Playing to the Younger Set at Ann Arbor’s Wild Swan Theater

. November 1, 2017.
Wild Swan Theater

Ann Arbor’s Wild Swan Theater is the most important and accomplished ensemble of its kind in America.  It is devoted to children of all ages (count me in) and to theatergoers of all ages with disabilities (deaf, blind, autistic and developmentally disabled).  For deaf patrons ASL sign language interpreters are blocked into the action; the Wild Swan was one of the first theater companies in America to do this. An audio description for people with visual impairments allows them to hear, via earbuds, descriptions of the action onstage, which is not always apparent from the dialogue.  For autistic and developmentally disabled kids Wild Swan offers workshops and classes for children and workbooks for teachers.

Impressive support

Wild Swan is closing out its fourth decade and is, rightfully and righteously, supported by the best and brightest in our community, state and country:  The National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, The Ford Motor Fund, Domino’s Pizza, Zingerman’s, The W.K Kellogg Foundation, The Pistons-Palace Foundation— getting the picture?


Wild Swan, named for the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of that name, was founded in 1979 by devoted thespians Hilary Cohen and Sandy Ryder, who saw the need for a kids’ theater experience somewhere between childish plays acted out by kids and the plays performed for kids by pricey professional touring companies.  They realized that they were also both extremely interested in special needs theatergoers, and it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.  Cohen was a professor of theater at the University of Michigan and was a founding member of the National Association for Theater and Accessibility.  The actress Ryder earned her degree in theater at UM.  Company manager Michelle Trame Lanzi, who also has her degree in theater from UM, has been with Wild Swan for over 20 years.  A newcomer!  The team includes composer Brian E. Buckner and the playwright Jeff Duncan who writes almost all the shows, including the clever, unobtrusive blocking of the sign language interpreters.  There are forty years of stories that Ryder loves to recount.  “There was a blind father who brought his young son to a show, and when the son asked his father to explain what was going on on the stage the father was able (for the first time) to explain it to the son, thanks to the earbud audio description.”

Cross age group appeal

Some people think that Wild Swan is just for young children but many of the shows are for middle school and older; I love them all and so do my granddaughters, ages 4 and 7.  They have learned that live theater is a different art form than cinema and they can tell the difference between cutesy little kid shows at their schools and big-time professional Wild Swan performances geared to them.  The Swan does 75 shows a year and travels throughout the state to bring joy to schools, libraries, museums, you name it.  The shows usually have three actors and one musician.  The home theater is the comfy Towsley Auditorium at Washtenaw Community College, with copious free parking and complete accessibility for all.


Wild Swan also offers educational workshops, after-school programs for students and teachers, and a summer drama camp camp so that all kids have a chance to act, use their imaginations, participate in theater games and improv.  If you haven’t been to a Wild Swan show, it’s about time.  Some kids of kids who were there in the 1980s are now in the audience.  Upcoming performances include Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women for ages 8+ (December 7-10), Frog and Toad for pre-K to second grade (January 25-27, 2018) and Under the African Sky for ages 4 through third grade (February 22-25).  Reserve your places and free special services and ask questions by calling (734) 995-0530.  Break a leg, Wild Swan!