PlayTime Productionsone of Wisconsin’s only children’s theater companies, is closing after 43 years of student-centric performances.
Twice a year, PlayTime and its cast of approximately 25 child actors stage 16 shows in public spaces around Dane County. PlayTime has shared productions with approximately 4,000 children and families at an affordable cost.
In a letter sent to alumni, family and friends last week, Artistic Director/General Reyane Leach said the pandemic had wreaked havoc on the structure of the organization and the operation had “gone out”. .
“In truth, the organization was at a crossroads with a growing need for staff revitalization and adequate and sustainable funding,” she said. “Unfortunately, the transition and training opportunity has passed.”
Many members of PlayTime’s music and production team, in addition to those in its production and management positions, have retired, Leach added. While the organization had begun a process to replace these positions, transition efforts were halted in March 2020.
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Two years later, Leach has decided to cease all production – at least for now.
“I’m so grateful to have had a 23-year career working with children and families in the arts,” she said. “I loved working with children and providing them with an interesting activity that we could share with other families and children in the audience.”
Leach first became involved with PlayTime as a spectator, taking her four children to see a 1992 play at the old Mount Horeb Public Library.
“I was a mother of four looking for something to do,” she said. “It was affordable because it was only $2, but once a year was really all we could afford at the time. I know from personal experience what that meant to me.”
The organization’s founder, Henrietta “Teddy” Studt, made PlayTime a traveling organization to benefit people like Leach. Especially in areas just outside of Madison around this time, arts exposure might be hard to come by, Leach said.
“It would be a big hassle and quite expensive to take your family downtown,” she said. “And there wasn’t a lot of theater available except in high schools. So hardly any opportunities for kids younger than that.”
Leach’s own son became involved with PlayTime in the spring of 1997. It was then that she said she was also able to see its value to performers.
“Just Such A Gift”
Actors in grades three through eight involved in PlayTime learned to perform an hour-long play with eight to ten musical numbers, handwritten by Studt. Through practice, students learned skills such as reading and memorization. While traveling, they practiced teamwork and responsibility.
Kurt Studt, Teddy’s son, said his mother’s touch in every performance was striking, even after she left the company.
Studt wrote a character named Henrietta, her full first name, and included the phrase “yes darling”, a separate phrase from her husband, in each depiction. Teddy Studt died in 2010.
“My mom had a fun, quirky sense of humor,” Kurt Studt said. “We were there when she was writing the scripts and writing the songs…and later we got to see our kids in her plays. It was such a gift.”
The family ties did not stop there. PlayTime even inspired the name of Kurt Studt’s son, Kai.
“Kai was in Frozen,” Kurt Studt said. “It just so happens that when Kai was born and we were thinking of a name, one of the main reasons we went with the name Kai was because he’s the main character from Frozen. And he has could play that character.”
Kai Studt, who has just graduated from high school, keeps in his room signed posters from each year he participated in Playtime Productions. The troupe gave him a sense of humor and confidence, he said, adding that he wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself for a good laugh.
“I don’t remember anything from the end of elementary school to middle school. I just remember PlayTime,” Kai Studt said. “If you ask me what I learned in class one year, I couldn’t tell you. But I could tell you what show we did at PlayTime.”
Teddy Studt founded PlayTime after a group of kids came to see her in 1979, wanting to do a play. The group knew that Studt had been an actress and knocked on her door asking for advice.
After the first play, Studt helped found “Park Players”, an outdoor summer production for children. Soon after, she decided to add a fall and winter play and started Playtime Productions.
Seventh-grade student Preston Doll participated in the program for two years, until the pandemic ended the program.
“I learned how to relate to people, public speaking and just social skills,” Preston said. “It’s been a really big part of my life over the last few years. Working with so many people who had never acted, acted once or acted many times was so exciting. You continue the life skills that teach you there.”
Acting also helps students develop empathy and communication skills on a deeper level, Leach said.
“Body language, watching people and understanding them and learning what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes,” she said. “When you play someone else’s character, you have to think outside of yourself.”
Leach said PlayTime will be remembered not only by the kids who participated, but also by the greater Madison community.
“People are going to miss this artistic experience in their hometown and in their neighborhood,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it.”