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When BU announced in 2017 that it would merge with Wheelock College, one of the first questions on people’s minds was what would happen to the Wheelock Family Theatre (WFT), the award-winning children’s theater company known for its multicultural productions and unwavering commitment to producing inclusive, affordable theater.
The answer to that question will be apparent on October 26, 2018, when the now BU-owned theater kicks off its 38th season with a production of Gooney Bird Greene and Her True Life Adventures. Launched in 1981, WFT is not going anywhere.
“The message that came through loud and clear from BU is an appreciation of the mission, the work done here, and its intrinsic value,” says Jeri Hammond, WFT director of education.
Over its lifetime, Wheelock Family Theatre has produced more than 100 mainstage productions seen by more than half a million people—from children’s classics like Charlotte’s Web to family-friendly musicals (Peter Pan, The Sound of Music) to issue-oriented plays such as To Kill a Mockingbird and last season’s smash production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.
The company has earned a national reputation for artistically ambitious productions diverse in both character and cast and affordable for families and school groups throughout the community (tickets typically cost $20 to $40 before discounts). Performances usually include some kind of family-friendly workshop or event that gives audience members behind-the-scenes glimpses or an opportunity to meet with the cast. None of that is about to change now that it has become part of Boston University, WFT leaders say.
The theater, which will remain at its longtime home at 180 Riverway on the Fenway Campus, recently underwent a management reorganization and is now run by a trio of WFT veterans. Before she became artistic director spring 2018, Emily Ranii (CFA’13) directed at the theater and was a member of Wheelock College’s performing arts faculty. She is academic program head of the BU Summer Theater Institute at the College of Fine Arts and a BU Opera Institute lecturer. Hammond has been connected with the theater in one way or another for 36 of its 38 years. And Keith Orr, now WFT administrative director, had been marketing and development director.
For 2018 at least, the theater will be under the aegis of the BU Arts Initiative. “Wheelock Family Theatre embodies the best of what theater is,” says Ty Furman, Arts Initiative director, “building community, self-expression, and exploring what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes in both mainstage productions and the extensive educational programs.”
At the same time, a yearlong strengths assessment is underway, with the help of the theater’s existing advisory board and a task force of BU stakeholders. “We want to gauge where WFT fits into the other pieces of the puzzle,” says Orr.
As part of that assessment, the University has hired Washington, D.C.–based consultant Kim Peter Kovac, artistic director of the Kennedy Center’s Performances for Young Audiences from 1983 to 2017. “I think of this as working with the gangs at WFT and the School of Theatre to assist in expanding and tweaking the process of elegantly integrating the entities,” says Kovac, who is still a Kennedy Center artistic advisor.
“It starts by listening, trying to understand the long- and short-term histories, administrative and pragmatic as well as artistic, and helping them articulate their goals,” he says, “as well as clarifying practical steps and timelines to move forward in the best possible way. It’s about process, not about an end point.”
“The possibilities are compelling,” adds Jim Petosa, School of Theatre director and a CFA professor of directing and dramatic criticism. “During the coming year, the company will embark on a serious analysis of its place in the national conversation around intergenerational theater-producing, with an eye to its participation at the national level. Emily is a gifted theater artist. I’m excited to see what becomes of the program in the coming years.”
In addition to mounting three or four mainstage productions each year, WFT offers a wide range of theater classes and workshops and works extensively with area schools and community organizations to provide hands-on training to students. The company has earned numerous honors, among them the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts LEAD Award for Excellence in Accessibility Leadership and a Christopher Reeve Foundation Award, for its efforts to make theater accessible for all of Boston’s diverse communities.
The theater has a core of nine staffers, augmented by additional hires (30 for its summer program alone) as well as a cast and crew for each production. It has its own operating budget and tries to hit breakeven or better through ticket sales, tuition, and fundraising.
The WFT weekday student matinee performances alone bring an estimated 15,000 elementary through high school students to the theater each season from all over New England. A gift from the Yawkey Foundation helped subsidize the program for 2018–2019.
“We had a group—I love this—they came in from Martha’s Vineyard,” Orr says. “They had to leave there at five in the morning to get here for 10:30, get the kids to the ferry, get the school bus on the ferry, drive up from Hyannis. The whole thing was like a D-Day invasion, but the kids were great and the parents that came were so excited. It was cool on a lot of levels.”
“I’m thrilled that BU has embraced the theater and is really making efforts to strengthen it and look for ways it can play a bigger role, not only in the community—I think it’s done that well—but in the academic life of the University,” says David Chard, dean ad interim of the BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, who was Wheelock president before the merger.
A number of creative artists involved with the theater are BU faculty or alums. And while no current BU theater students are involved in the 2018–2019 season, there are discussions about how to create opportunities in the future for BU students in production design.
First up for the new season, Gooney Bird Greene and Her True Life Adventures, adapted from the Lois Lowry children’s novel of the same name, is a play designed for all ages. Next is Ragtime, the Tony-winning musical based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow. The season’s last show is a theatrical adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic, James and the Giant Peach. And in keeping with WFT tradition, all of the productions will feature diverse casts.
“I heard a girl at one of the talk-backs at Beauty and the Beast say, ‘I never thought I’d see a Filipino Belle,’” Orr says. “Having that diversity represented on stage seems almost simplistic in this day and age, where 35 years ago it was groundbreaking. But the effect it has on audience members never fails to impress me—to see themselves represented on stage in a way they never have before.”
WFT typically uses a mixture of Actors’ Equity and non-Equity professional actors, along with young performers. “There is a mentorship that happens, and it goes both ways,” Hammond says. “The young artists teach the professional actors to play with abandon and be present and be impulsive, and the professionals teach the young artists work ethic and a different kind of specificity and attention to the moment.”
“As both the dean of the College of Fine Arts and the parent of two young children, I am ecstatic that Wheelock Family Theatre is now a part of Boston University,” says Harvey Young. “I have long admired its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and access. I think of the arts at Boston University as a welcoming, inviting beacon that brings people together and creates community. With Wheelock Family Theatre, our light is now brighter.”
Wheelock Family Theatre’s 38th season kicks off with Gooney Bird Greene and Her True Life Adventures, from October 26 to November 18, 2018, followed by the Tony-winning musical Ragtime, from January 25 to February 17, 2019, and James and the Giant Peach, from April 12 to May 12, 2019. Purchase tickets online or by calling the box office, 617-353-3001.