Nine years in, Seesaw Theatre’s co-founders reflect on its past


Photo by Justin Barbin Photography

Before it was Seesaw Theatre, the organization was named “Theatre Stands With Autism” and was a special event for Purple Crayon Players.

Kaila Nichols, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

While taking the same acting class during their junior year at Northwestern, Anna Marr (Communication ‘13) and Melanie Gertzman (Communication ‘13) realized that they both shared the similar interest of creating more accessible theatre.

In 2012, the two pitched “Theatre Stands with Autism” as a special event for Purple Crayon Players, a student theatre group for young audiences. The organization ultimately became Seesaw Theatre, which creates theatre specifically for individuals with autism or other disabilities.

Marr grew up with a sibling on the autism spectrum and the more she researched, the more she realized there were no proper theatre opportunities offered like it.

“It all came from a desire to give people an opportunity to be not only seen and accepted but also celebrated for every part of themselves, because I wish my sibling had had that,” Marr said.

Since they weren’t aware of anyone else who performed a similar show on the collegiate level, Gertzman and Marr utilized a “trial and error” method in the early days of Theatre Stands with Autism. Heavily inspired by the Red Kite Project, a Chicago children’s theatre program, Marr and Gertzman taught a seminar around theatre for audiences with autism. They also coined the term ‘adventure guides,’ members who sit with audience members during the show.

The group performed its first show, “Diving In!” in 2013 for 12 children and their families. Marr said it was touching to see the reactions from parents or guardians who normally weren’t comfortable bringing their children to live shows.

“There was a mom that came up to us afterwards, really emotional and she said that this was the best Mother’s Day present she’s ever gotten,” Marr said.

Marr and Gertzman passed Theatre Stands with Autism to other group members after they graduated, and it officially became a recognized student group on campus in 2014 under the new name “Seesaw Theatre.” According to the organization’s website, the name change would “reflect the inclusion of other disabilities in addition to autism spectrum condition.”

“I never realized that when we started it, that it was going to be the legacy and the success that it has been going forward,” Gertzman said. “I was so incredibly proud and happy that the folks who weren’t graduating and were involved wanted to keep it going.”

Today, Seesaw Theatre’s board continues its mission to create sensory-based theatrical experiences for kids, despite the pandemic. Now in its ninth season, the organization has adapted with virtual programming and expanded into Chicago Public Schools last winter with a focus on disability justice initiatives.

Both Marr and Gertzman are proud of its lasting impact. The organization now creates a new group of students who have this experience no matter what field they choose to go into.

“That is something I’m very proud of, that there’s students that go out into the professional world with a greater understanding of what it means to be truly accessible and inclusive,” Marr said.

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Twitter: @kailanichols07

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