Kudos for a family theater. Wheelock's `accessibility' keeps audiences coming back for more

IT'S been called ``PG theater'' and ``the Walt Disney of the theater world.'' That's fine with Susan Kosoff, co-founder, producer, and director of Wheelock Family Theatre. ``After all, we're not doing experimental, avant-garde plays,'' she says. ``We are doing plays that families can enjoy together.''

Now in its sixth season, Ms. Kosoff's company is gaining a reputation for consistently entertaining, artistically challenging shows.

``The quality of their productions is excellent,'' says Larry Murray, executive director of Arts Boston, an umbrella organization that functions as a chamber of commerce for the arts in this city. ``They take a definite educational approach to their work, but when you go to a Wheelock show, you never feel that you're being educated - just entertained.''

At a time when the word ``family'' has attained new, and often loaded, meaning, the purpose of the Wheelock Family Theatre is closely tied to that of Wheelock College, a longtime leader in the field of early childhood education.

``The mission of the college is to improve the quality of life for children and families, and the theater is really an extension of that mission,'' Kosoff explains. ``We aim to serve children and their families in the arts.''

Some of the productions clearly are intended for young children, such as last fall's crowd-pleasing flight into Never-Never Land with ``Peter Pan.'' But the theater also stages provocative dramas for older audiences. The recent production of ``Dark at the Top of the Stairs,'' for example, dealt with the struggles of an Oklahoma family in the 1920s and included a tragic teen suicide.

``It's a tough issue that a lot of teen-agers are concerned about today,'' Kosoff says. ``We felt that if parents and teen-agers could see the play together, and then go off and talk about it later on, it might be a catalyst for something important happening away from the theater. In fact, we hope that's what will happen with any play we put on - that people will somehow share in the experience.''

If any one word could describe the goals of the Wheelock Family Theatre, it's probably ``accessibility.'' At $6 a seat, ticket prices have been kept within the reach of low-income individuals and large families. There are wheelchair ramps for the handicapped, and each production is interpreted in American Sign Language for the hearing-impaired.

What's more, every cast includes a wide range of ages as well as acting experience. There are four Equity actors in each show, but the rest of the production is made up of non-Equity professionals and community people.

The result of mixing strong leads and relatively inexperienced actors often is a more interesting show. ``It's like playing tennis,'' Kosoff says. ``If you play with somebody better than you, your own game improves. And if you act on stage with people who are better than you, your own performance comes up, too.''

``It's wonderful for the inexperienced person, and it's also wonderful for the experienced actors - because it allows them to teach their craft. And that is something we're rather partial to.''

A graduate of Wheelock College and former director of its graduate school, Kosoff has taught both children and adults. She's also pursued a number of dramatic roles - as playwright, director, producer, and occasional seamstress and prop-builder. Before she founded the Wheelock Family Theatre in 1980, she and two friends had run a struggling off-season theater on Cape Cod for five years.

That experience, she adds with a gusty laugh, was her ``doctorate'' in theater. In addition to producing the shows, she and her friends tore tickets at the door, seated the audience - and got along on a shoestring budget. ``I discovered that the limits in that kind of theater are really more fun than if you have endless amounts of money to spend,'' she says.

Although the Wheelock Family Theatre receives about one-quarter of its budget from Wheelock College and additional funding from area businesses and corporations, each production is still a tight squeeze. In fact, the show goes on year after year largely because of the efforts of a volunteer cast of hundreds.

Groups of alumnae, parents, and teachers stitch the costumes for each production, and other volunteers serve as house managers and ushers.

Donations of paint and materials are always welcomed, and whenever they hear of a cottage closing up on Cape Cod, the production crew will borrow a truck to help haul away the contents (i.e., new props).

``A friend of mine says she loves to come to our shows, just to see which furniture of hers is going to appear on stage,'' Kosoff quips.

The Wheelock Family Theatre tries to balance its three annual productions between a musical, a drama, and a show that will appeal to the widest age range - such as ``The Wizard of Oz.''

Although Kosoff says she once approached a couple in the theater lobby and told them she thought their children were too young to see that evening's performance of ``Antigone,'' she's quick to add that most parents will know when their children are ready for an appropriate show.

``A good rule of thumb is whether or not a child will sit and listen to a story,'' she adds. ``If a child has the attention span for a longish story, he or she will enjoy the spectacle and excitement of a stage production - especially when there are children acting in the cast.''

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