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Know Your Madisonian: Children’s theater director sees ‘a place of inspiration and discovery’ in new youth arts center

March 3, 2019

Roseann Sheridan has seen what Overture Center for the Arts did for Madison since it opened in 2004 and became, among other things, the main performance venue for Children’s Theater of Madison.

Now Sheridan, artistic director of the children’s theater, is working to build a youth arts center that she says could transform Madison’s youth arts scene in a similar fashion.

“Overture was a game-changer for the experience of seeing live art. This will be comparable in that regard, in a different realm,” Sheridan said.

Sheridan’s broad-ranging role as artistic director involves overseeing everything from show selection, casting, set design and directing its main stage performances to the theater’s educational programs — and helping promote and raise money for all of the above.

A Virginia native, Sheridan took the artistic director post at the children’s theater at a transition point in 2007. It began feeling ripple effects from the national recession and the retirement of its founder, Nancy Thurow.

Now Sheridan intends to steer the theater through another transition to a new home at the Madison Youth Arts Center, which it and Madison Youth Choirs will anchor.

Last month, the center announced one of Madison’s most widely known arts philanthropists, Pleasant Rowland, is pledging $20 million for the project, which will include two performance venues as well as space for studios, classrooms, offices and other uses.

Construction is set to begin this spring at the corner of Ingersoll and Mifflin streets, in the booming part of the East Washington Avenue corridor near Breese Stevens Field.

How did you come to Madison and what led you to become artistic director at CTM?

I came to Madison and went to work at the American Players Theater (in Spring Green). I was out there for 17 years.

I was really interested in having a company I could lead.

I saw an opportunity here and got to know the people that were working on the rebuilding of the company. Then I put my hat in the ring for the new artistic director position and got hired.

I came on in September of ’07 and then, of course, the recession of 2008 had a big impact on everybody’s life. Then right at the same time was when Overture was built. So we went through the whole transition of the establishment of Overture Center and how that changed the landscape of the cultural community here.

It’s been an interesting journey of coming to a company at a time when everything in our artistic community was really transforming.

What’s a typical day like for you?

There’s the to-do list, and then there’s everything that happens during the course of the day.

(On one recent day) I spent a little bit of time dealing with the preparation of going into rehearsal (for an upcoming show). ... I spent several hours in a meeting about the new building. Then I spent some time talking to a staff member about next season. (The night before) we had a fundraiser for the new building, a meet-and-greet kind of thing.

It’s like any job. There’s like, the stuff that you love and is so exciting and you can’t wait to do, and then there’s the stuff that’s like, “I gotta get that done.”

What’s the part that you love?

With any artist, it’s like the painter with the paintbrush and the pianist with the piano. Me with the actors and creative team actually working on the piece, that’s really exciting, because there’s so many unknowns.

There’s a lot of discovery in that. And it’s nerve-wracking, because there’s usually not much time to get the show done.

Being here now for 12 years, a child who was 8 is now 20!

I’ve watched these kids go from being — some of them just curious to start with, some of them just gung ho to start with, some of them insecure and awkward — and then becoming like really confident and poised.

It’s really cool to see that kind of development and to know that you’ve sort of had a part in creating this space where they can become themselves more fully.

Tell me a little bit about this new arts center and how CTM is going to be involved.

This is a facility that, it will be home for not just the Children’s Theater of Madison and our operations and programs, but also Madison Youth Choirs.

We’re not merging with anybody. We’re keeping our own separate identities. But the youth arts center at large is its own nonprofit and so it will basically be the operator of the building.

It’s really an umbrella organization to be able to meet the needs of its main residents and then make sure that there are opportunities and space for other organizations who serve youth through the arts.

Are you where you need to be with the fundraising?

It’s about a $35 million project. And thanks to the legacy gift and some other major pledges so far, we’ve got a little over $25 million. So we’re in good shape to break ground in May.

The building is scheduled to be open in the fall of 2020. So it’s within sight. It’s definitely something that’s been in the works for a long time.

The nature of what’s going to be done there is rehearsal and classes and camps and process-oriented stuff, as well as performances. We don’t even know yet, but I envision that there’s going to be kids in that building all the time.

It’s definitely going to be a place of inspiration and discovery and exploration for young people.