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March 19, 2004 - Image 35

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-03-19

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Wild Swan Theater artistic directors Hilary Cohen and Sandy Ryder
make play-going accessible for all kinds of audiences.

Special to the Jewish News

Ann Arbor


ilary Cohen and Sandy
Ryder, artistic directors of
Ann Arbor's Wild Swan
Theater, share a favorite
memory as they approach the 25th
anniversary of the stage company they
The women, whose original family
programs accommodate disabled young
people in their audiences, actually recall
a disabled parent.
"We provide audio transmitters for
children who are .blind, and we gave
that tool to a blind dad who was
accompanying a sighted son for a per-
formance of Alice in Wonderland,"
Sandy Ryder and
Cohen recalls. "During pauses in the
Hilary Cohen in a
dialogue, the transmitter tape explains
Wild Swan
what is happening onstage, and the
production of
father learned about the imaginary
"Frog and Toad":
characters, their movements and their
Using the power
of theater.
"The father had the —transmitter in
one ear, while his son whispered a
question into the other ear. Because
the man had heard a description of the actors' and actresses' activities, he had
the answer and told us later that was the first time he'd ever been able to
explain something visual to his son:That was very special for us."
Cohen and Ryder have many outstanding experiences as they oversee the entertain-
ing and informing of about 50,000 people each year through some 170 performanc-
es in the Midwest. Their calendar runs 11 months with only August for vacation, and
they present some 25 original productions based on history or fantasy.
The troupe targets young people from preschool through high school.
Their next public presentation, Strega Nona and the Magic Pasta Pot, runs
March 25-29 at the Towsley Auditorium on the Washtenaw Community College
campus in Ann Arbor. The play, based on the Calctecott Honor Award book by
Tomie dePaola, is aimed at youngsters between ages 3 and 8 and introduces a
cooking disaster when a boy ignores the rules of Italian "Grandma Witch" Strega
Nona, and the streets of a small town fill up with pasta.

The adult company will bring the
same show to the Detroit area at
Haviland Elementary School in
Waterford. Other upcoming contract-
ed performances include Tales of Tricks
and Troubles at Detroit Country Day
School in Beverly Hills, Coming to
America at Green Elementary School
in West Bloomfield and Jack and the
Beanstalk at the Birmingham Country
Study guides that go along with the
productions extend learning in many
"When we started Wild Swan, we
never thought it would take off the
way it has," says Cohen, 56, who has
her doctorate from the University of
Michigan and has taught theater arts
there, published numerous articles
about Wild Swan and arts accessibil-
ity and trained teachers internation-
"I think our success has come
from picking a great story for each
production, paying attention to the
age groups we encounter and struc-
turing plays that work well and are
joyful for entire families. Theater is
a great way to share history lessons. When there is a performance, the history
really resonates."
Cohen and Ryder, who met in Ann Arbor, connected because of their theater
interests and backgrounds. Although there were two other friends working with
them at the beginning, opportunities outside the city whittled Wild Swan admin-
istration in half.
"When we were planning this theater program, we felt there was a great need
for affordable theater for kids," Ryder says. "We loved kids' stories, and we want-
ed them to be accessible and enjoyable."
It soon became apparent that accessibility also meant accommodations for
young people with various physical and emotional needs.
"One of our early projects was for an adolescent psychiatric hospital, and

STAGE SISTERS on page 40




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