Performing arts company’s upcoming presentation includes a nod to film noir

'The Elephant in the Room' is a new short noir film from 23-year-old Encore Studio, Wisconsin's first professional theater company for people with disabilities.
Black and white photo of an actor looking stage left and performing the short film Elephant In The Room
Photo by Kelsy Schoenhaar.
Joe Wahlers acts in "The Elephant in the Room," written by Heather Renken of Encore Studios.

One of my favorite film books is by “Wild at Heart” novelist Barry Gifford and it’s called “Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir.”

In dedicating the book to his daughter, Phoebe, Gifford wrote, “Even though life isn’t black and white, it often looks better that way.”

Film’s noir genre (almost always in black and white) is suffused with moody menace, and I’ve watched my favorites — “Double Indemnity,” “Touch of Evil,” “Out of the Past” and more — so often I can quote entire scenes. Jane Greer, the no-good femme fatale in “Out of the Past”: “I didn’t take anything. I didn’t [she did]. Don’t you believe me?” Robert Mitchum, beguiled sap: “Baby, I don’t care.”

I am always watching for anything film noir, so when I saw that a Madison performing arts company has included a noir film in its upcoming presentation of four shorts, I went looking for more information. What I found was Encore Studio for the Performing Arts and its artistic director, Heather Renken, who wrote the new noir film titled “The Elephant in the Room.” Encore Studio, which had somehow eluded my radar, was the first — it opened in 2000 — professional theater company in Wisconsin for people with disabilities, and it remains one of the few in the United States.

“Everyone in our acting troupe is a person with a disability,” Renken told me when we spoke by phone last week. That includes both physical and cognitive disabilities. “And many people on our staff are people with disabilities.”

Heather Renken

Encore Studio artistic director and writer Heather Renken. Photo by Kelsy Schoenhaar.

The new production, under the umbrella title “Encore in Black and White,” also includes short film homages to early horror, physical comedy and musical comedy. The performances — Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 3-4 — are at the Mary DuPont Wahlers Theatre on Martin Street, Encore’s space for more than a decade. It’s named for the grandmother of Encore actor Joe Wahlers, whose family, Renken says, has been “amazingly supportive” of Encore Studio.

Renken has only been the troupe’s artistic director for a year, but she first joined them as an artistic associate in 2012. Encore’s executive director, Kelsy Schoenhaar, has been with the troup since its 2000 beginning. “Kelsy is the one who made it all happen,” Renken says. (Schoenhaar wrote “To Heiress Human,” the musical comedy film in the new production.)

Renken, a Chicago area native and Butler University theater graduate, moved to Madison in 2000, the year Encore was founded. She landed first at Broom Street Theater, Madison’s storied avant-garde theater, which dates back to 1969. Broom Street was founded by Stuart Gordon (who soon left for a successful Hollywood career), but it was Joel Gersmann, fiercely talented and occasionally irascible, who guided it for decades until suffering a fatal heart attack in 2005.

“I was in the last piece that Joel wrote and directed,” Renken says.

It was called the “The Ballerina and the Economist,” referencing the English economist John Maynard Keynes and the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. “I got to play the ballerina,” Renken says. “That was pretty cool.”

Renken eventually served as artistic director of Broom Street Theater from 2010-2016. She said it was seeing an Encore Studio production in April 2012 of “The Gentlemen” — written by Schoenhaar — that compelled her to sign on as an artistic associate.

“I found their work very intriguing,” Renken says. “I’ve always been a fan of original work. My experience at Broom Street supports that. I just found it very exciting that they were creating original work with this population.”

During the pandemic, Encore recorded some live theater performances — plays that were written for the stage — and that led to “Encore in Black and White,” with four short pieces written specifically to be filmed. Renken was familiar with film noir — she referenced “The Maltese Falcon” — but said it was one of the troupe’s actors, Joe Burreson, a fan of detective stories, who inspired her to write “The Elephant in the Room.”

Renken said attendees at “Encore in Black and White” can expect “a movie experience,” with popcorn and soda available, and a combined run time for the films of about 75 minutes. They are asking people to mask.

“Afterward,” Renken says, “we’ll have a talkback with some of our actors and some of our production crew. People will be able to meet them in person and ask some questions.”

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