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Northwestern senior does theater Walt’s way

Maddie Napel produces theater works aimed at audiences with developmental differences

Walt and Maddie Napel
Walt and Maddie Napel at Walt's graduation from Sequoia High School in Reedwood City, California, in 2012. Photo credit: Sandy Napel

Northwestern University senior Maddie Napel was thrilled, if not surprised, by how enthusiastically her older brother, Walt, responded to “Box,” a play about stereotypes and identity.

After the performance, Walt, who has cerebral palsy, repeatedly signed “Box” and “more, more, more” — responses that could not have been more meaningful to his sister.

Through a pilot program Napel implemented at the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory (PVTC) in the Bay Area over the summer, one performance of “Box” was modified for an audience with physical and developmental differences.

“Walt was just glowing after the performance,” Napel said. “It was cool for him to see what I do. He talks about PVTC all the time now. I really hope we get to do more things like that so he can come back and have more of those experiences.”

The pilot, PVTC Summer Access Program, was inspired by Napel’s work with Seesaw Theatre, a Northwestern organization that produces works for young people with physical and developmental differences. Audience members are encouraged to interact with performances however they want, sometimes on stage with the actors.

Napel, the executive director of Seesaw, is writing a senior thesis about creating a model from the student-run organization that could be used nationally. 

“The institution of theater generally prescribes that audience members sit in their seats, be quiet in the dark, watch the show and applaud at the end,” she said. “But everyone is different. The problem isn’t about fixing people; it’s about fixing institutions to better serve people.”

At PVTC, Seesaw-inspired productions of “Box” and the musical “Annie” were adjusted for the audience through minor technical changes, such as leaving on the house lights (shining on the audience) at half-power and substituting soft sounds for loud noises. A nearby room with sensory toys and activities was available to audience members overstimulated by the performance.

Napel also taught acting classes to neurotypical campers, ages 6-13, who performed the shows.

The problem isn’t about fixing people; it’s about fixing institutions to better serve people.

Maddie Napel

Napel knew Walt would love “Annie” because it’s a musical, she said. His response to “Box” was an unexpected bonus. Walt’s love of music and theater were among the few ways the two could truly connect growing up, Napel said.

“It meant everything to me to see him so happy because of the shows,” she said. “It was really magical. It has gotten hard as he’s gotten older to find ways of connecting with him because he’s an adult who has his own interests.”

Napel’s pilot was so successful that PVTC told Napel it wants to work with her after she graduates. The Bay Area native said returning home would fulfill a dream of expanding the pioneering performance type in her backyard, where it has a limited presence.

Read more in the following Q&A with Napel, who recently spoke with Northwestern News about her work with Seesaw and experience at PVTC. It  has been edited for brevity and clarity.


What was it like piloting a program for the first time?

It was hard. At NU we have so many people excited about doing it that Seesaw has a huge team behind it. So much is taken care of by other people, and it’s more about managing the big view for me. At PVTC, I’m doing my own outreach. I don’t have a marketing person. I don’t have a team of teaching artists. At the same time, I’m teaching a program. It was a big challenge.

 What did you learn from PVTC that you can use for Seesaw?

Seesaw is expanding — we are doing a full season instead of just one show. It’s going to be a stretch for all of us because we’ll all be handling more things. But the practice of having taken on a program by myself is going to be very helpful in figuring out how to make the larger organization function.

13247933 1056539361084653 2403983184049390528 oMaddie Napel interacts with an audience member during  a Seesaw performance of "Earth!" at Seabury Hall in May 2016. "Earth!" was Seesaw's fourth annual mainstage show for audiences with developmental differences. Photo by Justin Barbin Photography.

You taught a workshop to neurotypical elementary and middle school-aged actors about inclusiveness, broadly and in theater. How did it go?

I was nervous going into it because I had never done anything like this before. The idea of teaching a class on inclusivity could come off as patronizing to young people. It was a group of largely white, upper-middle class Portola Valley kids. They came up with many of their own ideas for how theater can be exclusive and also came up with solutions. That was the super exciting part.

What was the impact on you?

It was hugely inspiring to see these young people just get it, and it didn’t take very long. They were generating concepts and solutions to real-world problems we talk about in college. When you give kids responsibility and treat them as if they can understand, they’ll always surpass your expectations.

For example?

One kid said, “We just don’t see stories about Arab-American people on stage as much, and if we did, maybe we would be more compassionate toward them.” I was like, “You are 12 years old, and you are the light in the world.”

Another girl had a light-bulb moment, saying, “Wait, it’s because they’re all people too, right?” She’s an incredible child. It was awesome. Even the little ones got it.

What is your vision for Seesaw moving forward?

I would love for it to become a more established part of Northwestern culture. I want everyone at NU to know what Seesaw is and what we do. We’re on the cutting edge of the field, and I want us to stay there by continuing to connect with our peers in the U.S. and U.K. We know what works, but the more new things we try and the more we expand, the more opportunities there will be in the future.

You mentioned your senior thesis on a Seesaw-inspired national model for relaxed performances.

Documenting how we create this kind of theater can allow us to take it to other universities and ask them to try it out at their school. I want to create a network of chapters at other schools. We’ve reached a saturation point with shows. We did 13 performances last year in one weekend. It was insane. We really can’t ask undergrads to commit to more shows than that. We need to have other chapters so more people can have access to it.

You studied with leading practitioners of relaxed performances in the U.K. last fall. How did that go?

It was cool to be greeted as a colleague. Everyone was so gracious and interested, and I felt like it could actually be a reciprocal conversation. I learned a ton from talking to them but also felt like I could contribute something.

The biggest takeaway from your studies in the U.K.?

Tim Webb, artistic director of Oily Cart Theatre in London, said words to the effect of, “We’re not therapy; this is art. Sure, it has therapeutic benefits, but it is more about creating quality art. That’s important to us because if the quality of our product is not high, that’s disrespectful to our audience.

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