It’s awesome enough to have one cool job over a lifetime so how lucky is Sandy Ryder to have had several cool jobs?! Ryder represents some of the best things about Ann Arbor. After coming to Ann Arbor for school, she decided to stick around and do good things for our community.
After graduating with a degree in theater, Ryder taught, worked as a clown and a mime, and did improv with a children’s theater group. In 1979, she started Say Cheese Cheesecake bakery and at about the same time cofounded Wild Swan Theater.
Two big undertakings at the same time?! “Yep!
Those two businesses overlapped for about 15 years!” Ryder laughs. “The bakery was really busy from about 1983 until 1990 but I had the time to do them both.”
Around the mid-1990s, Ryder closed Say Cheese to make Wild Swan her full-time job. (Say Cheese closed in 2008 under different owners). “I was really sad to lose that bakery because I loved it, but it was time for Hilary (Cohen, the cofounder of Wild Swan) and me to go forward with the theater.”
Wild Swan performs about seven plays a year at the Towsley Auditorium at Washtenaw Community College; they recently closed out the season with Wizard of Oz. “It was so much fun!” Ryder enthuses. “I loved everyone involved—our rehearsals were great, the cast really gelled, and it was a huge hit!”
Earlier in the season audiences enjoyed such plays as Little Women, Frog and Toad, and A Thousand Cranes. Auditions are held every fall and “we cast the whole season. We seem to always have some returning actors and some new folks…and every show has a composer,” Ryder adds.
In addition to the original music, Wild Swan writers often produce original scripts.
Ryder says, “We hardly ever use existing scripts, which leads to a sense of originality. It was our fourth time doing Oz but it felt so fresh—it really didn’t feel like we’d done it before! Likewise, when we did Little Women, we just couldn’t find a script that felt the show we wanted to do so Hilary (Cohen) wrote it for us.”
In addition to its annual season, Wild Swan has an active touring group that performs year-round. “We have about a dozen shows that are always being toured,” Ryder says, naming Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Frog and Toad among the many productions for which schools can contact the theater to arrange a performance. After a performance is booked, they literally take the show on the road. Ryder laughs, “We get a booking and then we cram everything into the van, drive to the location, do the show, drive back, unload, and load the next show right up! It’s a lot of schlepping around but I love the people I work with—even driving around in the van!”
Wild Swan has two full time and four part-time employees to make this magic happen. And that magic sometimes takes them to the literal magic capital of the world.
Ryder laughs, “We got a booking in Colon, Mich., which calls itself that!” Ryder says she loves going into towns she might otherwise not visit. “We did some shows in a small town in southern Indiana which turned out to have a number of Frank Lloyd Wright houses that we could tour. When else would I have been able to do that and meet the cool people there?”
Over the past three decades, Wild Swan has distinguished itself as a place for all people, especially children with disabilities. Ryder says, “We do some workshops specifically for kids with special needs, but we see our shows as being for all children. We always have the option of incorporating American Sign Language into the plays…the signers are really incorporated, too! They aren’t off to the side but are in the play.”
Children with visual impairments can take part in what Wild Swan calls “touch tours”, where the child can visit the stage and tactilely explore parts of the set, costumes, and props. “For Charlotte’s Web, the kids could climb up the web to learn where Charlotte is,” Ryder says. “We have a trapdoor they can try out, they can feel and climb on the hay bales…so then when we say that Wilbur jumped down off the hay bales, they have a sense of what that means.”
Even though the 2017-18 season is over, the curtain is not closed. Summer means camps at Wild Swan, including Adventures in Space where kids can create their own aliens, African Arts where kids explore storytelling and art from Africa, and Around the World where kids learn about a different country each day!
After almost 40 years of being the coolest big kid around, Ryder still feels the joy. “I sometimes still can’t believe I get to spend my days playing!”
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