Pat Wilhelms founded Roanoke Children’s Theatre in 2008, and for its first few years of operation, her office was under the seats in the Taubman Museum of Art’s theater. Even then, the company’s outlook was as sunny as Little Orphan Annie’s most famous song.
“We’ve made money every year,” Wilhelms told the Roanoke Times in 2010.
With Wilhelms as artistic director, the children’s theater adopted the approach of Aesop’s tortoise, growing slowly and steadily into one of the Roanoke Valley’s most consistent artistic success stories.
Now she’s ready for a changing of the guard, though she’s not retiring and she’s not quite stepping down. “I’m moving over to the right,” she joked.
The theater company’s 2019-2020 season gets underway in October with “The Velveteen Rabbit,” based on Margery Williams’ beloved book. By then, Wilhelms will be the managing stage director, and her handpicked successor, Brett Roden, will be producing artistic director. The change up allows her to pass the baton of business responsibilities to Roden so she can focus on stagecraft.
As Roden explained, “I will be overseeing all artistic aspects and executive aspects, and Pat will be just directing the mainstage productions.”
Roanoke Children’s Theatre puts on plays aimed at schoolchildren, with the works they choose to produce almost always based on children’s literature. The plays make use of child and adult performers, including Equity actors — that is, actors who are members of the Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union which is to theater what the Screen Actors Guild is to film and television. According to RCT officials, the nonprofit puts on plays for 7,000 school-age children every year.
Hired two years ago as RCT’s director of education, Roden said he’s honored by the opportunity to move into the leadership role. “I have a passion for education and a passion for professional theater, and to bring those two elements together is really incredible,” he said.
“He and I are both from upstate New York,” Wilhelms said. “He has the same work ethic that I do, and the same energy that I do, and the same love of children’s theater.”
For the past year, Roden has been assistant artistic director as he’s learned the ropes from Wilhelms.
“It’s great to teach someone this and to watch him blossom,” she said.
“She has made me feel like I can accomplish anything,” Roden said. “She has believed in me. She has been my mentor through this process. She has really shaped me to be ready for this position. I am honored to carry her legacy.”
“When you actually have a planned leadership transition for the organization, it’s much healthier for the organization,” said Jeanne Bollendorf, the theater’s director of development. “Someone’s not starting in from scratch. You can ensure that the important parts of the vision and mission will continue forward.”
RCT has grown large enough to divide the artistic and administrative responsibilities. “To be honest most theaters do it that way, but you usually cannot get to that point for quite a while,” Wilhelms said. With a small theater, “usually you’re doing everything.”
Originally from Syracuse, New York, Roden earned a degree in musical theater directing from State University of New York at Potsdam and has worked as a music director for Syracuse Children’s Theatre in his home city and for Barrington Stage Co. in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. At Barrington, he also worked as a teaching artist for the regional theater’s youth programming. His interest in pursuing a leadership position in professional theater led him to the education position at RCT.
“The moment I came on I absolutely fell in love with this community, with our students that we serve, and the Roanoke Valley,” he said.
Beyond running the nonprofit, Roden will have a part to play, so to speak, in the production of the upcoming season’s shows. “I will be music directing our mainstage productions alongside her as director,” he said.
There hasn’t previously been a music director on staff. “Brett comes to us with a strong musical background. My background is straight theater. That is an awesome combination,” Wilhelms said.
“We are a stellar team,” Roden said.
Wilhelms said she looks forward to seeing how RCT further integrates with the region under Roden’s guidance.
Like Roden, Wilhelms came south to Roanoke in 1998 to take a job at a professional theater. A native of Rochester, New York, she earned her graduate degree at Pennsylvania State University and worked at several theater companies, finishing at Theatre of Youth in Buffalo, New York, before taking some time off to raise her son and two daughters.
In 1998, Mill Mountain Theatre producing artistic director Jere Lee Hodgin hired Wilhelms, eventually promoting her to director of outreach and education. Hodgin left MMT in 2005, and his replacement, Patrick Benton, dismissed Wilhelms in 2008.
What could have been misfortune, she transformed into opportunity. She already had a longtime interest in running a children’s theater. She went to Georganne Bingham, at the time the executive director of the $66 million Taubman Museum of Art, which was gearing up for its grand opening. Bingham was all for it.
“I started with zero dollars and within six months I was able to mount ‘Madeline’s Christmas’ at the Taubman,” Wilhelms said. “Getting it going, and having people believe in me, and the idea, I feel proud that they did.”
RCT eventually outgrew the Taubman Theatre. The nonprofit moved across the railroad tracks to the Dumas Center for Artistic and Cultural Development in 2013. Three years later, RCT moved again, to Jefferson Center, where the company currently resides.
Wilhelms crowed that RCT has secured a nearby space in the 600 block of Campbell Avenue S.W. where the nonprofit will be able to house visiting actors. “I feel pretty proud that we could add employees and a [yearly] budget that’s at least $500,000 now,” Wilhelms said.
Along the way she started RCT4TEENS, which features one play each season that dramatizes issues confronting teens, such as cyberbullying, suicide, eating disorders, and driving distractions caused by texting, and brings in panels of experts to offer guidance and answer questions. The nonprofit also started Kaleidoscope Camp, which caters to children with developmental disabilities.
“My job was to start a company that was specifically for families and schools and keep it going, let Roanoke know that this was here, get the word out,” Wilhelms said. “Now we’re kind of going into the teen years here. This is established, it’s here, people know about us. We’re sustainable. We’re at a threshold. Where does it go from here?”
She’ll get to see for herself, as she’s sticking around.
“I do still love it,” Wilhelms said. “Obviously I’m not going to do it forever and ever and ever. I think a gift of time will come back to me a little bit, because if I’m not doing both sides of this organization, there is going to be a little bit more time left in my life, and I love that.”