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 Milwaukee Repertory Theater!

First Stage Alumni and Milwaukee native JJ Phillips makes his Milwaukee RepertoryTheater 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

Monday, April 14, 2014

First Stage Announces its 2014-2015 Season!

First Stage’s 28th season promises adventure, wonderful stories and even bigger dreams. We hope that you will join us to discover, imagine and explore this season!  

The season opens with the highly anticipated world premiere inspired by one of the most daring figures in literature in SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS, October 17 – November 15, 2014.  When Sherlock Holmes goes missing, the Baker Street Irregulars – a gang of street kids hired by Sherlock himself to help solve cases – accept the challenge of defending the Victorian city against the forces of evil.  “The Baker Street Irregulars wield their blend of brains and moxie, proving what they’ve learned from the great Sherlock Holmes,” said First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank.  “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.”  Inspired by the series of graphic novels by New York Times Bestselling Graphic Novelist Tony Lee (with art by critically acclaimed Dan Boultwood), this show features live music and action that promises to kick off our season with a bang! 

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER: THE MUSICAL returns from November 28 – December 28, 2014. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the beloved holiday classic makes its leap from the small screen to the stage once again.  “Rudolph has quickly become a First Stage holiday classic – and one of the best-selling shows in our history,” said Frank.  “After taking the show to Chicago last year, we’re bringing it back home to Milwaukee with new surprises including brand new orchestrations by Timothy Splain and a new and improved Bumble.”

The New Year begins with STARGIRL from January 16 – February 15, 2015.  Y York’s adaptation of the critically-acclaimed young adult novel by Jerry Spinelli, tells the story of first love, individualism, and the similarities that connect us all.  “Stargirl faces a choice – conform and take the path of least resistance or stay true to herself,” said First Stage Associate Artistic Director John Maclay.  “I’m not sure that there is a more important story to present to today’s young people.”

The season continues with the madcap misadventures of Nate Wright in BIG NATE:THE MUSICAL from February 27 – March 29, 2015.  Based on the popular comic strip and book series by Lincoln Peirce, this story will rock your world.  “Big Nate boldly springs from the page to the stage in this raucous and outrageously funny musical,” said Frank.  The story includes a bit of everything that makes the school world go round including an arch-nemesis, a love interest, struggles to avoid detention and a happening battle of the bands.

Spring marks the world premiere of LUCHADORA! April 10 – 26, 2015, the next play in the Wisconsin Cycle, First Stage’s new play development initiative honoring the local history and heritage of Wisconsin.  Written by Alvaro Saar Rios, LUCHADORA! explores questions of identity and honor, the meaning of family, and the world of wrestling.  “Audiences will love this story,” said Frank.  “It’s a journey of discovery told boldly and with humor that celebrates the rich culture of Mexico, and the secret world of the Lucha Libre wrestling tradition.” 

The Family Series at the Todd Wehr Theater concludes with a splash with a new Theatre for Young Audiences musical adaptation of BIG FISH May 8 – 31, 2015. Based on the celebrated novel by Daniel Wallace and the acclaimed film directed by Tim Burton, BIG FISH centers on Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who lives life to its fullest.  Broadway veteran Jeff Whiting (Bullets Over Broadway, Big Fish) returns to choreograph this enchanting musical.  “After working on the Broadway production, 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 that inspire all of us.” 

Next season First Stage’s First Steps Series presents THE THREE LITTLE PIGS November 1 – 23, 2014 and GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS January 31 – February 22, 2015 by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Mary Poppins and Honk!).  Introducing children ages 3 to 6 to theater in a fun, interactive setting, these performances take place at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

First Stage’s award-winning Young Company’s eleventh season includes ONCE UPON A MATTRESS December 12- 14, 2014 – a beloved and side-splitting American musical comedy based on the story of The Princess and the Pea; Thorton Wilder’s masterpiece OUR TOWN March 13- 15, 2015; and finally the Young Company will collaborate with professional Shakespearean actors to produce HAMLET May 15 – 17, 2015.  

First Stage Family Packages for our exciting 28th season are available online now!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

LeRoy Butler helps celebrate opening weekend of CRASH!

First Stage's CRASH opens Friday, March 28!

This insightful play by Y York, based on the popular young adult novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli, examines the complex issue of bullying, relationships and standing up for what is right.

We're excited to announce that Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler and originator of the Lambeau Leap will join us for an extended talkback on Sunday, March 30 immediately following the 3:30 p.m. performance.  LeRoy will share his personal experiences with bullying and answer questions from the audience.  His book The LeRoy Butler Story…from Wheelchair to Lambeau Leap will be available for purchase and LeRoy will be onhand to sign copies. ($5 from each book sale will be donated back to First Stage)  This one-time event is included with tickets to the 3:30 p.m. performance of CRASH on Sunday, March 30.

TICKETS are still available for ALL performances of CRASH.  Opening weekend performances will be held on Friday, March 28 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, March 29 at 7:00 p.m.; and Sunday, March 30 at 1 & 3:30 p.m.

Tickets start at $14.  Purchase your tickets online or through the Marcus Center Box Office at (414) 273-7206 or in person at 929 N. Water Street, Milwaukee.

This event is made possible in part by Steelwind Industries.

Crash Coogan seems to have it all – good grades, athleticism, popular friends. But what he can’t seem to get is the attention of his preoccupied father and the new girl in town, Jane. Despite being the target of Crash’s bullying, Penn Webb, his unconventional neighbor, enjoys a happy life with a pet turtle, strong family support, and even Jane’s friendship. Things suddenly change for Crash when his grandfather suffers a stroke, and he realizes finishing first isn’t the most important thing.  For everyone ages 8 and up. 

Read more about CRASH in this preview by

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Guest Artists take over Academy Classes

Over the last couple weeks, First Stage Academy classes have gotten some extra help from seasoned professionals, from TV actors and Broadway stars to local stars. 

The Young Company class was recently treated to some audition coaching from Breaking Bad star Betsy Brant. She helped them with audition monologues and participated in a Q&A about working as a professional actor and answered their questions about acting in television and film.

"Betsy was incredibly generous with our students and was repeatedly complimentary of their work,” said First Stage Associate Artistic Director and Director of the Young Company John Maclay. “Our faculty is made up of actors who currently spend their lives on stage in the Midwest so it was great to get that first hand perspective of life in television and film in L.A. and New York. She is also just very smart, funny, kind and real so it was quite a treat to have her visit."
Betsy Brant (center) gets goofy with Young Company
Young Company was also visited by Broadway performer Geoffrey Goldberg. He did a dance workshop with Young Company as part of auditions for the Open Jar Institute program in NYC. Goldberg is a NYC-based theater artist, performer, choreographer, writer, director and educator. He has performed in MARY POPPINS on Broadway as well as national and regional productions of MARY POPPINS, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, FOREVER PLAID, GREASE, ON THE TOWN and more.

"He is a spectacular dancer himself and he really, I thought, gave an indication as to what skills are required in a big time professional dance audition,” said John Maclay.

Young Company was not the only class that has received some advice from guest artists. The Advanced Musical Theater class was visited by MilwaukeeRep Associate Artist Angela Iannone, IN THE HEIGHTS cast member Christina Aranda, and Danceworks artists Tina Wozniak and Amy Brinkman.

Christina Aranda with the 
Advanced Musical Theater Class
Angela taught a Laban workshop to help the students figure out how to use movement to help them on stage and with their characters.

“Angela taught us that a performer never has any excuse to lose their balance on stage. Ever! You always have to know where your body and your balance is and you have to be in control of it,” said Rachel T., one of the academy students. “It was definitely helpful advice for the rest of my life and career.”

Christina also helped the students by hosting a Finding Character workshop. She has been playing Abuela Claudia in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of IN THE HEIGHTS. Many students have seen the production and were very excited to meet and work with her.

“Her acting was amazing and I was so excited to see what she had to teach us. She taught us many exercises. She gave us a piece of music and with a partner we had to come up with what each sentence meant,” said Academy Student Meaghan B.

Danceworks' Amy Brinkman with the
Advanced Musical Theater Class
The Academy has also been partnering with Danceworks to continue to work on jazz, tap and musical theatre dance to help further the student’s skills and give them advice for future performances.

Camara S. was one of the students who enjoyed these guests. “Appreciate your passion and what you have; know what you want. I learned all this wonderful and helpful information that I know for a fact will help me in the near future.”
For more information about the Young Company, Advanced Musical Theater or other academy classes, please visit

Friday, February 28, 2014

Who's who in ANATOLE?

by Amanda Corazzi 

While First Stage’s production of ANATOLE might be a world premiere musical, many members of the cast are no strangers to First Stage or the Milwaukee theater scene! Let's meet the cast! 

Molly has been a part of First Stage since starting academy classes as a child. She went on to perform in five productions as a young performer, seven productions as an adult and directed MISS NELSON IS MISSING. She has performed and directed shows all over the country, last show directing Skylight’s LES MISERABLES. She is honored to be back working at First Stage.

ANATOLE- Gerry Neugent
After playing two cats, Gerry is thrilled to be able to play the lead mouse hero. He returns to First Stage after appearing previously as Bilbo Baggins in THE HOBBIT, The Cat in the Hat in SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL and Chester the Cat in BUNNICULA. He is also a regular performer at the Milwaukee Rep.

Neugent and Pendzich as "Anatole" and  "Gaston"
Photo by Paul Ruffolo
GASTON- Rick Pendzich
Rick was last seen at First Stage in JUNIE B. JONES AND A LITTLE MONKEY BUSINESS as The Boss of the School, and SEUSSICAL as Horton. Rick has worked with many of Milwaukee’s theaters including Skylight Opera Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Milwaukee Shakespeare, In Tandem Theatre and American Players Theatre. 

Drew Drhel as "Duval"
Photo by Paul Ruffolo
DUVAL- Drew Brhel
Karen Estrada as "Charlemange"
Photo by Paul Ruffolo
Drew returns to First Stage playing the owner of the cheese factory. He has appeared with First Stage last season as Yukon Cornelius in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. No stranger to Milwaukee audiences, Drew has appeared over the past thirty years with just about every theatre in town.

Karen is very excited to be performing in ANATOLE as Anatole’s wife and the cat. She was last seen on the Todd Wehr Stage in PINKALICIOUS, RUDOLPH and SEUSSICAL and previous to that in AESOP'S FABLES and GIGGLE, GIGGLE, QUACK with First Stage's First Steps series at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.  

NEWBIES- Zach Thomas (Francois) and Kaylee Annable (Bouvier) may be making their First Stage debut in ANATOLE, but they are not new to the Milwaukee Stage. They were both most recently in the Skylight Music Theatre’s production of LES MISERABLES with some of their ANATOLE cast mates.
Swiss Cast Young Performers with Neugent
Photo by Paul Ruffolo 

The adult cast are not the only ones returning back to First Stage!

Returning Young Performers:

Anna Fitzsimmons (Cheddar Cast)
First Stage show: Five Little Monkey
Claire Holtebeck (Cheddar Cast)
First Stage show: Gathering Blue
Henry Lynch (Cheddar Cast)
First Stage show: Jackie and Me
Riley Halpern (Swiss Cast)
            First Stage Show: Five Little Monkeys
Luke Brotherhood (Swiss Cast)
           First Stage shows: Jackie and Me; The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (2009)
Lindsay Nelsen (Swiss Cast)
First Stage show: Mole Hills Stories
Thomas Mazza (Swiss Cast)
First Stage shows: Neverending Story; Diary of a Worm; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Grace Becker (Swiss Cast)
First Stage show: Alexander and the Terrible Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day
Casey Kitzmann (Swiss Cast)
First Stage shows: Big the Musical; Shrek the Musical

Cheddar Cast- Young Performers
Photo by Paul Ruffolo

Congrats to the young performers who are making their First Stage Debut! 

Cheddar Cast- Benjamin Usatinsky, Sydney Johnson, Nathan Desing, Harry Frey, Noa Rubnitz, George Marn
Swiss Cast- Jack Trettin, Harper Navin, Jack Burns 

See the cast in ANATOLE running through March 16 at the Todd Wehr Theater. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

First Stage Young Company presents: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD

We recently sat down with Director Tommy Novak and Young Company student Conlan Ledwith to talk about the Young Company’s upcoming production SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD.

Tell me what you like about this play:TN:  It’s so unique!  It’s not a linear plot, it’s about moments and snapshots of people’s lives where they have to take a step forward, but they don’t know what’s ahead.

Sounds a lot like the First Stage cheer, “I take risks!  I conquer my fears!”
TN:  Absolutely, whatever crossroad or moment we are at in our lives, at any age, there should be support through that.  At the center of the play’s theme is the idea of staying open to listening and engaging with others and knowing that we are valuable.

CL:  The play encourages us to accept and understand the reasons why people do things.  Empathizing and understanding…  we don’t do enough of that… and we should.

Director Tommy Novak and cast of Songs for a New World

I had the privilege of sitting in on some of your first rehearsal, you all sounded amazing.  What are the challenges of this show?
CL:  I like the extremely inventive storytelling it takes to make each moment truthful even though the play doesn’t follow a single story.  And the extreme challenge of the music.

TN:  The play is a song cycle, meaning it is a series of songs that come together as a show.  It is so difficult.  Each song is its own story and I believe it will be a great challenge to look into the text and music for the clues of something so abstract.

Do you have any favorite songs?
TN:  I do!  “Christmas Lullaby” give you bits and pieces of a story that is really engaging.  There is a song near the beginning of the play where the ensemble pleas for help, we don’t know where we are going or what’s ahead, it’s very exciting.  And then “Hear My Song” toward the end encompasses everything!

Anything else you want to say about the play?
TN:  It’s really wonderful, contemporary, and a huge challenge.  I think it will be fun for the performers to take a step outside of traditional musical theater styles.  Plus, it reminds us that everyone has a story to tell and those stories should be heard. 

SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD runs March 14-16 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.  Tickets are $12.  Tickets may be purchased ONLINE HERE or through the First Stage Box Office at (414) 267-2961.

About First Stage Young Company
Young Company is First Stage Theater Academy’s award-winning training program for our most advanced young actors.  These emerging artists, training with some of Milwaukee's top professional actors, have developed a reputation for engaging, inspiring work.  Revenue from these high-level performances helps ensure opportunities for all students who wish to participate in our Theater Academy.  Learn more about the Young Company.