Thursday, April 30, 2015

Theater Academy alumni return to First Stage in full bloom

Heading into its 24th summer, First Stage Theater Academy has fostered life skills through stage skills to thousands of young people.  These students have learned acting, musical theater, improvisation, and much more, developing the creativity, confidence, and self-esteem needed to achieve one’s dreams both on the stage and beyond.

For some, those dreams have continued on stage.  Beginning their theater studies at First Stage, three of our adult actors have come full circle, returning for our production of BIG FISH.

J.T. Backes
J.T. BACKES’ (Fisherman/Male Understudy) story starts back when he began Academy classes at age 8, and had roles in several shows including MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL (2002). Now as an actor, J.T. summarizes what he learned over the years in one phrase – “to make choices.”  “First Stage is a safe place to be ‘you’ and take incredible risks without fear of consequence.  The teachers and students choose to treat others with respect and give to each other wholeheartedly without need of incentive,” said J.T.  This helped him build confidence and self-worth, allowing him the dedication, resilience, and an open mind into pursuing the craft of acting as a career. J.T. left us with this advice, "Whatever the situation, always be you! That is something nobody else can replicate. Take risks, fail big, and be you.”

Susie Duecker
For SUSIE DUECKER (Mermaid/Understudy Jenny Hill), coming home to First Stage for BIG FISH is “living life in full bloom.”  Susie began as an Academy student in the fourth grade, was a member of First Stage Young Company in its inaugural year, and was a young performer in four First Stage plays including THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY (1999). Not only did her love of theater grow, but many strong friendships bloomed, which Susie credits to the encouraging, inclusive atmosphere First Stage continues to nurture today.  Susie remembers what her First Stage teacher Aaron O’Rear told her, “if there’s anything else you can see yourself being happy doing, do that.” Susie always knew she would pursue theater as a career, and taking Academy classes confirmed that the dream could be a reality.

Nate Lewellyn
First Stage “provides a place to be one’s self, to be goofy and fun, and not have to worry about being ‘cool’ or looking cool to others. It was a very special experience growing up,” says NATE LEWELLYN. During his years as an Academy student, Nate appeared as a young performer in ARTHUR – THE BOY WHO WOULD BE KING (2001) and THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL’S CHRISTMAS GIFT (2002).  Through these formative First Stage experiences, Nate knows how many life skills can be learned through the theater, such as responsibility, empathy, and collaboration. Importantly, being present each moment is a vital skill not only for an actor, but in dreaming bigger and living life to its fullest. “Be present in the moment, value the time that we have with the people we have in life,” says Nate. “Don’t take anything for granted.”

See J.T., Susie and Nate in First Stage’s BIG FISH, May 8-31, 2015 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater.

Learn more about First Stage Theater Academy and the philosophy of teaching life skills through stage skills! Summer Academy classes for students in grades K5-12 begin June 15!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Famed Broadway Director Leads First Stage's BIG FISH

Jeff Whiting
With the opening of our final show of the season, 
BIG FISH, May 8-31, 2015, First Stage is thrilled to welcome back Jeff Whiting as the Director and Choreographer of the show.  Jeff comes to us from New York City where he was the Associate Director and Choreographer of the Broadway production of BIG FISH. His resume is long and his talent is vast, having worked on numerous theater productions throughout the country including THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and James Taylor in Concert at Carnegie Hall. Next up, Jeff will be directing the national touring company of Tony-nominated BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. This is his second affiliation with First Stage, having been the choreographer for BIG, THE MUSICAL in 2012.  

“After working on the Broadway production of BIG FISH, I’m so thrilled to have the chance to bring this touching story to life for audiences in Milwaukee,” said Whiting. “It’s a story full of life, heart and, of course, fantastical big fish tales that will leave you honoring the storytellers in each of our lives – for it is the dreamers who inspire all of us."

The cast and crew is enjoying the opportunity work with Jeff in Milwaukee. Several First Stage Young Company students have had the opportunity to attend his Open Jar Institute in Manhattan, a week-long, Broadway-integrated actor training workshop for high school students.

First Stage Company Manager and Music Director of BIG FISH Jeff Schaetzke shared his excitement about the show. “We are doing a Broadway musical in 75 minutes and not skimping on anything. Our production team is truly moving mountains, using their expertise, skill, energy, and every resource they have to create over 20 settings and countless costumes and quick changes [Costume Designer K√§rin Kopischke created over 170 designs for BIG FISH],” said Schaetzke.  “Our young performers are top notch, sound wonderful and are acting as adults and children. Their task is enormous. The adult actors on this show [the show features Milwaukee stage veterans Jonathan Gillard Daly as Edward; Niffer Clarke as Sandra; Nate Lewellyn as Will and Paul Helm as Mayor/Dr. Bennett, to name just a few] are making us laugh and cry and it’s a reminder of what a moving piece this is,” he continued. Jeff went on to say that he expected BIG FISH to be the most beautiful musical in Milwaukee this theatre season.

First Stage is thrilled to present the new Theatre for Young Audiences adaptation of this larger-than-life Broadway musical! We hope to see you at the theater for BIG FISH, a show that will inspire us all to dream bigger! For ticket information for BIG FISH, please visit

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sneak peek: LUCHADORA set features original art by Bruce Guadalupe Middle School Students

First Stage’s upcoming world premiere LUCHADORA! is in part inspired by the Chinese legend of Mulan, and the strong women in playwright Alvaro Saar Rios’ family. Told through the prism of Mexican culture, this bold story is unlike anything First Stage has presented before. Integral to the story, is the set. Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank set about capturing the world of Lucha Libre, or Mexican masked wrestling, by incorporating the mask theme, iconic papel picado and of course a full-size wrestling ring. 

LUCHADORA! set model

Sarah and First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank, who directs LUCHADORA! collaborated with 120 Bruce Guadalupe Middle School students and their teachers, including art teacher Jacobo Lovo to create over 500 original pieces of papel picado. Instantly recognizable at religious, cultural and family celebrations in Mexico, papel picado, literally translated at “perforated paper,” is created by chiseling intricate designs in as many as 40 sheets of tissue paper at a time. This posed a bit of a conundrum for the LUCHADORA! set – due to its proximity to the theater lights, a thicker, flame retardant paper was used. Students created designs based on themes within the play including Lucha Libre masks, family, identity (a Luchador’s identity is closely guarded and never revealed), and honor. The papel picado created by students has been fully incorporated in to the set design, bursting off the stage, creating an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation of what’s to come!

Papel picado detail 
LUCHADORA! set at the Todd Wehr Theater

The discovery of a pink wrestling mask in her Nana Lupita’s briefcase sends Vanessa on an uncharted exploration into her Mexican American heritage, revealing family secrets that change her forever. Starting in 1960s small town Texas to present day Milwaukee, LUCHADORA! unmasks the significance of family traditions and the cultural identity that is shared by generations. For everyone ages 7 and up.

This world premiere play by Milwaukee-based playwright Alvaro Saar Rios opens April 10 and runs through April 26, 2015 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. Tickets and information available at or by phone at (414) 267-2961.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

First Stage partners with Luther Manor in multi-generational performance project

First Stage students and Luther Manor Terrace residents present an original theater production The Generation Project, the culmination of an eight-week collaborative program including writing, acting exercises and rehearsal.
Performances will take place on March 27, 2015 at the Lippold Faith and Education Center Lippold Faith and Education Center on the Luther Manor campus located at 4545 N. 92nd Street, Wauwatosa at 2 and 7 p.m. An encore performance will take place on March 28 at 4:00 p.m. at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut Street, Milwaukee.  Performances are free and open to the public. All are welcome to attend.

The play, which is as of yet untitled, is a completely collaborative effort by the two theater groups and was entirely conceived, written and performed by residents and students. First Stage Academy Director Jenn Adams is the director, and First Stage Teaching Artist Liz Faraglia is the Assistant Director. The Luther Manor residents participating include: Joyce Heinrich, Alice Humphrey, Rusty and Sharon Tym, Mary Henricks, Pat Tesh, and Pat Paskel. First Stage students are: Emily Kellner, Ananda Bluhm, Elizabeth Batory and Clare Zempel.

"Our objective is to tell vignettes of what we have experienced in our lifetime, from very young to very old," said resident Rusty Tym, who has been involved in a variety of theatrical productions at Luther Manor as an actor, writer and director. "None of us are quite sure what direction we're going, and it's interesting to be in that predicament."

“This is the pilot year of this collaboration with Luther Manor and we hope to work together on new works going forward,” said Academy Director Katie Cummings. “The opportunity for our student writers and actors to gain perspective from the residents is invaluable.” 

Learn more about this project. For more information about First Stage Theater Academy, click here

Monday, March 16, 2015

Your adventure awaits with First Stage’s 2015-16 Season!

Lucy (played by Catherine Gwidt) advises Jeff Frank
at First Stage's 2015-2016 Season Announcement event.
First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank and Associate Artistic Director John Maclay announced the 2015-2016 season to Family Package holders and donors at our season announcement event on Sunday, March 8. 

“First Stage’s commitment to creating innovative new work for young people and families is center stage once again in our 29th season,” said Frank.Adventures new and well-remembered will grace our stages this season - from James' journey across the ocean on a giant peach, to Ella from Frell's quest to cure her curse, to the heroic efforts of young Theodore and his giant friend Oliver to save their village.

World premiere titles include two First Steps plays, our interactive theater series geared toward theater-goers ages 3-6: SPOOKLEY THE SQUARE PUMPKIN The Musical October 10 – November 1, 2015 by Joe Troiano with music by Jeff Zahn; and JUST A LITTLE CRITTER MUSICAL February 13 – March 13, 2016 by First Stage Associate Artistic Director John Maclay with music by First Stage Theater Academy alum Brett Ryback. 

THE SNOW by Finegan Kruckmeyer, will debut at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater February 26 – March 20, 2016. “We’re thrilled to develop this piece with Oregon Children’s Theatre and Magik Theatre, the commission of our first international playwright,” said Frank. “Finegan Kruckemeyer is a master storyteller, and we are thrilled that THE SNOW will be part of The Wisconsin Cycle this year, honoring our own state’s frozen tundra and rich tradition of Germanic folk tales.” The final world premiere of the season ELLA ENCHANTED, co-commissioned by Adventure Theatre MTC (in Maryland) and First Stage, takes the stage April 1 – May 1, 2016.
A snippet from Little Critter gets laughs. Ben
Usatinsky, Anna Fitzsimmons and John Maclay.

Well-loved classic titles round out the season beginning with ROALD DAHL’S JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH October 16 – November 15, 2015, a musical adaptation of the literary classic. Cherished holiday classic A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS makes its First Stage debut November 27, 2015 – January 3, 2016. Join Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and the rest of the Peanuts gang as they discover the true meaning of Christmas.  January marks the return of one of the most popular plays in First Stage history with HOLES January 15 – February 14, 2016. “It’s a season of new works while remaining rooted in the traditions First Stage families have come to expect and look forward to each year,” said Frank. The season concludes with the return of the spunkiest mouse around in LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE May 13 – June 12, 2016. Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the book by Wisconsin author Kevin Henkes, this imaginative adaptation invites you into Lilly’s colorful world of imagination!

First Stage’s award-winning Young Company will perform two plays at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center in its 12th season. One of Shakespeare’s greatest romances ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL December 11 – 20, 2015, is a wild journey filled with comedy, love, bold plans, dirty tricks and brilliantly drawn characters. “These young people have earned a national reputation for performing the works of Shakespeare with clarity and skill well beyond their years,” said First Stage Associate Artistic Director and Director of the Young Company John Maclay.  “Our Shakespeare puts the focus where it should be: on the language and each character’s individual journey.” The Young Company then presents Jean Anouilh’s brilliant twentieth century adaptation of the classic Greek play, ANTIGONE April 8-17, 2016.

First Stage’s 2015-2016 season:

FAMILY SERIES at the Todd Wehr Theater:

October 16 – November 15, 2015

November 27, 2015 – January 3, 2016

January 15 – February 14, 2016

February 26 – March 20, 2016

April 1 – May 1, 2016

May 13 – June 12, 2016

FIRST STEPS SERIES at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center:

Spookley the Square Pumpkin
The Musical
October 10 – November 1, 2015

February 13 – March 13, 2016


December 11 – 20, 2015

April 8-17, 2016

Family Packages on sale April 1, 2015
Current Family Package holders can renew now for the 2015-2016 season. Family packages will go on sale to the general public on April 1, 2015. To find out more about how to create a family package, CLICK HERE. Please contact the First Stage Box Office with questions or assistance renewing your package.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Baby Bear's favorite things about GOLDILOCKS!

Jack Trettin as Baby Bear
We caught up with First Stage Theater Academy students and Young Performers MICHAEL LOOMANS and JACK TRETTIN about their alternating roles as Baby Bear in First Stage's GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS. 

Fourth-grader JACK TRETTIN is no stranger to the stage having appeared as Claude in First Stage's ANATOLE last season, he has also appeared as Smudge (2014) and Tiny Tim (2012, 2013) in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Here's what Jack had to say about his experience in GOLDILOCKS:

"My favorite part of rehearsal was learning all of the songs and practicing them. Putting the entire show together in just two weeks was the biggest challenge. In this show I learned that you need to express yourself and have fun with your part. Jenn [Adams] told me to have fun with all of the parts: singing, dancing and my lines. Performing is really fun and in this show we really get to interact with the audiences!" 
Michael Loomans as Baby Bear

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS is Michael's first show with First Stage. He shared his favorite things about being in the show: 

"My favorite thing about it is being with this group of people. Everyone wants me to do really well and they take extra time to help me. The hardest part was putting the song, lines and dance steps all together. I thought it would really be easy but it is very hard. You need to know where everyone is and put it all together. I have learned that acting isn’t easy but everyone at First Stage wants you to be the best you can be and everyone has been great to work with. I was so nervous before the show but as soon as I saw the little kids and how happy they were and how we could make them laugh, my nervousness went away. It is just the BEST feeling."

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS continues through Sunday, March 1, 2015 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Best availability are performances on Saturday, February 28 (11 a.m., 1 & 3:30 p.m.) and on Sunday, March 1 (11 a.m. & 1 p.m.). Tickets and information at

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Cast and crew of BIG NATE: THE MUSICAL are ready to rock your world!

First Stage’s 2014-2015 season continues with the madcap misadventures of sixth-grader Nate Wright in BIG NATE: THE MUSICAL, February 27 – March 29, 2015. The meet and greet took place this week and rehearsals are underway! 
Director Jeff Schaetzke sets the stage for BIG NATE.
BIG NATE: THE MUSICAL is based on the popular comic strip and book series by Lincoln Peirce with musical score by Chris Youstra. The story is outrageously funny, and has everything that makes the middle school world go round including an arch-nemesis, a love interest, struggles to avoid detention and a rockin’ battle of the bands!

First Stage favorites Molly Rhode (as Mrs. Czerwinski) who will also choreograph the show, Rana Roman (as Mrs. Godfrey), Rick Pendzich (as Coach John/Dad), Elyse Edelman (as Mrs. Hickson) along with Alex Campea (as Mr. Galvin) and Chris Gilbert (as Mr. Staples) make up the adult actor cast along with two alternating casts of 13 young performers.

Costume designer Jason Orlenko discuss designs for BIG NATE

“The young people are front and center in the story and in the show,” said Director and First Stage Company Manager Jeff Schaetzke. “The focus is on them during musical numbers and at turning points in the story.”

Costume Designer Jason Orlenko drew on the comic strip and book illustrations for inspiration, describing costume pieces for the battle of the bands scene as “an explosion of rhinestones and glitter.”

Set design by Kristin Ellert will feature video elements
The set is an interactive, colorful world for Nate and his friends to inhabit. “Scenic and Video Designer Kristin Ellert has created a fun, dynamic playground that’s a video game, a pinball machine, and a rock concert rolled into one,” said Jeff.

The meet and greet culminates in a air-rendition of "Livin' on a Prayer!"
For everyone ages 5 and up, BIG NATE: THE MUSICAL opens February 27. Tickets and information are available now.