Skip to main content

Omaha Magazine

All the World’s a Stage and Everyone Belongs on It

Sep 22, 2023 04:22PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
fran silau How Circle Theatre’s Fran Sillau Creates and Embodies Inclusivity

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Omaha’s oldest independent producing company, The Circle Theatre, made its mark staging plays in nontraditional spaces. A new accessibility mission led by Executive Artistic Director Fran Sillau meets all people where they’re at, regardless of perceived capability. Sillau, who’s worked nationally in dismantling barriers to participation, has a disability himself.

“Disability is the new frontier in terms of inclusion,” said Sillau, who serves as US representative to the International Inclusion Arts Network at a time when theater grapples with representation issues. “We provide tools to countries or territories who would like more help and mentorship in that. It’s a great honor to serve in that capacity and it’s a great way to see what is happening in this arena.”

An actor, playwright, producer, director, educator, and administrator, Sillau has an MFA in directing and inclusion from Goddard College (Vermont). He travels widely to guest produce-direct Theater For Young Audiences shows and to present and consult on accessibility.

For him, inclusion extends to dramatizing stories of  Holocaust survivors—lest the world forget that intolerance and exclusion can spur atrocity.

Sillau grew up in the metro’s tight-knit theater community. The Council Bluffs, Iowa native’s introduction to creative stage-play came at the former Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater. He was in the company’s first production as The Rose. 

“They raised me,” he said of its staff. “I owe a lot to that institution.”  

In one of many full circle moments in his career, he served as director of accessibility for 23 years in addition to writing-directing main stage shows. 

He only relinquished the role in October to make space for his ever-expanding responsibilities.  

At Circle, he advocates for “different ways of showing, being and doing, so that everyone can be involved.” 

“We want audiences to come and take in our work. We love they know these are artists with disabilities. But it’s important to meet audience expectations about the art,” Sillau explained. "I am at a point in my career where if we don’t play kindly and equally and equitably and nice, you won’t find me there.” 

The pandemic presented an opportunity, he said, “To stop and reflect on the why of what we do. That’s when our workshops-mentorships evolved for the better because we found ways to really get to the heart of what we’re doing by going to the individuals and community partners who wanted to do this work with us. They have the audience, the individuals with disabilities, and we have the programmatic skills—and together it’s become a more dynamic and engaging experience.”

Circle collaborates with Quality Living, VODEC, and Munroe-Meyer Institute, among others.
“We hire the best artists, teachers, mentors to go to organizations to teach acting, costumes, sets,” he added.

VODEC Day Services Manager Kelly Katelman says Circle provides “a rare and wonderful opportunity” for adults with intellectual disabilities “to proudly stand up and express themselves artificially and creatively.”

For this fall’s production of The Wise Men of Chelm by Issac Bashevis singer and teaching artist Courtney Stein Cairncross worked closely with QLI clients. 

“They learned this play by this famous Yiddish writer at the same time they learned tools to explore theater,” Sillau said. 

That’s how Circle seamlessly builds productions (staged at the Jewish Community Center) around people with disabilities. 

“We bring the arts to them, working with partners, caregivers, and mentors onsite,” he said. “We bring individuals in for technical rehearsals and performances and then we weave them authentically into the show.

“For so long people with disabilities have been an after-thought. We make them the first thought. We want to make sure everyone feels included in the work that we do.”

The late Doug Marr, Circle co-founder and artistic director, had a disability. He made the theater a proletarian haven, staging the Phil’s Diner series at an actual Benson eatery, later producing work in a mid-town church.  

“Not only did he look like me, he was doing the thing I wanted to do,” said Sillau, who was mentored by both Doug and his wife, Laura Marr (an actress, educator, and arts administrator).
“They were wonderful role models. They made me realize, wow, it’s really possible to make a living at this and to be successful, and to do it in your hometown.”

Sillau was a Circle teen actor, he said, when Doug told him: “One day we’ll just hand over the theater to you.’ 

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ but didn’t really think anything of it,” Sillau recalled. 

In time, Sillau accepted his stewardship role over the theater, the venue celebrating four decades this year.

“It’s an honor to be able to do this. A good artistic director is 80% listening and responding, 10% programming to community needs and 10% being a servant, and that last 10% is so important.
It’s not about me. We’re here to bring the community’s joys and needs to light. 

“I’m happily settling into helping guide others and really delving into the artistic side.”

Associate Director Carolyn Owen Anderson, who knew Sillau through WhyArts, affirmed Circle is fortunate to have someone with his “strong theater background” and “passion to make theater accessible.”  

Still, the future is on Sillau’s mind. 

“It’s my job to be thinking about the next 'Fran' that comes along and what we can do to elevate them the way I was elevated,” Sillau said. “I was lucky people opened the door for me and I was able to walk through; but somebody had to build that frame before that door came open, and that frame needs to continue to be reinforced. As a mentor, I reinforce that frame.”

While inclusion’s come far, it has a ways to go and he’s all about helping others get there.

“I want to teach the next generation of teachers-directors who want to learn the nuts and bolts of how to do it,” he said. 

Visit for more information.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
click here to subscribe.  
Evvnt Calendar