How Children’s Theater of Madison Puts Inclusivity at the Forefront
Since 1965, Madison, Wisconsin has been home to a center of the arts and creativity: the Children’s Theater of Madison (CTM). Over the years, their foundational values and mission have gone through a transition period, where inclusivity of people with disabilities has become essential to the institution. To learn more about the theater and their efforts to achieve accessibility, we turned to Erica Berman, Director of Education & Community Engagement at CTM.
CTM has been an integral part of Madison for quite some time. Founded by Nancy Thoreau, the theater was created to be a space to cultivate the arts when it was needed most by youth in the community.
“[In the] 60s and 70s there was a real big movement in children's theater and creating theater specifically for youth,” Berman said.
Though those times are remembered fondly by older members of the Madison community, CTM has made it a priority to make changes to its organizational policies when necessary.
“CTM has innovated, CTM has grown up, CTM has evolved with the times and has stayed current because … we want to meet the needs of today's youth,” Berman said.
CTM’s mission statement has stayed largely the same –– they aim to spark imagination and build community through the creation and experience of theater. However, a more recent change has occurred in the addition of an inclusion statement to their overall mission, which, according to CTM, celebrates visible and invisible differences in life experiences, like living with a disability.
“We really started looking at what the culture of CTM was from an inclusion standpoint, from an access standpoint. I think one thing that became clear is we really needed a statement that really took a stance on who we are. From that vantage point, if people question where we were coming [from] with some of our work, we can say this is actually what we stand for,” Berman said.
But inclusion at CTM does not only mean making the audience theater experience more accessible. The organization is trying to go further than that, fostering an environment where every single aspect of the theater is a safe space for all needs and perspectives.
“We are a company who strives to make inclusion at the center of every discussion we have, from hiring to casting to audience members to kids in classes to how we engage in the community. We are constantly asking: are these equitable practices? Are these inclusive practices? Are we serving as many youth as we possibly can serve, from a variety of abilities, [a range of racial and ethnic] backgrounds, neurodiversity, and more? It is part of the normalcy of our company to make sure that everyone feels like they belong,” Berman said.
One of their recent productions –– “Mockingbird” –– serves as an example of CTM striving for inclusion in acting specifically. In the play, the main character is an eleven-year-old girl on the autism spectrum who is forced to face a great family tragedy and a world that doesn’t always make sense to her. CTM’s stance on upholding representation led them on a search for an actress who was also on the spectrum, and who could fully understand and embody the realities of the role.
“We said, we're going to do our best to find an actor with autism to play this role. We were fortunate to do so, and we built our entire rehearsal process around this actor's specific needs, and what was going to make her succeed. We learned a lot and it was an amazing process,” Berman said.
In a similar vein, their production of “Stellaluna” had CTM casting an actual Deaf person to play the narrator, as is called for in the play. Incorporating an actor who has had real experience with deafness and sign language was incredibly important for the CTM team.
“We were lucky enough to find a fantastic storyteller actor who's Deaf and we again, wrapped our entire rehearsal process around that Deaf actor to make sure that they could communicate with everyone in the space,” Berman said.
A major lesson that Berman learned after being a part of productions like “Mockingbird” and “Stellaluna” is that not only is inclusivity necessary, it is not impossible to achieve. While it may seem daunting to change how a theater approaches audiences, casting, and more, in the end, it is worth it.
“I am passionate about speaking about [inclusive] processes to other audiences, to other companies, so that they can also do that work. I think to me, it's doable and it's so vital. For that young person who's Deaf or hard of hearing seeing a Deaf actor on stage, it's essential to see that representation. But it's beneficial to everyone,” Berman said.
Although the incorporation of inclusivity at CTM is needed and appreciated by the community, the path there is not always easy. But Berman stays encouraged through it all.
“The most challenging moments are when someone [speaks on what they need] truthfully, and we don't maybe have the funds or the support to make that happen. But I will say I've been pretty delightfully encouraged and heartened to see many, many dreams come true at CTM of what we can achieve despite lack of funds or lack of time. I think that we are learning every day and taking steps every day to get closer to this being the most accessible space that it can be,” Berman said.
For Berman, theater serves as a place for every person to thrive, regardless of any accessibility barriers they have faced on the outside. Truly believing in what theater can do for people has made CTM’s aim for inclusion that much more achievable.
“Theater is all about belonging. I think we have a really unique ability in the theater arts to ensure that that sense of belonging is not for a select few, but it truly is for everyone. It's really about finding your place and finding a voice. The great privilege that all of us in the theater have to watch those moments come to life is pretty profound,” Berman said.
CTM’s impact in theater accessibility is felt in Madison, but also in both national and international arenas. By being a part of the cohort Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA), linked here, the organization is able to voice their experiences in expanding inclusivity to other theater companies.
“What's really nice about [being a part of TYA] is we can be part of the national conversation. What are they doing in Nashville? What are they doing in Seattle? What are they doing in Charlotte to become more accessible in their communities? And also thinking about what's specific to that community, but what's universal to any community. In that way, it's really great to be part of that national conversation, both in terms of being able to take from those conversations, but also being able to give,” Berman said.
CTM believes that theaters across the country and the world should be able to have a dialogue about inclusion in their spaces. Berman wants to emphasize that, if any theater wants to reach out to CTM and discuss accessibility, they should feel more than welcome.
As for readers at Blue Trunk, Berman has this to say.
“Come to CTM! We have a beautiful brand new art center, and it was built with accessibility in mind and youth in mind. We really ensure that we have the tools, both the physical tools and also the tools within ourselves, to be able to make this a wonderful place to visit and a wonderful place for every child to be able to see theater.”
Thank you to Erica Berman for this fantastic interview about CTM and their stance on inclusion. If this blog has inspired you to visit the theater and if you have any special accommodation requests that are not featured on the website linked here, be sure to reach out to CTM via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 608-255-2080.
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