh. "I love Winnie the Pooh," she emphasizes. "But there's a certain expectation of what that is."
The darker angels of Sheridan's nature run toward Lord of the Flies and Charlotte's Web. "If you start to really look at some of the classic stories, they're dark," she says. "Bambi is dark. His mother dies, you know? It's a hard world, is the message, but you can still make it."
CTM has staged Charlotte's Web twice and Bambi once in its 45 years, but Sheridan says it would be difficult to produce them the way she might choose, "and that is to really let those themes come out." She attributes this impulse to her time at APT. Shakespeare's work taught her to respect the script and the audience, to neither distort the material nor spoon-feed it. "Just do it straight up," says Sheridan. "They'll get it."
If - or when - she stages Shakespeare for CTM, the play at the top of Sheridan's list would be Romeo and Juliet. "It's a young-adult story," she explains. "It's really about coming of age and the whole concept of what are the barriers to being able to be who you are."
Her target audience already grapples with these questions, she notes. "At that age," Sheridan observes, "that's one of the biggest challenges."
It was for her. She found sanctuary in theater.
Raised in a middle-class suburb outside Washington, D.C., Sheridan, 52, remembers neighborhood kickball games on the cul de sac where she lived, backyard badminton, walking to school. She organized pocket carnivals to raise money for charity. Instead of children's theater, her family made forays to dinner-theater productions.
Her theatrical epiphany came during high school. "In ninth grade, I went to see Jesus Christ Superstar in New York," she says. Her eyes widen at the Broadway memory. "Whoa!" she remembers thinking. "That's what theater can do?" Until then, she had always been aware of sitting in a theater, watching a play. "My feet would get a little antsy." Now they were still. Sheridan felt transported.
She was soon venturing to Georgetown to sit on floors and watch experimental theater. Her high school had an incredible drama department, she says, and her adolescent acting credits included Edward Emerson in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, Baby Louise in Gypsy and a dancing table in Once Upon a Mattress. Enthralled by her school's drama director, Sheridan was always the person who wanted to take notes for him, thrilled at the opportunity to "get inside the process."
She hedged as an undergrad - taking degrees in Russian studies but also theater and speech communications at the University of Richmond, doing summer theater but also snagging a CIA internship - before getting her MFA in directing from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Then she came here to visit a friend. Liked Madison. Decided to stay.
Venturing to American Players Theatre, Sheridan saw Randall Duk Kim's Hamlet. "Wow," she thought. "I want to work here." She knocked on the door for a year and a half, she says, before "the right knock at the right time with the right person at the door" led to a position as stage manager.
That was 1986. Over the next 17 years, Sheridan would rise to production manager, associate producer, then associate artistic director as APT matured toward what it is today.
When APT producing artistic director David Frank arrived at APT in 1991, Sheridan made an impression. "She has real artistic taste, but she blends that with practicality," says Frank, who remembers working across a desk from Sheridan during some of APT's darkest days, slashing budgets while trying to move the company forward. "It was brutal but it was exhilarating," he recalls, citing Sheridan's "extraordinary determination and energy," her willingness to shoulder responsibility.
Sheridan still takes satisfaction in her APT tenure, but at mid-career felt pulled by aspirations to direct her own theater company. "I decided to leave a very lucrative and wonderful and incredible job and community," she reflects, "and pursue other things."
Maintaining residence here, she freelanced as a director in Maine, Texas and Milwaukee, at Madison Repertory Theatre, Madison Theatre Guild and StageQ. Then the economy began to convulse, shaking some of the city's most enduring arts institutions. CTM was among the earliest and hardest hit, announcing in early 2006 it would suspend the rest of its season due to mounting debts.
Children's Theater of Madison debuted in February 1966 with Land of the Dragon. Its first decade included Winnie the Pooh, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White and other familiar childhood fare. Its annual production of A Christmas Carol debuted in 1976. Its seasons broadened to accommodate more challenging material, including The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, even Shakespeare comedies like Twelfth Night and The Tempest, while retaining familiar childhood classics.
Then debt pushed CTM to the brink.
Sheridan contacted a friend on CTM's board to voice support. "Don't give up A Christmas Carol," she counseled, envisioning a large-scale staging at Overture's Capitol Theater. "It's going to be your anchor." By October of 2006, a fundraising drive had generated enough support to erase CTM's debts and mount the holiday classic. Sheridan directed.
Heartened by that revival, CTM brought Sheridan back the following spring for To Kill a Mockingbird. Isthmus critic Lue Allen hailed Sheridan's "inspired innovations," including a choir "high in the theater balconies, of Southern ladies complete with hats and pulsing fans," their hymns affording continuity and "contrast to shouted racist slurs."
CTM hired Sheridan as producing artistic director in September 2007. By then, the company's board had already determined the season: A Christmas Carol and the Depression-era labor-camp drama Esperanza Rising.
Sheridan remembers that first year as a shoestring operation. Now she heads a staff of six, including three full-timers. CTM's season has likewise added one title each year. Navigating this cautious growth, Sheridan has tried to strike a balance between ticket sales and doing what she calls "the work you want to do."
Terry Haller, who led that 2006 fundraising campaign and has known Sheridan since her arrival at APT, cites her ability to weigh theatrical aspirations against fiscal responsibilities among her most distinguishing attributes. "It's a fairly rare person who combines those qualities," he says, noting many arts institutions create separate positions for their creative and financial leaders. "She's done some incredible work," he adds. "Plays of very high quality."
Audiences have not always rewarded her. Sheridan winces at disappointing attendance, during the 2008-2009 season, for James DeVita's Lewis Carroll adaptation Looking Glass Land and the time-travel fantasy Degas' Little Dancer. "I just didn't want to do kiddie theater," she explains. "I didn't want to do bad bunny suits on stage."
If she retreated a bit last year - bringing back Little Women, Christmas Carol and Narnia while introducing Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse - she appears less chastened than cognizant that balance must be sustained.
The company's 45th season includes five productions - one more than last year. "More shows lend a greater sense of a more ongoing enterprise," Sheridan says.
The Little Stars series, for ages 10 and under, debuts Oct. 16-24 with a production of Goodnight Moon that includes tap-dancing bears, a singing tooth fairy and the moon-jumping cow. It ends in March with The Surprising Story of the Three Little Pigs, who are joined by the three bears and billy goats gruff for a convergence of archetypal tales.
Sheridan this year sets aside A Christmas Carol to stage A Wonderful Life as a musical adaptation of Frank Capra's classic holiday film. Showing Dec. 10-23, it launches a Family Series targeting ages 10 and up. Most Valuable Player, about baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, follows in February, and The Little Prince in April.
Scanning more distant horizons, Sheridan hopes to assemble a small, issue-based production that might tour schools. She mentions Eat, a drama about food disorders, as an age-appropriate possibility for middle and high schools.
To advance goals like these, she must continue to brand CTM, broadcast that it is a theater for all ages, and generate audience loyalty.
Rewards sustain her through such challenges. Sheridan delights in watching the audience, seeing how real the characters are to children, overhearing chatter at intermission or kids peppering parents with questions and observations.
She avoids sitting near the front or middle "because I get a little squirrelly," she says, calling to mind the antsy feet of younger days. "I'd rather be somewhere where I can take in the whole picture and not be noticed."
The Sheridan File
Born: Sept. 18, 1958, Johnstown, Pa.
Ethnic heritage: One-quarter German, one-quarter Irish, half Italian (her maternal great-grandmother immigrated from Southern Naples).
Family: Single, no children.
Recent move: To a condo on Lake Monona after 12 years in a Westmorland house.
Food faves: Cosi, Crema Café, Dobhan "and Noodles in the wintertime because they have the best chicken-noodle soup on the planet."
Where she seeks and finds joy: The rehearsal process. Watching a cast of kids and adults click, she says, brings out her own kid.
What that kid is like: "Goofy, uninhibited, willing to do anything no matter what it looks like."