Friday, September 26, 2014

First Stage young performers shine in The Color Purple

By Michael Hantke

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple is a magnificent musical saga spanning four decades. An unforgettable story – of a woman finding the strength to triumph over adversity and discover her own unique voice in the world.  With a joyous Grammy-nominated score featuring jazz, ragtime, gospel, and blues, The Color Purple captures the hearts of young and old, and reminds us that, “it only takes a grain of love to make a mighty tree.”

The Color Purple features a cast of 25 including some First Stage favorites including Young Performers Chantae Miller as Young Celie (A Midnight Cry), Esther O’Brien, Ensemble (Shrek, To The Promised Land);  Braylen Stevens, Ensemble (A Midnight Cry, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer); and Zuri McGowan as Young Nettie (Folk Tales for All Folks and A Midsummer Night's Dream). Also joining the cast is seasoned actor Malkia Stampley, Ensemble (A Midnight Cry, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).

Chantae, Esther and Zuri will be making their Rep debut with The Color Purple and we wish them nothing but the best! Braylen returns to the Rep after appearing in A Raisin in the Sun. 

We recently spoke with Esther and Braylen about their experience working on The Color Purple, and how their time at First Stage has prepared them for this moment.  This is what they had to say:

Braylen Stevens: “Working with the Milwaukee Rep is so much fun! Every time I walk into the building I learn something new,” said Braylen. “First Stage has helped me a lot throughout the industry and has pushed me to be the young performer I am today. Having those supportive mentors and teachers there to help encourage you to ‘own the stage’ or ‘live the moment’ helps build confidence in yourself to know that you are not only capable of doing the job but doing it well.”

Esther O'Brien: “The Color Purple has always been a production I wanted to participate in. The dynamic of the show and the storyline is so captivating,” added Esther. “The theme of forgiveness and love in the play makes me really have a passion for it. The characters face their own battles throughout the story but in the end overpower them. That in itself is inspirational to anyone watching. First Stage was truly one of my first experiences on a stage. There was so much I learned ranging from stage directions to Tech week. I learn something every time I go there!”

The Color Purple runs September 23 to November 2, 2014 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Also, look out for Chantae Miller and Esther O’Brien in two of our upcoming productions in the First Stage 2014-2015 season! Esther will be performing in Stargirl and Chantae will be performing in Big Nate: The Musical.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Congratulations Mary Elsa Henrichs for the 2013-14 Teen of the Year award!

By Lindsey Abendschein

Conlan Ledwith and Mary Elsa Henrichs in Romeo And Juliet (2014)
Mary Elsa Henrichs is the recipient of First Stage's 2013-14 Teen of the Year award, an award given by the First Stage Academy staff as they evaluate what it means to embody the First Stage spirit of taking risk, conquering fears, and going above and beyond in all aspects of life. Mary Elsa is no stranger to our stages, having appeared last season in MAUL OF THE DEAD, CRASH and ROMEO AND JULIET. She also participated in the 2014 Bard-o-Thon, performing 34 consecutive Shakespearean monologues, a feat even for the most devout of Shakespeare fans. In addition, she has continued to further her involvement with First Stage as an Academy intern, and in the community in roles at Skylight Music Theatre.

While graciously accepting the award, Mary Elsa had the following to say about her experiences with First Stage, and what they have meant to her:
Wow, what an incredible honor. The first two people I have to thank are my parents, who drove me here tonight. They drive me to First Stage a lot and they are responsible for supporting me behind the scenes. I don’t thank them enough for that, so thank you. 
There are a lot of people here tonight who make First Stage happen from behind the scenes, and I would like to thank all of you for creating this place where I can grow not only as an actor and as an artist, but also as a human being. Something that I’ve learned at First Stage is that acting is really the art of being a human being. We deal in the business of being people, and that training goes on both on and off stage. 
I have incredible teachers and incredible peers who help me feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations, which is part of acting. My teachers force me to take huge risks and have given me amazing opportunities, and I am so thankful for that. My teachers push me to new heights, and then they are ready to catch me when I fall. Because I do fall, all the time. And that’s something I’ve learned is part of being a human and part of being an actor. I love that at First Stage I can fail boldly and be applauded. Because that’s the only way to learn: by screwing it up really badly. 
Mary Elsa Henrichs accepting the First Stage 2013-14 Teen of the Year Award
First Stage believed in me before I really understood what it meant to believe in myself. And that’s something that I think is amazing about First Stage: that they believe in every student who walks through their doors. They also believe in my brother who has been at two summers of Next Steps recently. First Stage’s belief in the potential of every human being is magnificent and astounding. To conclude, First Stage is a pretty great place to be a human being. And with that, I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.   

Monday, September 15, 2014

First Stage announces 2014-2015 Partnership and Connections Schools!

We are very excited to announce our Connections and Partnership schools for the 2014-2015 academic year! Schools participating in these programs receive tickets to First Stage plays, pre-show and post-show workshops, Teaching Through Theater workshops and even transportation (for schools in the City of Milwaukee).  First Stage serves approximately 6,000 students in over 200 classrooms in 50 participating schools through the Connections and Partnership programs. We're looking forward to seeing you at the theater - and in your classrooms this school year!

Students at Kluge Elementary School, 2014

Bruce Guadalupe Community School, Catholic East Elementary, Concordia, Pilgrim Lutheran, Doerfler School, George Washington Carver Academy, Hampton, Hawley Environmental, Highland Community School, Hmong American Peace Academy, Institute of Technology and Academics, King’s Academy, Kluge Elementary, La Causa, Milwaukee College Prep (all campuses), North Point Lighthouse, Northwest Lutheran, Parkside School, St. Anthony School, Risen Savior, S.E.D.A., Sherman Park Lutheran, St. Martini, Trowbridge School, Windlake School, Neeskara School, MacDowell Montessori, Zablocki School, Universal Academy for the College Bound, and Victory School.

Craig Montessori, Cumberland, Dimensions of Learning, Donges Bay, Edgewood Elementary, General Mitchell, Hartland Fine Arts Leadership Academy, Holy Apostles School, Lumen Christi, Malaika Early Learning Center, McKinley Elementary, Oriole Lane Elementary, Our Redeemer Lutheran School, Richards School, St. Joseph’s School, Summit View, Swallow Elementary, Westlawn Elementary, and  Wilson Elementary.

Learn more about our Theater In Education programs including Connections, Classroom Partnership programs, Literacy Residencies, theater workshops, field trips and more!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Join Jeff Frank and the First Stage Spartans!

I Can't Is Not In My Vocabulary!
I Take Risks!
I Conquer My Fears!

I Am Not Afraid to Lead!

Jeff Frank in the Reebok Spartan Beast Race
This is the First Stage Theater Academy cheer, and they are words that Artistic Director Jeff Frank strives to live by everyday – at work and at play.  When Jeff began participating in obstacle course racing three years ago, he discovered parallels between his two unrelated passions - Obstacle Course Racing and theater. “I love the fact that as a race progresses, you have no idea what you will encounter next, you deal with each step, each obstacle in the moment and find a way to conquer all the little battles along the way.” Jeff often draws on the First Stage cheer when tackling tough obstacles.  

This fall Jeff will combine his two passions in an effort to raise funds for First Stage while taking on the mother of all Spartan Races, the Vermont Beast on September 20, 2014. 

The First Stage Spartan Team has been created!
You can join Jeff and support the First Stage Theater Academy Scholarship Fund in three ways:
  • DONATE in support of Jeff’s effort to take on the Vermont Spartan Beast on September 20. This is the mother of all Spartan Races – 13+ miles, 35 obstacles, up and down the ski slopes of Killington, VT. Visit the the First Stage Crowdrise page, CLICK HERE.
  • RUN with Jeff at the Chicago Spartan Super on September. 27 or the Miller Park Spartan Sprint on November. 1 (Sign up at, then join the First Stage Spartan Team and start your own fundraising effort through Crowdrise for First Stage, CLICK HERE.
  • JOIN the First Stage Spartan Team and start your own fundraising effort for the team by pledging to do 20 Burpees a day for 20 days starting on Sept. 1 and concluding with Jeff’s Vermont race day on Sept. 20. Visit the the First Stage Crowdrise page, CLICK HERE
As a member of the First Stage Spartan Team you are committing to TAKING A RISK and CONQUERING YOUR FEARS because I CAN'T IS NOT IN OUR VOCABULARY! Funds raised by the team will go toward financial assistance for those young people who wish to take Academy classes building "life skills through stage skills."

Please join us in making a difference and help us inspire young people to know that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and commit to the effort required.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cheers for the Kid to Kid campaign!

By Sara Wojtak, First Stage Summer Academy intern

The Kid-to-Kid campaign is one of the most impressive and inspiring things I have seen First Stage students do. Seeing everyone participate and work hard at something that is for the benefit of other students is truly amazing. Kid-to-Kid is a fundraising program operated by First Stage Theater Academy students to raise money for scholarships for others to attend First Stage.  Students in grades 5-12 participate and are in charge of everything, from deciding what day to have a fundraiser to choosing an incentive for reaching a certain quota; it is entirely student-lead. 

Students join in the "burpee" challenge in support of Kid to Kid
The students work hard to raise money and encourage student donations for Kid-to-Kid, from having bake sales to planning out some sort of incentive. Every two weeks, Academy students hold a bake sale during their lunch hour. The students bring in baked goods to sell for $1 each. All the money raised goes straight to the Kid-to-Kid fund. Students have donated from $1 to as much as $20 at these bake sales, raising over $1,925 this summer.  The generosity of these students is

First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank with Academy teachers Chike
Johnson and Di'Monte Henning matched dollars raised with
"burpees." Students raised $500 in support of Kid to Kid that week!
“What makes Kid-2-Kid so special is the power it gives students,” said First Stage Community Partnership Coordinator Malkia Stampley. “To know that even a penny can help someone else teaches that no matter your financial situation, you can still make a difference.”  Stampley continued to say that the funds raised by Academy students this summer will cover full tuition for a class of 16 students for one session next school year. 

First Stage students have other incentives to raise money for Kid-to-Kid, some of which are quite outrageous! This summer, one of the Academy interns volunteered to shave his head if the students raised a certain dollar amount by a particular date. Well before that date, that intern was walking through the door with his head completely shaven because the students worked so hard to reach that goal. Other incentives include shows and performances by the interns and staff, pie in the face and fun games in class.  “It’s all about inspiring the students and teachers to showcase talents and dig a little deeper for Kid to Kid,” said Stampley.  Students donate items that they have made in order to raise money as well. Some of these items include artwork, bracelets, bows, and anything else the students can make. Every amount that is raised on a non-bake sale day is applauded and cheered for, no matter how much has been donated.

As an Academy intern this summer, it truly is a wonderful thing to see all the First Stage students being so creative, helpful, and generous in helping others through the Kid-to-Kid campaign.

Check out this video of First Stage students during the Kid to Kid "burpee" challenge.  Learn more about First Stage Theater Academy!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

From Actor to Intern: A College Girl's First Stage Story

By Mallory Elver, First Stage Development Intern

When I remember the morning that I first set foot into First Stage Theater Academy as an eighth grader, I still feel my stomach twist into an anxiety-provoked knot.  Eight years since that summer, I have heard many similar first day sentiments from other Academy students.  That morning, I would never foresee the path that First Stage would pave for me.  Today, I am a Development Intern at this wonderful theater organization.  I spent last summer as an intern in the Marketing and Public Relations Department.  What happened between my first day as a First Stager and my current internship is a journey for which I will forever be grateful.
My first role: a news reporter
 in the YC stage adaptation of
 Night of the Living Dead.  December 2008
            That summer, First Stage taught me invaluable social skills within a two-week time frame.  After my first day, I had improvised a scene in front of my classmates, laughed when we played the Shakespearean Insult Game and took the first few steps—literally—in learning musical theater choreography.  I performed and collaborated with kids my age whom I had never previously met!  As a shy pre-teen, I had never valued myself as a performer until that day.
            As I grew older, First Stage served as a crucial self-esteem booster and a vital creative outlet while I strove to meet the stressful demands of high school.  The beginning of my sophomore year, while I pushed myself academically in the hopes of one day entering a university honors program, I decided that spending time in the performing arts was exactly what I needed.  To this day, when I think of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life, I cannot forget auditioning for the Young Company, First Stage’s pre-professional high school theater training program, in front of then-Academy Headmaster John Maclay.  Thanks to the determination and confidence that I acquired at First Stage, I swallowed my nerves, performed my two monologues, and John told me (I remember his exact words): “Mallory, if you want to be in, then you’re in.”
That daunting moment became one of the happiest I have ever experienced.  First Stage taught me to take risks.  Thus, once Young Company classes began, I auditioned for every YC play that year.  The thrill of making progress in rehearsals and feeling the adrenaline rush while performing in front of an audience propelled me to a never-before-attained level of confidence.
Representing SPEA as a 
Founders Scholar at the 2014 
IU Honors Convocation
What I admire most about Theater Academy is that not only does it teach students so much about acting and script analysis, but—more importantly—it develops future community leaders who are ready to contribute to society and live happy lives.  Although I knew that my acting days were over, I sought to study theater in some capacity.  As an editor of my high school newspaper, I also yearned to study journalism.  Luckily, I discovered that Indiana University Bloomington offers an undergraduate Arts Management major.  Next year, I will graduate from IU as an Arts Management major with Honors from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA).  I will also have earned a Certificate in Journalism, minors in Spanish and Theatre & Drama as well as the General Honors Notation from the Hutton Honors College.  Additionally, I work as a Box Office Clerk at the IU Auditorium.  At this job, my love for the performing arts, refined social skills and strong work ethic—all products of my First Stage experience—are employed every day.

First Stage guided me to my area of study.  This unparalleled theater organization inspired me to learn the business side of the arts so that new generations of youths can have life-changing experiences like mine.  First Stage’s mission is to transform lives through theater.  I am thankful that it truly does so for countless young people and their families every single day.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Playwright Eric Coble visits First Stage for SHERLOCK HOLMES reading

 On July 1, playwright Eric Coble visited First Stage for a reading for his new play, SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS, making its world premiere at the start of First Stage's 28th season, opening October 17.

Eric Coble with First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank

In between readings of the script and discussion among edits and stage direction, Mr. Coble took a few moments to chat with us about his playwriting process for SHERLOCK HOLMES:

FIRST STAGE:  How do you tackle writing a new play like SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS, in weaving four graphic novels into one script for family audiences?

ERIC COBLE:  I read the graphic novels over and over, taking more notes each time, looking for the elements that I thought would work best on stage (which pieces of plot would weave together best?  What character traits do I want to make sure to highlight?  What dialogue is essential?  What will be most fun for actors to play and for audiences to watch?).  Then I wove all that into one story, paying close attention to make it feel and sound like Tony Lee’s work in the graphic novels — trying to stay true to his voice and stories.  It came together remarkably well — the characters are such a hoot to write for and play with, and the mysteries are rich and fun.

FS:  How is SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS similar or different from other stage adaptations you have written?

EC:  The fact that this is one play based on four stories was different — how do you pick and choose which pieces of what stories to weave into this new play?  And this is only the second graphic novel I’ve adapted, which brings in another element:  the pictures.  What moments can be shown without words and only through action, as they are in the comics?  Plus this story features many more main characters than any other adaptation I’ve done.  Making sure each of the Baker Street Irregulars was distinct and fun and brought something special to the party was a fun challenge.

FS:  What are you looking forward to most about working with First Stage again?

EC:  I LOVE the imagination that I always experience here.  I know I can throw crazy moments into the script (a battle in an underground waterfall!  Mad inventions used to escape from prison!) and that the First Stage crew will figure out ways to make it work theatrically.  Ever since I saw how they created the black and white world of THE GIVER, I knew they would rise to any challenge.  There’s such freedom and a sense of play here.  And I LOVE that First Stage insists on age-appropriate casting:  The kids will be played by kids, the adults by adults.  Love that.

FS:  What do you enjoy most about writing plays for young audiences and families?

EC:  The ability to play.  Young audiences will happily, even eagerly, jump into any world you present, as long as it makes some sense and tells a great story.  Some adult audiences seem to think this isn’t a worthy way to spend their time, that wild imagination doesn’t belong in serious plays.  I beg to differ.  And writing plays for families and young audiences lets me play in that world and share it.

FS:  What are you looking forward to the most about the development and world premiere of SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS?

EC:  I’m super eager to hear how the live music will fit into the play — Jeff Frank always envisioned this play as using live musicians with 19th century instruments creating the soundscape of Victorian London, and I can’t wait to see the action scenes and flashbacks and suspenseful/scary moments enhanced by adult and student musicians working live on stage at the same time as the actors, creating the world.  That and the chance to work with Jeff as a director.  I love his bravery and smarts in tackling the challenges of any script.

FS:  Your play, THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, was recently on Broadway.  How does it feel to have one of your plays on Broadway?

EC:  It was a great roller coaster.  I’d never played on that field before, and it was a true education. Being part to the gigantic machine that is a Broadway play was an odd feeling. Getting calls and emails from so many different facets of production and media, the over-the-top publicity, all that was new.  One of the best parts was still getting to work on the play, to rehearse with these great actors to tell the best story we could in the best way possible.  Which is what I’m doing on SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS and every show I’ve ever created.  It was comforting to realize that no matter how big the stakes were, my job as writer was the same on Broadway as it is in Milwaukee or Cleveland — how do we tell our story in the best way possible?  

FS:  What advice would you give to an aspiring playwright?

EC:  Write.  Write some more. See a LOT of plays.  And write some more.  Tell a bunch of 
different stories with different characters just to try them out.  They may not be good plays, but you’re strengthening your playwriting muscles and figuring out what kind of stories YOU want to tell and how YOU are going to tell them.  Read plays, see plays, make that your mental diet as you figure out what you will bring to the ongoing theatrical conversation.  And don’t ever forget it’s called a “play” for a reason.

Don't miss Eric Coble's world premiere of SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS at First Stage, playing October 17 through November 15 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater, for everyone ages 7 and up.  Make this play a part of your First Stage Family Package and save up to 50% off regular ticket prices.  Visit our website for more information and to order online.