4th Wall Theatre Company

What if every child was allowed to shine on stage?

Photo of Katie Mann
1 5

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 2012, I was a camp counselor for a typical kids theatre camp. One day a student came to register who has autism; the director was hesitant to allow him in. Something inside me broke: Everyone should be allowed to enjoy theatre! It was then that we co-created 4th Wall Theatre, a mobile theatre for people with special needs. Everyone deserves fun. Everyone deserves to shine. Period.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Michigan

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Michigan

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

We have 90 collaborating locations in Michigan's lower peninsula. The largest cities are Grand Rapids, Flint, Lansing, Detroit, and Ann Arbor.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Students with special needs often have a plethora of therapeutic opportunities after school-- speech, social, occupational, physical, and on and on. But where's the fun? Where's the empowerment? While their siblings go off to soccer, dance, or underwater basket weaving, they often don't have their own hobby. Parents may or may not be able to beg their child's way onto a team, but acceptance often falls short. Furthermore, distance is often a problem for the whole family of a child with special needs. Those in rural areas especially dedicate many hours a week driving to a special therapy or the few/one extra curricular activity offered.

4th Wall Theatre is a mobile theatre company for all abilities.  We travel to a student's location (ie, library, school), gather students with disabilities in a safe environment,  empower them with social skills, and allow them to shine on stage for their families and friends.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Children who are differently abled

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

The first showcase we ever did was partnered with the Down Syndrome Guild. After bowing to a standing ovation of family and friends, a student of mine ran up to me: "Miss Katie! They looked at me because I was good. Not because I was different." Imagine being 12 years old when you first realize strangers can stare at you for a positive reason. When a student joins our classes, they will learn about singing, dancing, and acting. They will act, sing, and dance in an original play for family and friends. But the real impact comes from a secondary life skills curriculum: teamwork, turn-taking, eye contact, etc. This is where we see our students' sense of belonging and empowerment blossom. They are important. They are loved.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

4th Wall Theatre just celebrated its 4th year! We have 90 collaborating partners and travel all over the state of Michigan to present our theatre workshops. Each year we impact 150% more students than the previous year and recently taught our 4,500th student with disabilities! Therefore we expect to impact 2,000 students in 2017. But one should remember our influence goes beyond the students: Grandparents see the show with tear-filled eyes, parents and siblings work on lines at home... our true impact is easily that number quadrupled. Furthermore, we are launching a new online component to the company in November called Backstage. The focus of 4th Wall is to teach students. Backstage will be an online forum to teach teachers. We are physically limited by driving distance, but with resources online instructors all over the world can replicate our curriculum in their classroom.

Organization Type

  • for-profit

Annual Budget

  • $10k - $50k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We have been debt free since ten months after being founded. Because we teach theatre classes, either the parents themselves pay for the session (think ballet lessons) or the collaborating organization pays for the weekly workshops. Due to our mobile nature, our overhead costs are low... about $20,000 a year! Therefore we fold much of our profits back into the company for instructor training, curriculum supports, etc.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

To our knowledge, there is no other mobile theatre company for people with disabilities in the world. A university student from London did a study on theatre using those with disabilities as actors and found eleven companies. In the world. We are indeed a niche market! The closest competitors are the six or seven brick and mortar theaters in America for people with special needs (none of which are in Michigan) and a few online sites with drama resources for teachers. However, Backstage is the only website we've found to have theatre resources specifically for special education teachers.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Inclusion. People with special needs are being encouraged more and more to be included within the general education classroom, within the workplace. We weren't even in business for six months before we realized the benefit of having theatre classes with both those with disabilities and those without. Both groups need to integrate, teach, and learn from each other.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Services to Enhance Potential

Program Design Clarity

Initially we were designed for people with special needs, but soon siblings became jealous! Now 80% of our clients have disabilities. The length/time of the workshops vary based on our cooperating clients needs. So let's use Michigan State University: For 10 weeks, about 25 students come every Wednesday for an hour to learn about singing, acting, and dancing from two of our trained instructors. A dozen plus MSU students receive credit for helping mentor. Everyone helps writes our 20 minute play to be performed for family and friends on the final day. How their confidence soars!

Community Leadership

After every performance, we email a ten question survey to ask our clients/parents how we did. But the biggest feedback comes from the planning meetings with the clients before we even book a date: Is this class for fun? Part of a lesson plan? What does their population look like ability-wise? Should our play emphasize an outside skill? (ie literacy, self-care/health, etc). Due to our mobile nature we can cater our curriculum to their needs.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We are excited to be launching the Backstage branch. It happened organically--every week we'd receive at least one email bemoaning the fact that 4th Wall was not in their state. With Backstage, teachers all over the world will have online access to songs, dances, and acting curriculums we use. We can spread the culture of inclusion and the arts to everyone who wants it. We can be a support network for isolated instructors. Theatre is for all!

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Our model is ALL about empowerment. If you (the student) don't come to class, don't say your line, the play literally cannot go on. How rare for students with special needs to not only be wanted but NEEDED. This has long term effects on the child's esteem. We have found, anecdotally, that students can make more friends at school after our classes. Plus, the feeling of being applauded does wonders for self-confidence!

Leadership Story

We are co-founded by Katie & Annie. As I (Katie) am writing, I'll tell my story: Two months before I graduated with my teaching degree to teach deaf students, my wrists began to hurt. The doctor told me I "talked too much" in sign language giving myself tendentious. Physical therapy? Didn't work. Shots? Nada. Finally the doctor told me I would have to change careers. Devastated, I graduated with two bachelors and zero prospects. That's when I met Annie and a student with ASD at a summer theater camp. Our hearts broke at his lack of opportunities. We thought "If not us, than who?"

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1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

Stellar project!! What a great opportunity for the kids you serve!

In terms of the competition, and you've probably heard this already, I'd suggest getting some more testimonials (since there isn't yet research to show the impact of the project). You could also increase the impact of your proposal by spending a little more time painting the picture of how these children are left out -- the problem, so to speak. Finally, you might also want to walk us through the week (or whatever the time length is) the kids spend in the project showing us what the experience is like for them.

Good luck! As a theatre performer and aficionado, I'm so glad to know you're out there doing this magnificent work!

Be well.