Children’s Theater of Madison hopes to attract diverse actors and audiences with stories that reflect the community

CTM’s challenge to educate and inspire has only become more formidable in recent social and political climates.

collection of actors above a new building layoutFor Children’s Theater of Madison actors and audiences, life has taken complicated turns in recent years. CTM’s challenge to educate and inspire has only become more formidable in recent social and political climates.

But the 55-year-old theater troupe, co-founded by the late Nancy Thurow in 1965 as a Zeta Phi Eta communications sorority project, has risen to that challenge. For every season of “A Christmas Carol” there are also productions such as last year’s “Mockingbird,” Kathryn Erskine’s drama about a girl on the autism spectrum played by a young actor who is also on the spectrum. Promoting diversity and inclusion has long been part of CTM’s mission, and artistic director Roseann Sheridan says that mission has never been more critical.

“Theater builds empathy, and that only happens when you can imagine yourself filling somebody else’s shoes,” says Sheridan.

COVID-19 halted CTM’s highly ambitious production of “Peter Pan” before it ever got off the ground — literally, since it included young actors “flying” over the stage. Further complicating an already difficult year was the civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd last May.

By the holiday season, however, CTM had begun to bounce back. “A Christmas Carol: Home for the Holidays” offered a free online production presented in a storytelling style, narrated by actors, community members and notable civic leaders.

Perhaps more significant was CTM’s participation in “The Goodwin Project,” which featured four seven- to 10-minute plays by Black playwright Idris Goodwin. It covered issues critical to families of color while helping viewers everywhere better understand their struggles with social justice-related issues. Those free online broadcasts were just the start, Sheridan says. CTM is making the broadcast available to teachers and social organizations to help further conversations, bringing them into sharper focus for viewers in all communities.

“The Goodwin Project” was one more step in CTM’s longstanding inclusion practices, some of which have faced pushback from parents of young performers who feel challenged by some plays’ content. The company’s 2011 adaptation of William Golding’s novel “Lord of the Flies,” about a group of marooned schoolboys who descend from civility into savagery, raised concerns among those who felt the material too mature for younger audiences.

Other pushback came as recently as the 2018-19 season with CTM’s musical “How I Became a Pirate,” in which the character of young Jeremy Jacob is being raised by a same-sex couple.

“People were upset, but there are families out there who have two moms or two dads,” says CTM Executive Director Allen Ebert, who has led CTM since 2015. “If we don’t acknowledge this, we’re doing those families a disservice.”

Sheridan adds, “Some people want to preserve their children’s childhood and keep it free from struggle and strife, while others say their kids are exposed to these things anyway, so let’s address it in a way that helps them learn what to do about it.”

CTM creates age-appropriate guidelines for each production and plans to follow this thread into its future at the new $35 million Madison Youth Arts Center, into which it hopes to move in May. The four-story, 65,000-square-foot center at the corner of Mifflin and Ingersoll streets offers area youth arts groups access to 15 rehearsal studios and two performance spaces. CTM hopes the center will draw larger audiences to its productions and more students to its acting classes. The troupe hopes to see more representative participation from all communities that call Madison home.

“We’re not about creating shock and awe, but rather telling age-appropriate stories that are well-written, real and relevant,” Ebert says.

Sheridan agrees: “I’m proud of the work we’re doing but we have a long way to go. The more you do the more you realize who else needs to be served and what else needs to be done.”

Michael Muckian writes this arts and entertainment column monthly. Reach him at