The Cultural Advocate

People came expecting Special Olympics, something warm and fuzzy. It was so far from that, dealing with sexuality, rape, and relationships.

Kelsy Schoenhaar brings the talents of the disabled to stage as the founding Artistic Director of Encore Studio for the Arts.

Kelsy Schoenhaar is the Executive and Artistic Director of Encore Studio for the Arts, a professional theater company for people with disabilities in Madison, which she helped found. Raised in what she calls “scary, conservative West Bend,” Kelsy describes not understanding how to be a “boy,” and getting beaten up for doing girl things and hanging out with girls as friends. The resulting isolation caused her to find solace in music; she listened to a LOT of music.

An accomplished musician, Kelsy can play almost any instrument that she picks up. Her theater experience in school was limited to playing in pit bands. After high school, she pursued a music degree at Northern Illinois University, where she got involved with the musician’s end of musical theater. She went into human services work, and did theater as a volunteer.

Kelsey married and fathered two daughters. She says that she never really grasped the “character” that she was supposed to play; that is, a male. She transitioned to female in her late twenties. She feels that her understanding of the various roles we all play contributes to her passion for theater, and to her desire to write honest, authentic work that expresses who people are, not who they’re supposed to be.

During her transition, Kelsy and her family were harassed in West Bend. She says, “Friends were getting death threats, we were worried about the kids’ safety.” They moved to Madison.

And then her vocation and her avocation collided: she took a position with REM Wisconsin, and two weeks after she started there, she learned that REM Director Olwen Blake (daughter of Madison theater legend Sarah Whelan Blake) had obtained seed money to start a theater company for people with disabilities. Kelsy pitched her skills, and became the founding Artistic Director of Encore, which just began its tenth season.

Encore is a repertory company with a core troupe of paid actors, including several people who have been with the company since the first year. It is one of the only troupes in Madison that pays its actors. Kelsy says, “We have diverse people with diverse abilities and disabilities, so there are issues that don’t arise in traditional theaters. We’re such a hybrid: we’re a theater, and we’re a human services agency.”

The first work that Encore performed was a commissioned play, “To Love or Not to Love.” Based on the staggering statistic that 89 percent of women with disabilities have been sexually abused, the show shocked its audience.

Kelsy said, “People came expecting Special Olympics, something warm and fuzzy. It was so far from that, dealing with sexuality, rape, and relationships. It was unexpected, it challenged assumptions, and it was good theater. They expected cute people with disabilities and were blown away by the acting. I’d interviewed a woman who had been abused in a Catholic institution, and I incorporated it into the play. Some people were offended by our depiction of criminally abusive nuns. People with disabilities have sex, have love, have families, just like everyone else.

“It’s art, it pushes the boundaries. In the case of Encore, my political views and sexuality and gender lend themselves to the work that I do. In my case, I’ve always tried to convey the stories of the individuals. That’s an important part of what we do. That’s spiritual growth, that’s what theater is about,” she said.

As a hybrid human services agency and theater troupe, Encore does performances all over the country, educating and training on disability issues and awareness. Kelsy also consults nationally and just returned from helping set up a similar troupe in South Dakota. Like many non-profits in tough economic times, Encore has been affected by funding cuts in both human services and the arts, so Kelsy has increased her work hours to do more consulting to bring additional revenue into Encore. She says that a 50-hour workweek feels like a vacation.

This season exemplifies the passion and talent that Kelsy brings to Encore: she is sharing writing and directing credits on each production this year. For more information about Encore Studio for the Arts, visit their website at encorestudio.org.