“Marriage-Ability,” the latest play from Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, is a story about adult relationships, their ups, their downs, and just how complicated — and wonderful — love can be.

Which is a bit like life at Encore Studio.

Encore, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, is the only professional theater company in the state for people with disabilities. Along with being a workplace, the company is a community unto itself, grounded in empathy and designed as a place people can explore their talents and develop as actors.

“We’re a hybrid,” said Kelsy Schoenhaar, Encore’s founder and executive/artistic director. “We’re a professional theater company. But we’re also a vocational support agency.”

They’re also an employer, providing paychecks to their contracted actors who must pass auditions and show a desire to work hard.

“That’s really an important factor for this company and this community, because a lot of people with developmental disabilities, cognitive disabilities, mental health issues — there hasn’t been a lot of opportunities to hone their craft, even if theater has been their life’s dream,” Schoenhaar said.

“Some people have been here for 15 years,” Schoenhaar said of the actors in her repertory company. “And where they were when they started and where they are now — it’s pretty astonishing.”

Dawn Cieszynski, 35, landed a job at Encore 11 years ago. She rolls up a sleeve to reveal a tattoo of the happy and sad faces symbolic of theater, an art to which she has committed her life.

The bacterial meningitis Cieszynski contracted at age 15 put her in a coma for 10 days and left her with a traumatic brain injury, she said. As a young adult she moved from one rehabilitation program to the next before settling in Madison, where an adviser told her about Encore.

“Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t know where I would find that,” said Cieszynski, today both a performer and on staff as a drama coach for Encore.

In “Marriage-Ability,” she plays the leading role of Kate, a young woman engaged to be married. Schoenhaar wrote the part for Cieszynski, as she does every part for every actor at Encore. The theater company generally produces three shows a year, at least two of them a new script by Schoenhaar. The third is a revival of a previous Encore play by Schoenhaar. Professional and semi-professional actors without disabilities are also hired to be part of show casts.

“Marriage-Ability” is a musical, touching on devotion as well as infidelity. Like all of Encore’s shows, the script is an amalgam of true tales from people with disabilities.

Those life experiences “can be harrowing. They can be crazy. They often seem stranger than fiction,” Schoenhaar said.

But they result in shows that can be at the same time serious and funny, thought-provoking yet entertaining.

Schoenhaar “really, really writes well for the folks who are here, and really highlights their capabilities and lets them shine,” said Heather Renken, an artistic associate at Encore since 2012 and also artistic director of Madison’s Broom Street Theater.

At Encore, “oftentimes what we do is talk about what it is to have a disability, or to work with people with disabilities,” Renken said.

“But we also talk about all sorts of other subjects that are applicable to everyone, like with this particular show: being in love and getting married. ... There are topics that are certainly universal, and Encore, at least in my time here, hasn’t shied away from anything anyone would discuss or have as a subject for theater or art.”

“The hallmark of what we do is — it’s real,” Schoenhaar agreed.

“There’s nothing sanitized about the work we do. Nine times out of ten it’s very adult theater. We’ve had (audiences) come and expect things that are less than that, or something different, maybe something more Special Olympics-like, a feel-good something.

“I think sometimes theater can make you feel good,” she said. “But theater is theater. And theater tells real stories. It holds up a mirror to society. And that’s what we do, only it’s to a segment of society that has really not had a mirror held up to them. I think that makes what we do pretty original.”

In “Marriage-Ability,” for example, “We deal with the whole spectrum. We have one character who is asexual. We have one character who is very sexual and doesn’t want to get married — she’s just in it for the sex. We have a gay married couple, and the main couple we’re following is a person without a disability who is marrying a person with a disability, a traumatic brain injury.”

That couple almost doesn’t make it to the altar after they discover that a legal marriage might reduce the financial support the partner with a disability receives — a real-life quandary for many couples, Schoenhaar said.

Schoenhaar founded Encore Studio 15 years ago as part of her job at a for-profit human services company. Soon Encore broke away and became its own entity, performing for many years Downtown at the Bartell Theatre.

But rehearsals had to be held elsewhere. Today Encore works full-time out of its home on the city’s Near South Side. Schoenhaar built walls and tore out ceilings to convert the company’s rented building into a 40-seat black box theater, complete with break rooms and a green room for the actors. Her own office, which she calls her home away from home, holds a piano, walls of photos and an eclectic collection of musical instruments.

“My office looks like my brain does — it’s sort of a little bit of everything,” said Schoenhaar, who also makes films and finds outside acting gigs for Encore’s actors. “But that little bit of everything, I think, is what keeps things going.”

Schoenhaar, who grew up outside Milwaukee, began playing in bands at age 12 and today plays 40 different instruments. She falls within the autism spectrum, as do her two adult daughters, she said, and that fuels her drive to constantly learn .

Encore’s annual budget is around $250,000, about two-thirds of which comes from Dane County. Schoenhaar, who holds an MBA, writes grants and raises funds to fill in the rest.

Encore’s program director, Wendy Prosise, provides the “human services face” for the company’s actors, Schoenhaar said.

“We work with people with physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, mental health issues — everything. That makes a very interesting company,” she said. “You’re bringing a lot of different people together (who are) in a lot of different places. And it always hasn’t been perfect, because obviously there are clashes within that.”

“There are people who have really challenging behaviors, and historically we’ve taken those people on,” she said. They’re “people who are really dynamic and have a lot to say — and that’s what you kind of want for theater and for actors. That expression, which is very important to us, also can make day-to-day moments very challenging.”

Some actors might not show up for rehearsals. “We’ve had actors go catatonic” and become unable to speak, she said.

“There’s a lot that’s precarious. Which makes the work we do so amazingly cool, because it usually does come together in a very strong way,” Schoenhaar said.

“But getting there takes a pretty amazing group of people to make it all happen.”

“Within the company there is an empathy, something different and kind of unique, that goes through all of our actors even though they have different disabilities,” she said. “They have all had their struggles because of that. And I think that helps. Regardless of the differences, there’s a lot to relate to.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.