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.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Milwaukee musician John Nicholson works with young performers on SHERLOCK HOLMES score

Susan and John Nicholson at the Milwaukee Youth Art Center
First Stage’s highly anticipated season opener SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS, a world premiere play by Eric Coble, is an edgy adaptation of the graphic novel series by New York Times Bestselling Graphic Novelist Tony Lee with art by critically acclaimed Dan Boultwood.  “It’s a bold, fast-paced adventure with plenty of action including a battle under the streets of London, and a chase on top of a moving train,” said First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank. A musical soundscape created by noted Milwaukee musician John Nicholson along with 3-5 young performers, will propel the action sequences. 

John Nicholson recently held a workshop and information session at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center for string players (guitar, ukulele, mandolin, fiddle and banjo) and percussionists ages 8-17.  Young musicians interested in the project were introduced to the music, described as being inspired by Mumford and Sons and infused with the energy of Stomp, and learned about the demands of performing in a live theater show.  These young people will be active storytellers with stage presence, portraying London street urchins while powering the action through live music.

Two talented high school guitarists enjoying the workshop

Stay tuned for more information about this exciting world premiere, the music of John Nicholson and First Stage’s 2014/2015 season. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Next Season preview: LUCHADORA!

Alvaro Saar Rios
By Erica Davis
Alvaro Saar Rios’ new original work LUCHADORA! was recently selected as part of Teatro Vivo’s fourth annual Austin Latino New Play Festival.  The three-night event brought together playwrights and audience members to explore cross-cultural topics, modern dilemmas and timeless themes and traditions with Latino roots.  In this interview Rios shares his impressions of the festival and reveals more about the inspiration behind LUCHADORA!

As a playwright, what was it like to be part of this festival?
I've been part of a few festivals across the country and I have to say that being a part of the Austin Latino New Play Festival was like... and I hate to be cliche but that's the best I can come up with right now... it was like a dream come true.  Teatro Vivo provided me with a dramaturg.  Her name was Brianna Figueroa and she was extremely smart.  I've never actually worked with a dramaturg in my life and yet now that I have, I am not sure I can ever work without one.  Throughout the process, she constantly provided me with questions and insights that definitely helped me when it came to rewriting the play. Overall, it was great to be part of something that purely focuses on the words I put on the page.  As a playwright, that's very important.

How would you describe the Austin Latino theater community?  How does it compare to Milwaukee?
The word I would use to describe the community that attended the Austin Latino New Play festival is "supportive."  They knew that what they were going to see/hear wasn't fully developed yet.  They saw past the imperfections (lots of them) and put their attention towards the play has a whole.  Because of this, it also  reminded me of the theater community we have here in Milwaukee.  I've attended staged readings of new work (mine as well as others) and the community never fails to support new work by attending and asking lots of questions.

LUCHADORA! Illustration by Olive Young, MIAD
The Austin Latino New Play Festival selects plays that, "push and challenge the theatric envelope for audience members."  How does LUCHADORA! push and challenge the envelope?  
LUCHADORA! is set in a world that traditionally isn't seen on the American stage.  It's a play that mixes the uncommon with the familiar. It's a story about family, something that I hope everyone can identify with, and yet it is set in the secretive world of lucha libre aka Mexican wrestling.

What struck you about the audience discussions following the reading of LUCHADORA!?  What initially struck me was the audience itself.  There were at least 100 people in the audience. I've had various staged readings of my work and have never had 100 people there.  It was quite amazing.  In terms of the talk-back discussion, the audience was great.  They knew that their answers and questions were vital to the development of my play.  After the talk-back session, one audience member came up to me and said, "I don't usually see plays but I would definitely see your play!" This response meant a lot to me because I am always trying to figure out how my plays can reach theatre lovers as well non-traditional audience members. 

LUCHADORA! deals with family traditions.  How did your own traditions inspire the play?
When I was a kid, I would watch wrestling a lot.  On TV as well as live at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston.  Sometimes, if my grandmother was visiting, she would watch it with me.  At times, I think she enjoyed it more than I did.  This was part of the impetus of LUCHADORA!  I wondered.  Why did my grandma like wrestling so much?  I never got a chance to ask her so, being a storyteller, I came up with my own reasons.  What if she had a secret?  What if she actually used to wrestle?  It may seem far-fetched but if you think about it, grandparents in general have all kinds of fascinating secrets.  Some get shared.  Some don't.

What else should audiences know about LUCHADORA!?
I am very grateful for this opportunity that Jeff Frank and First Stage have provided for me as part of the Wisconsin Cycle.  I look forward to rewriting the play over the summer and making sure I tell the story I set out to tell.

LUCHADORA! premieres as part of First Stage's 2014-2015 season – April 10-26, 2015.  Reservations for school groups, private groups and Family Packages are available now.  Visit for more information. 

To learn more about Austin Latino New Play Festival, Click here.   

Friday, May 9, 2014

Finding inspiration in Nancy Drew

Madison Penzkover as "Nancy"
By Amanda Corazzi 

The world’s best teen detective, Nancy Drew has been solving mysteries and inspiring young girls since 1930. Over the last 80 years, this timeless character has inspired over 175 books, t.v. series and movies and made her way to the Todd Wehr Theater in NANCY DREW AND HER BIGGEST CASE EVER.  How does one play one of literature’s greatest sleuths on stage? That task falls to Madison Penzkover and Amanda Desimowich. They both love what Nancy represents to everyone.

“My favorite thing about Nancy Drew is her independence,” said Madison. “She doesn't sit back and let other people figure things out, as a young woman might be expected to do during the time period. If she sees a problem, she doesn't hesitate to try to fix it.”

Amanda Desimowich as Nancy(center) and
Laura Mesrobian (Bess) and Taylor Vraney (George)
Amanda agrees. “I love Nancy’s determination and her drive throughout the whole show. She amazes me when she finds the best way out of a bad situation (which is pretty much always). She’s flawless, what can I say!!”

Madison (center) with Abbi Minessale (Bess)
and Elizabeth Robbins (George)
In the Benson Cast, Nancy is played by Amanda, an Ozaukee High School senior. NANCY DREW will be her fourth production with First Stage after appearing in U:BUG:ME, BIG THE MUSICAL, DIARY OF A WORM, A SPIDER AND A FLY. Amanda plans on attending Purdue University to study public relations in the fall. Madison, a homeschooled sophomore, plays Nancy in the Wirt Cast.  She has also appeared First Stage’s productions TO THE PROMISED LAND and as Veruca in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.  Outside the theater, she enjoys baking, reading cosplaying and binge-watching Netflix. 

NANCY DREW AND HER BIGGEST CASE EVER is First Stage’s 50th world premiere and was written by Artistic Director Jeff Frank and Associate Artistic Director John Maclay. They looked at over 30 different Nancy Drew novels to style the story, dialogue and characters after. They were excited to bring such a strong female character and story to life.

Amanda (right) 
“I’m not big on the idea that a play should have a moral,” Jeff says, “[but] I hope that all our audience members, boys and girls alike, walk away with the realization that you don’t need special powers to be a super hero – and that young women can accomplish anything they set their minds to.”

John and Jeff were also excited to share the characters and stories with the cast, many who were not familiar. Amanda and Madison quickly became fans and felt inspired by the young, teenaged sleuth.  

“Nancy has inspired me to never give up and to always believe the best in people,” said Amanda.  “It’s awesome to portray her. I’m like Nancy when it comes to my guy priorities, my reading habits and my desire to learn.”  

Madison feels the same way but loves how this production has helped her learn about characterization, aspects of theater, and herself. “I think Nancy and I are similar in our urge to help the world, though Nancy has a much more hands-on approach than I do.  Nancy is definitely better at jiu-jitsu than I am though!”

NANCY DREW AND HER BIGGEST CASE EVER runs through June 2. For more information, please visit

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Romeo, Romeo... wherefore art thou, Romeo?

This May, First Stage’s Young Company – the Theater Academy’s collegiate level acting program for high school students – is presenting its first professionally staged production of a Shakespearean masterpiece, ROMEO AND JULIET.

ROMEO AND JULIET will feature an alternating cast of 24 Young Company performers in the play’s lead roles, including Romeo and Juliet, alongside 5 professional actors. Through this multi-generational production, First Stage will provide a unique Shakespearean performance experience for our young actors and allow teen audiences to connect more closely with the characters onstage.

"This production is the culmination of years of advanced classical training with our award-winning teen classical performers and professional actors,” said Associate Artistic/Young Company Director John Maclay.

To engage more schools and students, Maclay edited Shakespeare’s script to 75 minutes, focusing on material that was critical to the plot such as the relationship between Romeo and Juliet and the perpetuating violence in the street.  By reducing the runtime, First Stage will be able to offer two school performances per day, doubling the number of local students who can experience the play.  In addition to performances, First Stage aims to reach 9,600 middle and high school students through interactive pre- and post-show workshops led by First Stage teaching artists.

“This opportunity perfectly aligns with First Stage’s continued effort to broaden our audience by reaching even more middle and high school aged students,” said First Stage Education Director Julia Magnasco. “We are thrilled to be able to introduce Shakespeare to an entirely new audience through this initiative.” 

First Stage’s ROMEO AND JULIET was chosen to participate in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Shakespeare in American Communities: Shakespeare for a New Generation.  This national grant program supports Shakespeare performances and educational activities for middle and high school students around the country. Out of the 40 recipients, First Stage was the only children’s theater to receive this prestigious award.

First Stage invites everyone 13 and up to attend the Young Company’s production of ROMEO AND JULIET. Public performances are May 16-17, 2014 at 7 p.m. at the Rosa Parks Auditorium at Golda Meir School. Tickets are available at or (414) 267-2961.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Alumni spotlight: JJ Phillips

It’s a bird, It’s a plane…  It’s First Stage alumni JJ Phillips on stage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater!

First Stage Alumni and Milwaukee native JJ Phillips makes his Milwaukee Repertory Theater debut as Superman in The History of Invulnerability.  JJ has spent the last few years working in and around Chicago and has appeared in The North China Lover, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Lookingglass Theatre Company, Jeff Award Nominee - Best Supporting Actor in a Play); Fat Pig and Leveling Up (Steppenwolf Theatre Company) and Punk Rock (Griffin Theatre Company, Jeff Award – Best Ensemble).  He studied at The School at Steppenwolf and under Daniel Cantor at Northwestern University.

When were you involved with First Stage and how long were you a student/young performer?

I began taking classes at First Stage in 1995, when I was 5 years old.  I remained involved and enrolled with First Stage for over a decade, before eventually turning my focus to theater classes and productions at Nicolet High School.  During my time with First Stage, I also had the great pleasure of performing in 3 different productions as a Young Performer:  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (as Claude Herdman) in 2000; Treasure Island (as Jim Hawkins) in 2002; and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (as Peter) in 2003.  All of these experiences were invaluable to me, and I still carry them with me on every project I have the pleasure to work on.

What is a favorite First Stage memory?
I still vividly remember the closing night performance of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  In the play, the three youngest Herdman boys (or Wisemen) steal a Twinkie from a child in their class that they like to bully.  On closing night, we three wiseguys decided to add our own special little ending to the story, so we stole the last Twinkie from the props table to give back to the boy in our final scene with him.  Stage Management found out, and told us we could not use the prop for the scene as they didn’t want us to change any of the staging, dialogue, etc.  So instead, we ran to our dressing room to round up all of our loose change, brought it out into the scene, gave it to the boy and said, ‘Here, go buy yourself a Twinkie.’  We got a bit of a scolding, but the audience loved it and the look on the boy’s face as we dropped over $3 in change into his hand was priceless.  Plus, they brought me back to do two more shows after that, so it all worked out in the long run.
JJ Philips and Bob Amaral in Milwaukee  Repertory Theater’s 
The History of Invulnerability. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

How has First Stage prepared you for your current career?

The First Stage Academy motto “life skills through stage skills”couldn’t be more accurate.  Not only do I use the fundamentals every day on stage, in rehearsal, or at auditions, but I also learned to trust my creative impulses and imagination from a very early age, which has carried me throughout my career.  In addition to the vast amount of acting acumen I gained from First Stage, I also learned a lot about myself, and who I want to be not only as an actor, but as a friend, son, and even, at times, mentor.  It allowed a shy, awkward kid the opportunity to explore, helping me find myself and my confidence at a young age, which has given me the ability to play a wide variety of roles, from a U.S. Marine, to a nerdy fly on the wall, to Superman.

What has been most exciting about coming back to Milwaukee to perform at The Rep?
The most thrilling element is returning to a city for which I have a deep passion, performing on a stage I grew up idolizing, and even getting to meet and work with some of my idols as well.  I take great pride in being from Milwaukee, and always have my raggedy Brewers hat on hand wherever I travel, to remind myself, and others, where I come from.  Being able to return to my home and perform in front of members of the community I grew up in (sometimes over 1,400 in a single day!) is a true blessing, and I’ve cherished it immensely.

What drew you to the role of Superman in The History of Invulnerability?
When I first read the script, I was floored.  It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and I wanted desperately to work on the piece.  It possesses so many elements of some of my favorite theater, from The Glass Menagerie to A Christmas Carol, and yet there is something thoroughly unique to the style of story-telling, with its use of comic book punch matched by equal levels of heart and realism.  Getting to play a type of Superman that had never been seen before was just icing on the cake.

Did you have a favorite superhero as a kid? Who is your favorite superhero?
Ironically, I hated Superman growing up.  I thought he was boring, as is mentioned in the play, and was always annoyed that he was impervious to almost everything.  Getting to step into the tights has definitely changed my opinion; however Batman and Spiderman will forever be my favorite superheroes, simply because they’ve always possessed more vulnerability.

What else you’d like to say to current First Stage Academy Students and Alumni?

I would just love to encourage all those students taking classes to continue to explore your dreams, and take advantage of all of the wonderful resources you have at First Stage.  None of my dreams would have become a reality if it weren’t for the numerous people in my life who have extended a helping hand along the way, and many of those people in my life have been my teachers and peers like the ones I met at First Stage.  And for Alums, always remember and cherish the memories that First Stage gave you, and reach out to them whenever you can; they’ve fostered quite the rag-tag family that now extends across the country, and even the world, and I will forever be grateful for all of the wonderful stories I have from my time at this amazing institution.

Learn more about The History of Invulnerability now through May 4 at The Rep.  If you go, keep your eyes out for First Stage alumni Elyse Edelman, and current students/Young Performers Max Pink, John Brotherhood and Luke Brotherhood.  The History of Invulnerability is recommended for ages 16 and up.

Volunteers gear up for the UPAF Ride for the Arts

The United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) is ready to kick off their annual UPAF Ride for the Arts. This ride is considered one of the nation’s largest one-day recreational bike rides and has raised over $8 million dollars to support over 30 art organizations in the region.

First Stage is proud to receive funding from this organization every year and to have two very enthusiastic volunteers to help out.

Heather Crouse and Nicole Weeks are preparing to embark on their third year as Downtown Sentry Co-Captains for the UPAF Ride for the Arts.  They volunteer countless hours leading up to the Ride.  Heather is a proud Academy alum and proud parent of Megan Grizzle, a current Academy Student and Young Performer. Nicole is the proud parent of current Young Company Student Corwin and Academy alum Fiona, both also former Young Performers.
(From left to right) Nicole Weeks, First Stage Managing
Director Betsy Corry, and Heather Crouse. 

Why is First Stage important to you and why are you involved?
Nicole: Over the past 16 years, I have seen the impact that being involved with First Stage has on students. The relationships and attitudes at First Stage nurture the attributes that help young people develop into kind, respectful, confident and accepting adults. I’ve been blessed to have met so many wonderful teachers and students over the years who represent this in every way. I want to do all I can to be sure more people like that get sent out into the world!

Heather: It’s important to me as a parent to give back to an organization that is giving my daughter and her friends an incredible education.  I believe in First Stage because I truly see it provide a place for tomorrow’s future to be themselves without judgment from their peers.  I know what involvement in the arts can do for children and it’s important to me to actively support that mission.

Why are you involved as a volunteer with the Ride?
Nicole: It is an honor to represent First Stage and to be a part of the relationship with UPAF. I love interacting with people who treasure every aspect of the performing arts – it’s a wonderful common theme to have with more than 7,000 people gathered in one place! (Plus, Heather’s crazy antics make it even more fun!)

Heather: Because I’d be hard pressed to pedal out 5 miles on a bike!  Seriously though, I think supporting the arts as a whole in the greater Milwaukee community is important.  I love being able to represent First Stage, talk about our mission to people who are not familiar, and meet other people who love the arts as much as I do.

What will your waist-wear look like this year?
Sign up to ride or volunteer, and you shall see! 

Volunteers: Patrick Schley, Dan Schley, Heather Crouse,
 Megan Grizzle, Nicole Weeks

Register to join the First Stage team by April 30th at and choose “I am an individual signing up as a member of a team,” then selecting Team “First Stage” from the menu, using the password Teamfs.

For volunteer opportunities, check out our volunteer page on our website or visit the UPAF volunteer page to sign up directly. Make sure to mention "First Stage" as a Member/Affiliate Group!

Thank you for supporting First Stage! See you June 1st