Retiring after 31 years, the Wheelock Family Theatre cofounder and producer will be the honoree Monday night at the company’s gala, “The Wonderful Wizard of Wheelock: A Tribute to Susan Kosoff.” In May, Kosoff also retired from Wheelock College, her alma mater, where she taught education and theater arts for 40 years.
‘There are a lot of values in the process of producing a show that are really important: sharing a common mission, learning how to work together.’
Q. You’ve been involved with this theater for most of your adult life. Did you know this was something you wanted to do right out of college?
A. I actually studied early childhood education in college. After I graduated, I worked with Head Start, and as an elementary school teacher. During the school year I’d work as a teacher, and during the summers I’d work at a family theater in Cape Cod. But while I was in college, I became very involved in theater, specifically children’s theater. While I was working as faculty at Wheelock, I proposed the idea for a family theater. They agreed, and there became this marriage between the idea of education and theater.
Q. What is it about theater, more than other art forms, that allows for that marriage?
A. There are two ways to experience theater: one as a direct participant and the other as an audience member. I think the nature of working in theater is transformative; people have to work together because it’s a collaborative art. There are a lot of values in the process of producing a show that are really important: sharing a common mission, learning how to work together. And then there’s the experience of being an audience member. You’re more of an observer, but you’re absorbing the story and the characters. The theater is about helping people learn what it means to be human. There’s this immediate dynamic of understanding that’s established between people onstage and in the audience.
Q. Between your work as a teacher and working with children in theater, what’s the most rewarding part about working with a child?
A. It’s so exciting to physically watch people learn things. But that goes both ways. The young people are learning from professionals, but the adult actors are also learning from the younger generation. They often enjoy and get a lot out of mentoring younger people, and it really enlarges the meaning of the whole experience. I also think things like this can really make a difference for kids. They have something to really care about; they’re able to develop discipline, they’re taken seriously, and they’re given a real responsibility.
Q. Part of Wheelock Family Theatre’s mission is to create an “inclusive” environment, right?
A. Well, theater has never really worked its way into the culture of our society, especially in comparison to England; we just aren’t theatergoers by nature. A lot of people don’t get started when they’re young. They feel like they can’t relate to it or can’t afford it. So one of the biggest reasons we have a nontraditional casting policy is because we want the people onstage to reflect the audience. Children identify with children, but they also may identify with people of color, or physically challenged people. It’s a way of making it meaningful to their lives. We also try to keep it affordable for people because we want a diverse crowd.
Q. Do you feel like you’ve seen a change or a progression in the idea of inclusion over the past 31 years?
A. I think it’s become well known. To some extent it’s improved, but the key here is really consistency. We have interpreted every production in [American Sign Language] since we first started. There were times we might not have had a single deaf person in the audience, but we continue to do it so people trust it and they can rely on it. That kind of consistency speaks for itself.
Q. Is it hard saying goodbye to something you’ve created from the ground up?
A. You know, I was reading a piece in The New Yorker, and in it was a quote from the former editor at The New York Times at his retirement party. He said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up. The other 20 percent is knowing when to move on.” That really struck a chord with me. I’m leaving at a time when the theater is in a really good place, and this provides the theater with the opportunity to find some new, creative energy.