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Karen (Fuhs) Rohrer ’88 celebrates with the Treehouse community at the opening of the newly remodeled building.

Alumni Profile: Karen (Fuhs) Rohrer ’88 of Treehouse Children’s Theater

When Karen (Fuhs) Rohrer ’88 left St. Norbert with a business administration degree, her plan was to follow in her dad’s footsteps and launch her own small company, not to become executive director of the nonprofit Treehouse Theater in Manitowoc, Wis.

“I always dreamed of owning a business,” she said. “We all had that entrepreneurial spirit.”

But when she and her husband returned to their hometown of Manitowoc and had three children, she dabbled in several things in order be available for the kids. She coached and became involved in service leagues and booster clubs, using her business skills. “I think a lot of that is what trained me for this,” she said. “I had no intention of running a non-profit. I knew little about the nonprofit world. But in those years, I learned a lot about being a treasurer, about holding fund-raisers and grant writing. A lot of what I did in those years prepared me for running a nonprofit.”

The SNC grad danced as a youngster but didn’t dip her toe into the theater world again until her daughter Julie became interested and Rohrer realized there wasn’t much available in the Lakeshore area.

High schools often look to elementary and middle schools as feeder programs for sports, and a dedicated Manitowoc parent group wanted to build a similar system for acting — which led to the birth of Treehouse Theater, a theater program for kids ages 4-18, now celebrating its 10th season in 2021.

“I just assumed there were organizations like this that worked with kids to develop theatre interests in this area, and I was shocked that there wasn’t,” Rohrer says. “We thought with a program like this, we could reach kids interested in acting a lot earlier.”

The tiny group first performed in church basements but eventually developed a reputation and funding to do large musical performances at the theater on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Manitowoc Campus.

“When we first started, I was naïve to think how strong the response in the community would be,” she says. “I knew my kids were really interested in this, but I had no idea how many families were out there who said, ‘My kids want to be involved with this, our families want to be involved, how can we help?’ To see it grow has been so rewarding.”

Since then, Treehouse has worked with more than 700 children in theater-education classes and 23 local musical productions. They have won awards at seven national theater conventions in Atlanta and built their first rehearsal studio on Franklin Street. They’ve hosted specialty workshops with Treehouse alumni and Broadway veterans and worked countless fundraising events to keep the mission going.

They also rent out their beautiful hand-sewn costumes to theater groups throughout the country.

Rohrer’s organizational development skills yield new facility
AlumRohrer_Inline210.jpgTreehouse recently moved into a newly remodeled building on Washington Street. The 11,000 square feet of space provides plenty of room for a large community room, a kitchen, lobby, board room, meeting rooms, practice rooms, set building and storage, costume storage and more.

The non-profit bought the building in 2019 and volunteers donated 5,000 hours to renovate the space. They also hired subcontractors to handle electrical, heating and cooling, plumbing and other tasks. A 2020 capital campaign to raise $675,000 stalled with the pandemic and fell about $80,000 short.

Rohrer used her business expertise to write grant requests to state, federal and nongovernment organizations, raising funds to help with construction.

Productions started small but continue to grow
The first production Treehouse performed was “Jungle Book Kids.” The company does three musicals per year using shows licensed from iTheatre, which adapts Broadway shows to make them kid friendly.

Since then, they’ve done adaptions of everything from “Madagascar” to “The Wizard of Oz” to “Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Audiences can be surprised at the professionalism of the players, Rohrer says.

“You’re expecting to see a bad middle-school production that you are cringing your way through, something you just have to get through,” she says. “It’s not like that at all. We really strive to work with these kids and make something very special.”

Rohrer hopes to add straight drama – or non-musical – opportunities for students who don’t want to sing or dance. She’s looking, too, at acting classes, private voice lessons, music lessons and instrument lessons.

“I see this as a youth arts center,” Rohrer says. “I’d like to see a Manitowoc youth symphony someday in this community that loves and supports our arts. There’s so much potential here.”

She expects theater throughout the area to bounce back as the pandemic winds down.

When COVID hit, Treehouse had just finished a spring performance of “Frozen Jr.” at the UWGB, Manitowoc Campus, selling out five performances.

The actors performed “Once on This Island,” a prequel to “The Little Mermaid,” in mid-June, picking up where they left off in spring 2020 when things were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I had tears in my eyes for two hours in early May when I saw the kids walk through the doors, fill the room and start singing,” Rohrer said. “They had tears in their eyes, too. That boost of seeing this building filled with people is just what I needed. I think we all needed that.”

Rohrer said the new building gives Treehouse a sense of presence and permanency in the Manitowoc community.

From the beginning, the theatre program was set up for sustainability, and Rohrer said whenever she decides to leave (she has no current plans to do so), things are in place for a successor.

“I’ve always said I will leave when this ceases to be fun,” she says. “Right now, things are very fun for me, and I’m enjoying it. I’m excited to see the families come back, to be in this new building downtown where so many things are happening.”

Oct. 20, 2021