Motherhood as theater Mom has her own idea of children's theater By Drew CarterPhotos by Josh Hawkins Mom plays volleybal in the front yard with daughters, clockwise, Cassidy, 6, Taylor 9, and Corey, 3.
When it came time for Tami Zimmerman Henry to decide between her career as a performer and being a mother, she chose both.
"We weren't going to put our lives on hold for any career things," says her musician husband Randy Henry. "We don't want to sacrifice the quality of [our kids'] lives. But we don't want to ever look back and say, ‘I wish I'd done that.' "
Zimmerman Henry also knew most theater sets are no place for children to hang around. The backstage talk-vocabulary and subjects-are inappropriate and the children are not likely to relate to or understand her work. "If I stayed, then [my kids] couldn't be a part of" my work, Zimmerman Henry says.
But she didn't want to give up the stage, long her passion and her dream. "That's not the kind of mom I want to be," she says.
It has been a nine-year evolution for her to find some balance between being actor, director, choreographer and mother of three. She continues her on-stage career by making it kid-friendly and kid-oriented. She started her own children's theater company, Tireswing Theatre, with the help of theater partner and daytime coworker, Andrew Lines.
Tireswing Theatre was incorporated Jan. 1. Zimmerman Henry says the name is one they both like because it conjures a positive image for children, and fond memories for adults. "Which is what we want to do-appeal to both," Zimmerman Henry says.
To pay the bills, she juggles her performing and mothering with a daytime career as office manager at a small real estate appraisal firm.
Lines says patience makes Zimmerman Henry a great mom-that and the fact she never sleeps.
"She never gives up," he says, yet "she never gets tired of it."
Zimmerman Henry's two roles play off each other. Mothering helps with writing plays, knowing what it takes to keep a kid's attention and what will make a young audience laugh. She tries material on her daughters.
And being an entertainer helps her as a mom. Doing character voices for each book is a standard. "Especially with my youngest. Without it," she says, "it doesn't work."
Her writing prompted Taylor, 9, to start her own journal. Even Cassidy, 6, who's just beginning to read and write, keeps a journal. Recently, she wrote a story that, although remarkably similar to "The Three Bears," was told with drawings and text in a special, illegible Cassidy language.
Mom, you're weird Growing up in the little town of Bremen, Ind., Zimmerman Henry always wanted to be an actor. Her first stage appearance at age 4-a duet with another little girl of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"-set her on a lifelong course of performing that would take her away from Bremen.
"I was born to live in the city," she says. "I'm a city mouse." She went to college at Syracuse University in upstate New York because it had an ideal major for her: music theater. Her father, a railroad worker, took ribbings from his coworkers for spending so much on his daughter's private college.
Growing up with an artistic personality in a small Indiana town, her quirks were not always appreciated.
"Dad always supported me in whatever I wanted to do," Zimmerman Henry says. He recycled aluminum cans to give her spending money at school, she recalls.
Her quirks haven't changed, but she is no longer the kid. She now has the supportive parent role. Zimmerman Henry says she often hears, "Mom, you're weird." That, she says, is a valuable lesson for them to learn early. "It opens a dialogue that if you're different, it's OK. In fact, it's better than being like everyone else."
In the living room of their Glenview home, Zimmerman Henry sits in an armchair, surrounded by squirming daughters: Taylor, Cassidy, and Corey, 3, who wears an outfit inscribed with "Daddy's Little Girl." The city mouse and family moved somewhat closer to the country in May to give the girls more space and for the public schools.
The couple hopes the artistic paths they've chosen will enrich their children's lives. Zimmerman Henry remembers coming home from a rehearsal one evening to find Taylor watching Dad and his band jam in the sound-proof room they'd built in their old Rogers Park home. "What a great memory that must be for a kid," she says. The couple plans to build a rehearsal studio in their new basement.
Finding love in Syracuse But her dream was not to be a star, and it never included living in squalor. She watched as friends from school took hole-in-the-wall apartments in New York City that cost $800 a month in the late 1980s.
"I decided I needed a better quality of life," she says.
She spent the summer before beginning Syracuse University at a stock theater in a town with the same name, Syracuse, Ind., where she met her future husband, a bassist playing in the orchestra.
At the time, her jaw was wired shut following corrective surgery. She couldn't speak during the first six weeks they knew each other. When the wires were finally removed, Henry says her voice-squeaky from disuse-almost scared him away.
Instead he proposed a few months later. They saw each other whenever they could, meeting halfway in Cleveland. The years Zimmerman Henry's father spent on the railroad netted her all the free rides she needed between Syracuse and Cleveland.
It was a six-year engagement with two years in Chicago after school to find acting work.
For the last 13 years, she's worked at Integra Realty Resources-Chicago. Her boss' flexibility and support of Tireswing are indispensable, she says. One year she was able to negotiate a day off in lieu of more money. She continues to work four-day weeks.
She needed flexibility to work with Terrapin Theater, a company founded in 1992 by a group of Syracuse alumni-mostly Zimmerman Henry's friends. She was producing, acting and and learning "every aspect of putting a show together."
She was also in charge of outreach-performing at schools and other organizations.
Zimmerman Henry wanted to expand the children's theater portion of Terrapin's repertoire, but the company's artistic director didn't.
Not your father's children's theater Zimmerman Henry knew well the amount of work needed to produce a show, so the thought of being on her own frightened her. But when her friend and now theater partner Lines said, "We can do this," she decided to "put up or shut up."
The company recently received noprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service, allowing Zimmerman Henry to write grants and expand its current $12,000 budget. With corporate underwriting, she hopes to teach integrated arts at schools.
In doing children's theater, Zimmerman Henry didn't want to just do the same old shows. Instead, company members write the shows, taking fodder from myths, legends and stories of different cultures.
"It's really important for us not to pander and not to talk down to children, but rather to bring them up to the level that we're on," Lines says. "They're not going to get every joke. But at least they'll hear it once. And the second time they hear it, they may actually get it."
A press release explains the niche thus: "Tireswing feels that there is an audience out there that is eager to see something new and intelligent. The shows produced are fast-paced enough to keep the attention of any energetic 4-year-old and are filled with witty clichés, situations and pop culture references that are sure to entertain even the stuffiest of grown individuals."
"There are only so many ways you can do Cinderella or other things everyone's seen before," says Zimmerman Henry. "There's just such a vast quantity of literature out there that hasn't been tapped. I think that's a more interesting choice to pursue."
Also, by drawing from a variety of cultures, shows celebrate different backgrounds and introduce children to new ones. "People fear what they don't know," Zimmerman Henry says. "[Shows from other cultures] help build acceptance, not just tolerance, of other cultures."
Let other companies produce Cinderella and other favorites. "That has its place, " she says. "This is something new I can bring to the table." The Shows Tireswing Theatre's production of "Jabberwocky" runs through Nov. 23. "The Soul Cages," an adaptation of a Thomas Crofton Croker tale, begins next spring, March19 through April 25, at the Loop Theatre, 8 E. Randolph St., Chicago. Shows are 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $15 for general admission, $10 for students and children under 12. Call (312) 744-LOOP (5667).
Drew Carter writes for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and lives in Chicago.