Landing the lead role in a professional musical production after your first college audition would be most theater students’ proudest moment. Or it might be singing a solo in that show, or receiving a standing ovation at curtain call.
For Webster University freshman Austen Bommer, however, the best part of her starring turn in last year’s The Little Mermaid had little to do with her. While the 19-year-old actress was thrilled to star as Ariel and belt out “Part of Your World” alone on stage, what made her happiest was a song with the entire ensemble.
“I got to partner dance with Casey, who is in a wheelchair,” Bommer says. “She was one of the most magical dance partners I’ve ever had, and I had more fun with her than I’ve ever had on stage.”
Bommer’s story is common among the actors and crew of Variety Children’s Theater, a partnership between the Webster Conservatory and Variety the Children’s Charity St. Louis. The annual musical production teams kids of all ability levels with some of the best performers, directors, and backstage professionals in St. Louis.
Now entering its seventh year, Variety Children’s Theatre is a first-of-its-kind program. Variety charities in other cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, are considering starting their own versions based on the St. Louis model. The program was an offshoot of the local Variety Children’s Chorus, which for 10 years had performed all over the country, including at the White House.
“There were a lot of programs for children with disabilities in the performing arts area, but these children really needed a professional experience,” says Jan Albus, CEO of Variety St. Louis. “If you put children in an environment like that, they blossom.”
Albus sought out St. Louis’ top director, designers, actors, and musicians. The team she assembled had strong ties to Webster, where she taught ballet in the 1980s. Lara Teeter (director), Dunsi Dai (scenic design), John Wylie (lighting design), and Rusty Wandall (sound design) are professors; Greg Schweizer (musical conductor) is a graduate.
From the beginning, the team focused on professionalism. Each show includes about 10 Equity actors who have worked at St. Louis’ top theater companies, including The Muny and The Repertory Theater of St. Louis. They work with Webster Conservatory students and, more importantly, the children that Variety serves.
The team chooses shows that children will want to see and that have positive, encouraging messages. So far, they’ve staged The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Oliver, the Wizard of Oz, Annie, Peter Pan, and The Little Mermaid. This fall, they will perform Mary Poppins.
“Each of those shows has a strong message in terms of friendship, perseverance, and hope,” Albus says. “They each have a story that’s really important in the lives of a child with a disability.”
After auditions in May, Teeter and team spend the summer working on production design. Rehearsals for children begin in September, and the full cast meets for two weeks before delivering five performances at the Touhill Performing Arts Center in October.
“It’s run very much like any other professional show would be, from auditions to call backs to cuts, but the spirit and the purpose of the show is different,” Schweizer says. “It’s not about a star or any one person. It’s about the kids and bringing a community together to spread awareness about Variety.”
About 15 Variety kids serve as interns on each show, learning the ins and outs of theater production from the director and designers. Another 15 or 20 participate as performers on stage, and 1,500 attend the show as audience members.
“Each year, children in the audience become inspired to audition because they see there’s a chance for them,” Albus says. “Most productions don’t give a child with disabilities an opportunity to perform.”
After seeing her friends from the Variety Children’s Choir audition for Tom Sawyer, Libby Schueddig was inspired to try out, too, and won the role of Lucy Harper. Schueddig, who lives with spina bifida and requires a wheelchair, performed in the theater’s first five shows.
“It was special because you weren’t made to feel different because of your disability,” Schueddig says. “It helps people see that you are not your disability. Just because you are in a wheelchair or have Down’s Syndrome, you aren’t defined by that. You can do almost anything you put your mind to.”
Now studying at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., Schueddig is double majoring in Human Development and Theater. After graduation, she wants to work at a hospital and help children deal with the emotional effects of surgery. She also hopes to rejoin the Variety Children’s Theater on stage or behind the scenes.
“It played a huge part in my growing up, and I think it shaped me,” Schueddig says. “It’s a place where I can feel special, but not stand out in a bad way.”
Like Schueddig, most people who participate in Variety Children’s Theater return for many years. Professional actors line up to take even small roles, Teeter says, and Conservatory students eagerly audition with the hopes of adding a Variety show to their list of credits.
“I could play the third rock from the left and I’d be thrilled to be part of it,” Bommer says. “I’d do whatever it takes to just be with these kids.”
Cast and crew aren’t the only ones affected by the shows. The transformative power of Variety Children’s Theater is also apparent to the 7,000-plus people who attend each fall.
“There’s not one person who sits in our audience who doesn’t feel the human spirit at its best when they come to see the show,” Teeter says.
One of the most memorable moments yet happened two years ago during Peter Pan. With help from Flying By Foy, a leader in stage flying effects, a wheelchair-bound member of the children’s ensemble soared high above the stage.
“It was an emotional moment that I don’t think any audience member could have been prepared for,” says Webster University President Beth Stroble. “That moment captured what this partnership is all about. We want to partner with groups that contribute to the vibrancy of the community, and Variety fills a gap and a need in a way that no other organization is able to do.”
Hoping to capture the depth and breadth of Variety Children’s Theater, students from Webster’s School of Communications created a documentary about the making of The Little Mermaid.
Aaron Aubuchon’s Production House class followed the cast and crew for six months, from auditions to performance. They then edited hundreds of hours of footage into a 10- and a three-minute video, which Variety uses for archival, communication, and fundraising purposes.
“They get a real, on-the-ground view of video production,” AuBuchon says. “Plus, working with nonprofits gives them the chance to make videos that help save lives. I want them to understand that service is important and video production is a powerful force.”
The videos not only benefit Variety, but could also serve as recruitment tools for Webster because they showcase one of the important partnerships forged by the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts. The Conservatory also works closely with The Muny, the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, Opera Theater, and the Shakespeare Professional Festival.
The partnerships give Conservatory acting and technical students unparalleled access to working in a professional environment during school. They audition or apply alongside other qualified actors and stagehands for roles or behind-the-scenes work.
“When I’m talking to prospective students, the first thing I talk about is our acting training and the second is our professional partnerships with all four of these companies,” Teeter says. “That’s one of the things that sets us apart. How many other training programs have partnerships with four professional companies? Not many. Many don’t have even one.”
Professional experience was a strong selling point for Bommer, but she was also lured to Webster because of the service aspect of Variety Children’s Theater.
“As artists, we have an opportunity to use our art to change things,” Bommer says. “Anyone who is lucky enough to have a career in the arts, and to have had the experience of being empowered by their art, has a duty to empower other people with that art.”
More Webster students will have the opportunity to work with Variety in the coming years. The Conservatory contract prevents students from working on outside shows. By adding Variety Children’s Theater to the Conservatory season last year, Teeter can now fill as many as four parts with Webster students.
That Webster students were eager to audition for Variety Children’s Theater shows is a testament to the quality of the work the team produces each year. The production is growing each year, and now works with professional dance and effects companies and has an unofficial partnership with Disney.
Most importantly, the program is meeting its mission of helping children with disabilities say “I can.” Variety surveys the parents and doctors of children who participate in the theater and the results are among the highest of any program the organization offers. The kids gain confidence, which transfers to their social lives and schoolwork.
“The Variety Children’s Theater is truly the most profound and transformative theater experience that any of us could have ever hoped for,” Teeter says as he chokes back tears. “This is a community of love and joy.”