The Whole Me—And So Much MoreMar 08, 2023 04:57PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
When Fran Sillau began taking classes at the Rose Theater as a child, he felt like he belonged.
Born three months early, Sillau developed cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder impacting movement, posture, and muscle tone. That didn’t stop him from exploring his creativity. He started theater during the late 1980s at the Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (before it moved to the Rose Theater on Farnam Street) when he was only 4 years old.
“It was magical to me,” he recalled. “They didn’t look differently at me than the rest of the class. They welcomed the whole me, and I felt completely whole when I worked with groups of people. They didn’t focus on my having a disability. I was just Fran. It really saved me.”
Sillau spent most weekends at the theater, and some 35 years later, he’s never really left. Even with studies and jobs elsewhere in the intervening years, the now 39-year-old always found himself coming back to the Rose’s familiar stage and classrooms. He became a high school intern in 2001 and continued as a three-time college intern. “I learned all the ins and outs of a professional children’s theater,” he said.
He has also worked with organizations like the Smithsonian Institution, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kennedy Center and is today the executive artistic director of Omaha’s Circle Theatre, which engages individuals of all abilities in creative opportunities both on and off the stage.
Still, the teacher, published playwright, actor, director, and advocate for youth with physical and developmental disabilities is exactly where he wants to be: at the Rose, where he is the director of accessibility, ensuring that theater is for everyone.“Here, every class can be inclusive, and the theater goes to great lengths to accommodate barriers. We’ve always been an accepting and open place where you can make any work come to life on the stage. It’s in the DNA here,” Sillau said. “They formalized that inclusivity in 2016 when they created my administrative position.”
Since then, the director has overseen the Rose’s “classes for children with exceptionalities,” which provide theater opportunities for students from pre-Kindergarten to their early 20s who are on the autism spectrum, have Down syndrome, or are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
“We meet the child where they are and remove real or perceived barriers,” he explained. Addressing real barriers involves providing ramps for mobility access, extra instructors, sign language interpreters, or cool-down spaces for students who become overstimulated and working with healthcare providers to meet medical and medication needs. Financial barriers are also dissolved thanks to scholarships made possible through the Autism Action Partnership.
But what of perceived barriers? “Children might wonder, ‘Am I welcome?’ You are,” he affirmed. “You are welcome.”
When looking into classes at the Rose, families usually start with Sillau, who discusses their specific needs.
“I say, ‘Let’s have a chat. Tell me about your child. Why are they special? What excites them? Why do you think this is the place for them?’” Sillau explained. “This allows us to know what their needs are. We stay in constant contact with the families to make sure everything is going well. We want their relationship with the theater to be as long as mine and have that same sense of belonging.”
The Rose achieves this in large part by integrating creative play into theater so that youngsters can inhabit the world by moving beyond the parameters of a script to explore works through creative interpretation. This story-driven approach allows students to develop communication skills they can use long after stage lights have dimmed.
“In an inclusive class, we let the young person be the center of the world. They use the body, voice, and imagination as the basis for the story,” Sillau said.
This approach, he explained, provides a solid foundation in life skills that goes well beyond the Rose’s stage.
“If students are like me, they can take the tools we give them as a basis for inquiry that can open the world of communication. We all have to communicate.”
This is true of Sophia Kazmierski, who is autistic and was slow to speak. She began taking classes at the Rose when she was 9 and today, at 21, is a theater student at UNO and resident artist at the Circle Theatre.
The Rose’s inclusive space for her was always important. “The Rose always found a way to fit everyone in,” she explained. “Different actors sometimes needed different accommodations, and they always made the space accessible, which then made the people feel included. This might have meant smaller classes for autistic actors because larger crowds can be overwhelming. The Rose gives people whatever they need to be successful. The space is meant for everyone.”
That kind of experience is exactly why Sillau does what he does. “I’m where I always wanted to be,” he reflected.