Performing at Overture is a positive, memorable experience
Mad River Theater Works is a nationally touring theater company, based in rural Ohio since 1978, that has created more than 30 original plays with music.
“Our plays are about American history, more specifically about race relations within American history,” said Chris Westhoff, proud member of Mad River Theater Works for over 15 years, first as a road manager and bass player, then as managing director for the past 10 years.
Examples of Mad River’s productions include Wings of Courage about Eugene Bullard, the first Black pilot to fly in WW1; folk tale legend John Henry and the relationship between people and machines; Freedom Bound, a local play about the Underground Railroad throughout the North; Walk On: The Story of Rosa Parks about activist Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a city bus; Everybody’s Hero: The Jackie Robinson Story, the story of the first African American to play major league baseball; and Freedom Riders about the Civil Rights Movement and desegregating buses in the South.
“We feel it’s important to have messages behind our stories,” said Westhoff. “History is an ongoing process, and democracy here in America is far from perfect, and there is so much work to do, so we use drama to bring important stories to life.”
The plays begin when the main characters are children and go on to show how they grow and how they are informed by their experiences. Through music and drama, children in the audience are better able to relate to the characters, more so than they might do through reading.
“We operate with the general belief that our audiences, these children, are going to have important work to do in their lifetime, and if we can provide them with examples of the way in which people from the past have taken on challenges, even as young people, we’re helping them see themselves in the driver’s seat of their future and their world,” said Westhoff.
Mad River’s primary audiences are students, mostly third through eighth grade. The group also puts on community shows, such as weekend matinees or evening performances.
Overture Center has been a regular stop for Mad River Theater Works on its national tours.
“Overture Center is a world-class venue, and it gives Mad River Theater Works one of the finest places we could land our touring productions,” said Westhoff. “We always look forward to coming to Madison. We reach packed, enthusiastic, informed audiences. It’s one of our favorite stops.”
According to Westhoff, Overture is filled with competent, talented working staff.
“We think of Overture Center’s crew as one of the best we work with on our national tours,” he said. “And when you travel across the country, people know Overture Center, so there is real degree of national notoriety as a result of being a part of the Overture series.”
Westhoff appreciates how Overture prioritizes the education and engagement of young people. He describes Overture as a shining example of what it means to have arts education programming, to have those relationships with the schools and make sure kids have access to culturally enriching programming.
“Bringing kids to Overture is all part of a bigger learning experience. They’re learning how to be an audience, how to be polite citizens who walk through this beautiful town and these beautiful lobby spaces, and how to respect each other and the space,” said Westhoff. “And hopefully, the play stays with them. When we hear the kids filing out, singing one of the songs from the play because it’s resonated with them, it’s the most meaningful sound we can hear.”
Westhoff encourages people in Madison to support Overture Center because Overture brings in world-class entrainment, some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, and it’s something that puts Madison on the map, along with the University. He says he can’t imagine Madison being Madison without Overture Center.
“I love how Overture’s mission emphasizes everything the arts can do in a community and how they’re going to facilitate a creative culture and impact the economy,” said Westhoff. “When we walk around Madison, we see the vitality and vibrancy within the community—all the good restaurants and the people both inside and outside of the venue, connected in many ways by the kinds of sharing that goes on onstage.”
Westoff noted that Overture embraces diversity, a whole realm of people bringing different things to the table.
“I think about Overture as a place that is open-minded, inviting, accepting, embracing of various ideas and creating space for people to share those things,” he said.
Westhoff and Mad River Theater Works look forward to returning to Overture when the pandemic ends, and helping Overture promote the power and positive impacts of the arts.
“When you don’t have the arts, you don’t have the kind of sharing that the arts facilitate. More important than anything we can bring to the stage, we bring people together for that, and when people are together—even if it’s apart together as we are in the current scenario—we’re having experiences that are bigger than ourselves, and these experiences make us part of a community—and I think we need that, now more than ever. If the arts can’t be, and can’t thrive, then we not only lose the work of the arts, but we lose the being together as a community, as an audience, as a society that happens when we partake in the arts.”