Wheelock Family Theatre is a professional theatre associated with Actors' Equity Association. Many of our casts also include children and teens, most of whom are selected from students in our classes and workshops.
The Trumpet of the Swan
Wheelock Family Theatre has meant so much to me over the years and each time I return to do a show here, that very special relationship is deepened. Three words spring immediately to mind when I think to qualify WFT: alive, engagement, and community.
One need only witness the artistic buzz of a rehearsal, performance or class at WFT to experience just how alive it is. Passionate artists of every age, viewpoint, professional experience and multicultural background converge to create work that transcends merely “putting on a show.” As cast members, we revel in the opportunity to perform on such an illustrious stage, for sure, but we also enjoy the roles we play in inspiring and shaping the lives and work of aspiring students of theatre and audiences of all ages. To say that it is rewarding is an understatement, indeed.
Not only does the theatre excel at involving performing, technical and creative artists who are extraordinary in their jobs, it engages each one of us on a personal, committed level that helps develop us as people. One need only witness the mentoring relationships among each cast, the dynamics of a full audience of school children seeing live theatre for the first time or the encouragement offered by the cast to audience members at the Red Carpet events and frequent audience Q&A’s to sense the level of inclusion that Wheelock Family audiences feel. The theatre does not just look to involve everyone, its mission to engage takes hold immediately on so many levels. The stories on the stage have their impact and the very act of attending the shows also has a longstanding lingering influence. I am confident that we are grooming audience members for life at WFT and that part of the theatre’s mission resonates particularly with me.
There is a sense of community at WFT that sets it apart from most other theatres and also from many other arts institutions in general. I think it is because WFT embraces the term “community” on both an active and responsive level. Every attempt is made to create a safe artistic space for artists, teaching artists and creative forces that are passionate about working with one another. At the same time, the theatre actively recognizes and seeks out opportunities to be a driving force in the community: bridging demographics, confronting challenges and fostering ways in which we may all literally become more productive seams in the fabric of our society.
I could go on for hours about all that I love about Wheelock Family Theatre. Suffice it to say, on a very personal level, the work I have been honored to do at WFT has always rewarded me on a profound and distinct level and I am exceedingly proud to have the distinction of performing and teaching here.
I have lived in Boston for around 3 years now and have worked with some fantastic theatre companies, but nothing compares to the unique set of challenges faced working at Wheelock Family Theatre. However, along with the challenges comes waves of inspiration that I have found are unparalleled anywhere else.
Interestingly enough, the challenges and inspiration all stem from the same source. Working with kids! And at times, working with 60+ kids! Before my first show with WFT (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon), I had not been in a production with a single child actor since I was a child myself. So imagine my surprise to show up to the first rehearsal where there were around 30 children under the age of 12 and probably just as many preteens/teens, completely outnumbering us poor adults.
With a different combination of kids for almost every show, I was reminded about how each performance has its own heartbeat. Learning to adapt, not being afraid of that ebb and flow, is an irreplaceable skill.
While working on Trumpet of the Swan, I am constantly amazed by the young actors I get to share the stage with. They have a passion for theatre that somehow got lost a little for me when it became a job. The kids inspire me to approach theatre with a sense of curiosity and excitement. And I am truly grateful for that.
Working with young actors means a lot of things. It means there will always be a noisy dressing room. It means entrances will inadvertently be missed. But it also means I get a chance to be a teacher, friend, and confidant to an awesome group of kids. And I even get to learn from them too!
EJ is an actor (Pink Lady Slipper at American Repertory Theatre, multiple roles in Arabian Nights at Central Square Theatre, Tuc in The Taste of Sunrise at WFT), ASL Interpreter (Porgy and Bess at American Repertory Theatre, Wicked at Opera House, Billy Elliot at Opera House) and ASL Coach (Flashdance at Colonial Theater, Mountaintop at Central Square Theatre) . Trumpet of the Swan is his 22nd production at WFT.
EJ says, “As an actor who is Black and Hard of Hearing, pursuing a theatre career is doubly difficult for me. As an actor who is Hard of Hearing, the concatenation of listening and focusing is a challenge. Additionally, developing my speech ability has been difficult. I was once told by a performer that I was difficult to understand and that I should keep my conversations short. While I felt hurt, I began to understand that most of my characters were non-verbal due to my diction. It encouraged me to be strong and to practice my voice work. I took a voice class at Wheelock Family Theatre with Kathryn Woods. It was helpful but I felt it wasn't enough for me as Hard of Hearing actor in a mostly hearing world. So I kept on working on my speech and diction and never gave up. I promised myself that I would not get discouraged and that I would have an impact as a theatre artist. I want to be a leader not only in colorful casting at WFT and elsewhere, but also for access and inclusion.
I “grew up” at Wheelock Family Theatre, starting with the first show I saw with my classmates - Peter Pan. That's when I understood how theatre transforms lives on and off stage. When I returned to school I was given a homework assignment to choose an actor from the show as a pen pal. I chose Jane Staab. I wrote her and told her what a strong influence Peter Pan had on me, and how I would love to be in it and meet her. When WFT produced Tuck Everlasting, I met Jane, still in costume as Mae, and had the opportunity to speak with her. Jane encouraged me to audition for The Wizard of Oz the following year and I did. It was my first audition ever and my first acting experience. I felt I didn't do well, but my passion and hunger for performing must have come through as Jane called to let me know I had been cast as a Munchkin.
I carry WFT’s mission in me. I want to transforms lives through theatre and demonstrate that casting and storytelling can be reimagined and reinterpreted to reflect our audiences. I am glad to be a Hard of Hearing and Black actor – it makes me unusual in the Boston theatre community, and I am glad to be bilingual in English and American Sign Language.”
My experiences with WFT have fostered my desire to make a difference through theatre and to push for more inclusion and diversity in theatre and the arts generally. Working at WFT has shaped me as a person and taught me about self-reliance as well as my responsibilities towards humanity. WFT has become my second family and I am so proud to be a part of it! I would especially like to thank my pen pal, acting advisor, peer, director, and family member, Jane Staab - thank you for spreading my wings. Thank you for the wonderful magic you gave me, I will always treasure it.”
There are many reasons why I love working with Wheelock Family Theatre. Three reasons, however, stand out above the rest: their method of casting, accessibility, and their work with youth.
From my first production with WFT, Saint Joan, I was impressed with how Wheelock embraces non-traditional casting. In subsequent shows here I’ve been able to engage in a variety of roles such as an 18th century businessman (Tale of Two Cities), a 19th century undertaker, (Oliver) and currently, an early 20th century mid-western farmer. For most other theatres, putting an African American into these roles would be considered risky stunt-casting. For Wheelock, it’s simply “casting”. I’ve been made to feel that I’ve been cast, not merely because of my ethnicity, but because my talent is respected here. What makes their approach to non-traditional casting work is that the casting is never a comment on anything else but what talent the person brings to the role. It is an actor’s dream.
Another reason that I love working with WFT is that they excel in the art of accessibility. For some theatre’s being accessible simply means having a handicap ramp or maybe a deaf interpreter for a select performance. For WFT, accessibility is more than a marketing tool. It is ingrained in the philosophy of the theatre itself. The Trumpet of the Swan is an example of that philosophy coming to life. Working on this show has reinforced for me that deaf culture is more than just a group of people who can’t hear. It is a community with histories and struggles, but also politics and controversies. Like everyone else, they struggle to gain a definition and stake their place in the sun.
Finally, there is the work WFT does with youth. In addition to being an actor, I am a college professor. In that capacity, I revel in the chance to teach what I know about the craft that I engage in. The shows that I have done at here have and continue to give me a chance to teach what I know to young developing actors. Like any other craft, the best way to learn is by example. At WFT, younger actors cast in shows get to rub elbows with some of Boston’s finest professional actors. WFT also has classes that teach great basic fundamentals with the added bonus of being relevant to the shows that are being produced.
I could go on for several more paragraphs about my experiences with WFT. But, I think the word “Family” tells you everything you need to know about this theatre company. WFT is a supporting, nurturing organization that has served several generations of performers and patrons and will certainly go on to serve several generations more.
I have always loved Wheelock Family Theatre, even before I had a personal connection to it. My school used to go on field trips to see the shows at WFT, and I can clearly remember watching the adults and kids on stage work as a team to put on beautiful productions. Because I didn’t start getting into theater until later in my childhood, I took for granted the family feeling of the casts and crews and the diversity of the actors in live theater. Now that I’ve seen many more shows at many other theaters, I can really see what sets WFT apart. WFT is more than just a theater, it’s an open door community that creates opportunities in this industry for people who don’t always have them--and that applies to both the audience and the performers.
Live theater is a wonderful thing, but it has its challenges. We need theaters that make it possible for everybody to experience and have access to shows. And we need casting that thoughtfully includes those who may not otherwise get a chance to pursue this passion. Having now been backstage and worked with the professional casts and crews that put these shows up only increases my awe of WFT.
WFT has proven to me time and again that they truly care. Not just about the show and the season and the theater in general, but about the people. They go out of their way to help people experience and participate in live theater. They believe that family theater can change people’s lives, and that belief is something amazing to see in the staff of WFT. Not to mention the incredible work done by the actors, the designers, the stage managers, the directors and everyone else who works tirelessly to make WFT a unique experience for everyone. The Trumpet of the Swan is my third show at this theater, and I am proud to call Wheelock Family Theater a part of my life.”
*Members of Actors' Equity Association appearing in photos on this website: Danny Bolton and Cliff Odle.