Director Connects With Her Performers and Herself

by Zac Schultz
| November 24, 2016

Wisconsin Public Television

Encore Studio for the performing arts is the only professional theater company for people with disabilities in Wisconsin, and one of just a handful nationwide.  “Our actors are people with physical, cognitive disabilities, mental health issues,” says Kelsy Schoenhaar, executive and artistic director.

The actors are paid, and Encore is both an arts organization and a vocational agency. “The vocation is drama, the vocation is theatre.”

Don't think they don't take their jobs as actors seriously. “This isn't theater therapy, this isn't art therapy of any sort,” says Kelsy Schoenhaar.

Kelsy Schoenhaar can relate to her actors, as she has Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. She finds it a relief that her coping techniques are accepted at Encore.  “It's been pretty cool for me too, because if I'm stressed out and I'm directing then I can rock and no one cares because other people do so and have other things too.”

She writes plays that talk frankly about the issues people with disabilities face in life.  “If people are coming to expect something very, pardon my expression, special and sweet, they might not be coming to the right place.

Kelsy Schoenhaar writes parts specifically for her actors.  “If I'm writing to them and to who I know they are then their voices come out.”

Kelsy Schoenhaar knows all about finding her voice and speaking with confidence.  “I'm a transgendered lesbian within the autism spectrum and so, whatever that means,.”

In 1999 Kelsy was named Gary, and living with a wife and 2 kids in Illinois.  “When I first came out and just said this is who I am to my former spouse it was like breathing for the first time.”

Her family was supportive, but her community was not. They received death threats and decided to move to a place where they knew they would be accepted.  “I had surgery in the very beginning of the year and by August we were in Madison.”

Encore was just starting up, and she applied as Kelsy, her first job as herself.  “I think maybe burying myself in work was a good thing at the time.”

Kelsy Schoenhaar found an instant connection with the actors. She could identify with their need to be accepted for who they are. “There was just a different comfort level I had that I didn't have with everyone else.”

There has never been an Encore without Kelsy Schoenhaar, and really there hasn't been much Kelsy without Encore.  “It feels like I've kind of created this almost for my purposes but I think I'm just lucky. I landed in the right place at the right time. It's pretty amazing, pretty magical.”

Tags: Kelsy Schoenhaar / theater / Encore Studio / disability / acting / creative / drama / Madison

Zac Schultz is a reporter for the "Wisconsin Life" project who thinks three-minute stories and one-line bio descriptions are woefully brief.