“What if Wilhelmina,” written and illustrated by Joseph Belisle, was chosen as one of The Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2022 for ages 4 to 6 by Bank Street College of Education in New York City. It tells the story of a 7-year-old girl whose cat, Wilhelmina, goes missing. The girl, Faith, is full of fear but develops coping skills to help her through the difficult time.
Dionne O’Dell, artistic director of the Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s Sense-Ability Ensemble, was drawn to the book by its focus on stress.
“A lot of the children that we work with have anxiety, and I loved how the story dealt with worry in an imaginative and creative way,” she said.
She took it upon herself to develop the book into a musical, which the ensemble will perform at the East Lansing Art Festival at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday (May 20 and 21).The book will be for sale, and Belisle will be on hand to sign copies.
The Sense-Ability Ensemble was created in 2019 to produce multisensory, interactive theatrical performances for neurodiverse audiences. The performers are trained to respond sensitively, tailoring sensory experiences to individual audience members and highlighting the power of diversity.
“Many children who identify as neurodiverse can get overwhelmed by typical sensory stimuli,” O’Dell said. “These shows that we develop specifically for this type of audience are sensitive to that. They are multisensory and participatory. They use puppets and music to engage audiences in a more direct way. There is a lot of one-on-one actor and audience member interaction. These methods also work great for kindergarteners through third graders.”
“What if Wilhelmina” includes music, puppets and other sensory elements. It’s recommended for neurodiverse audiences and children ages 1 through 8.
“If they wish to, the children in the audience will get to experience what a cat’s tongue and whiskers feel like on their skin, they will get to help search for Wilhelmina when she goes missing, smell roses and learn to tango,” O’Dell said.
This wasn’t the first time O’Dell has written a production from the ground up, but it was her first experience adapting a children’s book into a musical.
“I worked closely with the author and illustrator to be certain I was honoring his vision,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but one of the creative challenges was that the book doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, so I had to decide how to tell the story by expanding the dialogue and remaining true to the central message.”
She wrote all the lyrics to the original songs and worked with Chelle Peterson, who holds an associate’s degree in music from Lansing Community College and a bachelor’s degree in theater design from MSU, for the score. Peterson has worked with O’Dell on past productions, including “Farm! A Musical Experience,” which the Sense-Ability Ensemble debuted in 2019, and “MAKE ME FAMOUS,” which the Department of Theatre produced in 2014.
“I generally send Chelle the lyrics, we discuss them, I badly hum the tune in my head, and then she works her magic,” O’Dell said.
The show was originally developed in spring 2022, and the ensemble toured with it at local elementary schools in April this year. The cast and crew are excited to show off months of practice to patrons at the festival.
“We are honored to be performing at the East Lansing Art Festival this year,” O’Dell said.
Apart from featuring the Sense-Ability Ensemble, the East Lansing Art Festival is working to promote inclusivity this year by accompanying all performances with on-site signage in three languages: English, Spanish and Mandarin.
“This was a recommendation from a community member after last year’s festival,” festival director Heather Majano said. “So, I found a grant, the Michigan Arts and Culture Council Project Support Grant, that would help us to make it happen. We’re excited to add an additional level of accessibility to the festival.”
Also new this year is a featured artist in the Artist Demonstration Area, Jenna Wood, who will demonstrate indigenous basket weaving using traditional materials. The featured artist was made possible due to a grant from the East Lansing Arts Commission.
The rest of the festival will remain largely the same as last year, with two full days of performances at the Jackson Main Stage, featuring the Greater Lansing Ballet Company, the East Lansing High School Jazz Band, the Flames ‘N Dames fire-dance group, a Native American spirit dancer, a magician and puppeteer, Americana/blues musician Grace Thiesen and more; a food court with everything from grilled cheese, barbecue and desserts to traditional Peruvian, Spanish and Mexican food; and a continued partnership with the MSU Spring Arts and Crafts Show, which runs 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at the MSU Union.
The festival will also feature 156 artists from all over the United States, including five of the six award-winning artists from last year, who will be exhibiting and selling their work at booths along Albert and M.A.C avenues. For a full list of artists, including the mediums they work with, see page 14.
“I hope the community is able to meander to downtown East Lansing and enjoy art, their community and the beginning of beautiful weather,” Majano said. “I hope the artists have a positive experience, including making connections with people as well as selling their art!”
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