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March 13, 2024

MSU Theatre presents ‘What if Wilhelmina,’ a sensory-friendly, interactive musical

The public is invited to come experience “What if Wilhelmina,” the latest production of the Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s Sense-Ability Ensemble, which creates multisensory, interactive theatrical performances specifically designed for audiences that are neurodiverse.  There are four remaining performances scheduled March 15 to 17 at the Arena Theatre in the MSU Auditorium, 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing, MI, 48824.

Performers posing on a stage with large puppets. Some of the performers are holding smaller puppets.
The full “What if Wilhelmina” cast on the set.

Led by Artistic Director Dionne O’Dell, the Sense-Ability Ensemble is a group of talented MSU Theatre students who are driven by the belief that theater should be inclusive and accessible to everyone. Through their work, they aim to highlight the power of diversity and ability while providing theater access for all.

MSU is one of the very few universities in the country creating performances developed specifically for audiences that are neurodiverse.

“To have this show featured in the main stage season sets a wonderful and necessary example of inclusion,” said O’Dell, an MSU Department of Theatre faculty member who specializes in children’s theater and theater for audiences that are neurodiverse. O’Dell adapted the critically acclaimed children’s book, “What if Wilhelmina,” by Joseph Belisle into a musical for the Sense-Ability Ensemble.   

A person posing with a large cat puppet.
Alex Spevetz playing Wilhelmina (left) and Meleah Acuff as Faith (right) in “What if Wilhelmina.”

This heartwarming story, where imagination runs wild, brings to life the journey of a 7-year-old girl named Faith who finds herself consumed with “what ifs” when her beloved cat, Wilhelmina, goes missing. She becomes overwhelmed by the perceived dangers facing her feline friend and must confront her many woes.

Throughout the play, Faith learns about the futility of worry and develops coping skills through music, movement and the assistance of some friendly puppets. This unique production promises to be an unforgettable experience, combining the magic of storytelling with sensory-friendly elements and interactivity.

“At its core, ‘What if Wilhelmina’ is a celebration of diversity and unity,” O’Dell said. “While this show is appropriate for all audiences, it was created from the ground up for audiences that are neurodiverse. I believe there is a big difference between ‘you are welcome here’ and ‘this was created specifically for you.’”

When creating shows for neurodiverse audiences, O’Dell consults with experts in other fields such as special education and physical therapy on how sensory elements can enhance productions for all. Sense-Ability Ensemble performers also undergo special training to sensitively respond to the needs of individual audience members.

Performers holding puppets painting a canvas.
“What if Wilhelmina” cast members (from left to right): Grace Duffy as Squirrel, Jacob Mauer as Owl, Tobias Sanders as Skunk, and Anastasia Breen as Mouse.

By tailoring sensory experiences, the Sense-Ability Ensemble strives to create an immersive and engaging environment where everyone can fully participate and enjoy the performance. This commitment to inclusion and diversity lies at the heart of their work.

“Theater has such a unique power to be used as a conduit for learning,” O’Dell said. “It is so valuable that people can go through this story and learn something new but can also experience the pure joy of watching a beautiful production without any heavy-handed learning objectives.” 

The production process for the Sense-Ability Ensemble involves close collaboration between faculty members and the students. With a draft of the script as a starting point, they work together to bring the performance to life, resulting in a collaborative and dynamic production.

“I tend to have a draft of the script ready when I begin to work with students on a new ensemble show,” O’Dell said. “For this production, it involved working closely with the author and illustrator of the book, Joseph Belisle. I also wrote the lyrics to the songs and worked with composer, Chelle Peterson. Once I begin the rehearsal process with the MSU students, we test out ideas. For this production, theatre faculty member, Ranae Selmeyer, designed the set and her design students created the puppets.”

Performers making surprised expressions.
The full “What if Wilhelmina” cast singing the title song.

Last spring, the Sense-Ability Ensemble performed “What if Wilhelmina” at several local elementary schools and did a series of shows at the East Lansing Art Festival. Through these performances, the ensemble has witnessed remarkable breakthrough moments, especially with individuals who are typically nonverbal, illustrating the power of the arts to bridge communication gaps and create connections.

“Connections are made through the art of performance, and it is incredible to witness,” O’Dell said. “Students who are typically noncommunicative have communicated through the use of puppets and song. We have also included students that are neurodiverse in our cast, and it has taught us all about what true inclusion really means and the impact it can make.”

In addition to the performances, there will be community engagement activities available in the Arena Theatre lobby 45 minutes prior to each performance, including coloring, face painting, a mini art gallery and photos with the “What if Wilhelmina” puppets.

Ben Barber, a senior who is pursuing a bachelor of fine arts in acting as well as bachelor of arts in games and interactive media, is heading up some of this community engagement effort. He says his work with the Sense-Ability Ensemble reinforces his dedication to his art.

“These performances remind me why I am an artist,” Barber said. “What if Wilhelmina” shows me how I want to impact the world. Young audiences and neurodiverse individuals deserve a voice. This gives neurodiverse individuals an opportunity to have something for themselves. They get attention and interact directly with the actors and puppets. They get to feel special and understood. If one person in the audience feels that way, then our job was accomplished.”

Remaining ‘What if Wilhemina’ performance dates: 

  • Friday, March 15, at 7 p.m. 
  • Saturday, March 16, at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Sunday, March 17, at 11 a.m.


Tickets are available at, in person at the Wharton Center ticketing office or by calling 1-800-WHARTON. Tickets also can be purchased at the Arena Theatre Ticket Office, which will open one hour prior to each performance.


  • General admission – $20 
  • Seniors and faculty – $15  
  • Students – $10  

Doors will open 30 minutes prior to each show and will close 5 minutes after the posted start time as late seating beyond that point will disrupt the performers and fellow audience members. 

For more information, visit the Wharton Center for Performing Arts website. For more information about MSU’s Department of Theatre productions, visit the Wharton Center for Performing Arts Department of Theatre event page.

Related programming:

New York Times bestselling author, teacher, arts enthusiast, and LGBTQ+ rights advocate Chasten Buttigieg, who also has a theatre background that includes working with kids with autism, will share, in a moderated conversation, his experiences with theatre at an event associated with “What if Wilhelmina” on Saturday March 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Pasant Theatre of the Wharton Center for Performing Arts.

Buttigieg, who is married to former mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, also will discuss the importance of LGBTQ+ allyship and representation along with the ways advocacy can have an impact on young lives.

The March 16 event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. To reserve your seat, visit the Wharton Center for Performing Arts website.

By: Kim Popiolek

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