Monday, October 3, 2016

Connecting Children's Theater's Across the Country

By Jennifer Hubbartt       
Theater is a collaborative art. Playwrights, directors, actors, choreographers, scenic designers, costumers, lighting and sound designers, and more need to come together to tell a story effectively and with artistic excellence. Theaters in different parts of the country will often join forces to develop a script, crafting a new tale to tell to a wider range of audiences.

Part of the cast of Gathering Blue which was a collaboration with OCT. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

First Stage has grown to become a national leader in new play development for Theater for Young Audiences, in part by forging national partnerships with other theaters to commission work. “Collaborating with other theaters puts more smart people together to ensure that we create an extraordinary piece of art to share with even more audiences,” said Jeff Frank, First Stage artistic director. 

Oregon Children’s Theater (OCT) has become a frequent collaborative partner of First Stage’s over the last decade. In this process, Frank and Stan Foote, OCT artistic director, will commission a playwright to develop a script for a new story they want to bring to stage. Over the course of months or even years, the artistic directors work with the playwright to develop the script that meets their collective vision for the play. Once a full draft of the play is complete, each theater will conduct workshops in their own communities, providing feedback to one another and shaping the script to the final version that is seen on stage today.
“First Stage and Oregon Children’s Theater are both committed to age-appropriate casting and to developing plays that celebrate the young person's point of view,” said Frank. “Stan and I both feed off each other's energy, so it just makes sense to work together on projects when we are able,” Frank continued. “As we develop a script collaboratively, we may not always agree on every point, but the productions are always the better for our discussions about each of those points.” 

Gossamer was the first collaboration between OCT and First Stage. Photo by Mark Frohna.

GOOSEBUMPS THE MUSICAL: PHANTOM OF THE AUDITORIUM marks the third co-commission between First Stage and OCT, who opens their simultaneous world premiere on October 22. The two theaters also collaborated on the new play development of GOSSAMER (2008-2009 season), Lois Lowry’s own stage adaptation of her award-winning novel, and GATHERING BLUE (2012-2013 season), another Lowry novel adapted by Eric Coble.

“Collaborating on new works with Jeff, John (Maclay, First Stage associate artistic director) and First Stage over the last 10 years has been so valuable,” said Foote. “Our shared values, humor, and humanity unite us.” 

First Stage’s 30th anniversary season continues with four more world premiere plays, including ROBIN HOOD, also written by Maclay and Joe Foust; and WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE, written and directed by First Stage lead teacher and dramaturge Sheri Williams Pannell. The First Stage Foundry, our latest new play development initiative, will launch with our first new play reading on December 13. More details on the rest of our season are available at

Continue today’s adventure all season long! If you don’t already have a First Stage Family Package, find a volunteer in the lobby to learn how you can upgrade today’s tickets and save.

A note from Director Niffer Clarke: Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium

Niffer Clarke
In 1992, R.L. Stine released his first novel in the Goosebumps series, a series which quickly went on to sell over 350 million books worldwide in 32 languages. In fact, it was named the world’s bestselling book series of all time in the 2003 Guinness Book of World Records. Stine’s intention with the books is "to give a chill and a laugh at the same time.”

The basic plot framework of the books is children facing frightening situations and using their own wit and imagination to escape them. The stuff that great children's theater is made of! Lucky for us, John Maclay and Danny Abosch thought so and have brought us Goosebumps The Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium. This book, #24 in the series, lends itself perfectly to becoming a musical. A thrilling musical about putting on a scary show in a haunted school.

It is a story filled with the unexplainable and mysterious - secret passageways, unaccountable mischief, shadowy suspects, ghost stories. It takes place in a setting familiar to all of us - a middle school auditorium. There are plenty of recognizable characters - that drama teacher we all had, the suspicious-looking janitor, the mean girl, the curious new kid, the practical joker, the brave girl who is like totally into creepy stuff.

Frighteningly fun! 

Now, for those of us who didn’t necessarily grow up reading Goosebumps (because we’re just that old, OK?), I like to think of it as Scooby Doo with a little Stephen King or Neil Gaiman mild sauce on the side! It is my hope that you will be kept on the edge of your seats, watching these delightfully meddling kids bravely and creatively solve the mystery unfolding in this auditorium! 

The Goosebumps books have frightened generations of kids for decades. And with Goosebumps The Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium, it promises to continue for generations to come!
Niffer Clarke

GOOSEBUMPS THE MUSICAL: PHANTOM OF THE AUDITORIUM opens Friday, October 14 and runs through November 13 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The making of a Phantom

Danielle Jordan, First Stage's costume crafts artisan gives us a behind the scenes look at the making of the Phantom mask for Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium.

Costume designer Misti Bradford designed the masks to enhance the Phantom’s spook-factor – and to produce real goosebumps in the audience! The masks were engineered to be as comfortable and functional as possible, maximizing the performer’s sight lines yet obstructing movement, vocalization and breathing as little as possible. 

Unpainted foam base, chosen for its weightless quality

Masks in-process

Masks ready to be lined with thermoplastic

Thermoplastic linings complete!

Four identical masks were created to support
 the "magic of theater" during the show.

The world premiere of Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium opens October 14 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater. Tickets and information are available at

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Teaching Apprentices Share the Magic of Theater with a New Generation of Artists

Originally published by UPAF - What Your Dollar Does

For the young adults working as Teaching Apprentices at First Stage's Theater Academy, acting and performing have given confidence, creativity and purpose to their lives. Now they work to share the gifts bestowed by theater with a new crop of young performers. 

Teaching life skills through stage skills, FirstStage Theater Academy is the nation's largest high-impact theater training program for young people. It's a place where young people can trust others, see that it's OK to be themselves, and learn to overcome the fear of failure by taking risks in a completely supportive environment.

To celebrate
Arts In Education Week (Sept. 11-16), we spoke with Joey Chelius, who worked as a Teaching Apprentice at the Theater Academy this summer. Joey has been hooked on theater since he first discovered it as a child, and is now pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting at UW-Stevens Point. 

Q: What brought you to First Stage?

A: I attended First Stage as a kid and returned to First Stage this summer by chance. Last summer, I was hired to direct a children's production of 101 Dalmatians for a local church. I told a friend, who happens to be the Assistant Headmaster at First Stage, about my amazing experience with the kids. When she saw how emotional I got talking about it, she said, "You have to apply for a First Stage Teaching Apprenticeship. You'll love it." That turned out to be the perfect advice.
Q: What was it about teaching that made you want to do it again?A: Sometimes kids are afraid to be creative because they might be judged for going outside the box. If I can show kids that it's awesome to be passionate and creative and follow what you love regardless of what others think, why wouldn't I do that? 

Q: What was this summer like for you?
A: Every day at the Theater Academy was better than the previous one. I left every day feeling like I had learned more from the kids than they learned from me, so it was a really humbling summer. Every kid had an amazing breakthrough moment at one point or another.
Q: What does arts education mean to you?
It sounds overly dramatic to say that it saved my life, but it really did. I was picked on a lot as a kid and it was rough. I never would have gotten through it if I hadn't learned to manage my emotions through theater. I learned how to channel my emotions into something that I love instead of something negative. My music education and my theater education got me through the hardest parts of my life.
Q: What are your hopes for your students?
We all have something to work towards in life, and that transcends the Theater Academy. The empathy that you learn from theater can take you a long way. If there's one thing I hope my students take away from me, it's that they use what they've learned to be a light for someone else.  

Thank you for supporting UPAF and Milwaukee's performing arts groups - including First Stage!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Changing the World With Kate Harms

By A.J. Magoon

Kate Harms is certainly well known at First Stage. As she walks down the halls of the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, kids stop to wave at her. Adults hug her and make sure to catch up on her summer. They smile and she smiles right back, radiating positive energy.

The fact that Kate is able to walk around MYAC, a place where she has spent so much time attending classes, interning, and rehearsing for shows, is, on the surface, miraculous. Some would say Kate is “one in a million.” Kate would say she hates that term.

As Kate puts it, “the bottom line is that I have a G protein mutation deficiency at the cellular level that has not been documented before … my health is like a giant game of whack-a-mole.” Things were made even worse for Kate in 2012 when, at the age of 14, “doctors discovered a pseudo-tumor” in Kate’s head. This “short circuit” left Kate wheelchair bound for a period and “doctors told me I could never do what I had done before.”

However, after encouragement from doctors to “spend some time each day doing something [she] loved,” Kate returned to First Stage, where she’d taken a summer class in Kindergarten. “First Stage welcomed me back with open arms, cheering me along the way,” says Kate. “They just cared that I was there.”

Kate continued to return to First Stage year after year – she participated in classes and shows, interned, and recently traveled with UPAF to speak on First Stage’s behalf in front of companies across the state. As she wraps up her final summer before college, we sat down with Kate to talk about the lessons she’s learned and what’s coming next.

Kate (far right) as Olga in LILLY'S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE, 2016

Do you mind giving me a recap of how you got involved with First Stage?

I started when I was in K-5, and when I was little I would go see so many doctors, and so when I was seeing different doctors I was always afraid of people – it was “white coat syndrome.”

And so my mom wanted me to get out and do stuff, and I’ve always loved theater, and so she signed me up for a class. I did “Where The Wild Things Are”, I can remember, so I started like that from day one. I just love First Stage, it helps me get through some of the hard times and push through. It just changes your whole day.

Kate's first Academy class

Do you have a favorite memory from your years at First Stage?

It’s kind of all been amazing. When I was little, my mom didn’t even think I’d go to college. Doctors told her I wouldn’t be able to walk again. So to be able get up every day and do what I love to do… it’s been pretty amazing.

One of my favorite experiences was probably [interning for] Next Steps… the kids. Seeing some of them transform over a two-week period. It’s truly inspiring.

Do you have a favorite example of that?

Yes. There was one kid who is non-verbal, and he’d never spoke to his parents. By the end of it he told his dad he loved him for the first time, and that got me. He did one of the scenes during the presentation, and it was breathtaking.

Kate interning at Next Steps final presentations, 2015

What’s next for you?

I’m going to Alverno College and I’m going to be studying Early-Childhood Special Ed. and somehow incorporate theater. I’m very excited!

[Before that,] I’m an intern for Next Steps. I’ve interned a ton – last summer I did Musical Company Class, and then the whole rest of my summer I was an intern for Next Steps.

Do you know yet what you want to do with that field of study?

Since 5th grade, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and work with kids with health issues who are overcoming something, because in my life I’ve had to overcome so much that I want to help others because I know what it’s like. I also want to do theater with that, kind of like Next Steps – use theater to help therapy, kind of hard to explain. I could do so much in so many different ways.

How do you feel like First Stage helped prepare you for this next step in your life?

In every way, shape, and form. Being able to get up on the spot and improve for interviews, or jobs – I had a scholarship interview, and just being able to sit in there with them throwing questions at you, not knowing what they’re going to ask. Being able to go into auditions and knowing how to say “Hi! My name is Kate Harms, and I’ll be doing this and this…” I’m so blessed and I’m so thankful that I had this chance. It’s helped me in every single step of life.

Kate speaking about First Stage at BMO Harris Bank

What advice would you offer to someone just starting First Stage?

Don’t say “I can’t” – you can do it. Each person’s way of learning and trying something is different, so you have to figure out what the person needs to succeed. Take risks. Come here because it’s life changing, each day you’ll do something you never thought you’d do.

Anything else you want to add?

First Stage is amazing, don’t question that! Live life to the fullest, enjoy every moment, and have fun. Don’t try to be anyone you’re not.

Kate Harms will intern for First Stage's Next Steps program, providing classes for children on the autism spectrum, this summer before heading off to college in the fall. She has expressed intentions to continue volunteering with First Stage whenever possible. In her words: "each person has their own journey, a story to be told, and we have the power to lift them up so they can be heard!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Meet The Fellows

Every year, First Stage hires a group of incredible emerging professionals to be Teaching Artist Fellows. These Fellows will spend a year with us working both in the classroom and on the stage, fostering their education, performance, and business skills along the way. Today, we introduce you to the three Fellows who will spend this year transforming lives through theater with us!

Giana Blazquez

Where are you from?
I am from Orlando, Florida! Orlando is special to me for many reasons. For one, both sets of my grandparents also live there so I was able to foster a close relationship with them growing up. Orlando has a really awesome sense of community and there is so much good food to eat! One of my favorite things to do is go to a food truck event called "Tasty Tuesdays" by the T.G. Lee milk factory. Also, who can resist the Florida sunshine?

Why did you want to be a First Stage Fellow?
In Orlando I worked as a Teaching Artist at the Orlando Repertory Theatre when my boss introduced me to the Fellowship program at First Stage. Upon reading the description, I was so impressed by what I might be able to do. Teach all year AND perform in shows!? It seemed too good to be true. So my colleagues at the REP really encouraged me to apply, and now here I am!

What’s one goal you have set for yourself this year?
One thing I would love to do is direct and/or choreograph for a Company Class show. I truly believe that you can set the bar higher than most people would expect and the students will absolutely meet or exceed it.

What are your impressions of First Stage so far?
I never want to leave! Everyone has been so welcoming and supportive, I really can't think of a better place to be. I have loved meeting and working with all of the students, and I am having so much fun as a Teaching Apprentice this summer.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Fun fact! When I was little I really wanted to be a veterinarian. I have always had an irrational love of dogs, so when I was little I would watch dog shows on Animal Planet ALL the time. Because of this, there is a 95% that I can name a breed of dog that I see on the street.

You can catch Giana in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER and LOVABYE DRAGON as well as understudying several other shows throughout our season!

LaDareon Copeland

Where are you from?
I am from Warner Robins, GA - it is the place where I began my entrance into the theatre for the first time.

Why did you want to be a First Stage Fellow?
I found out about First Stage at a convention called Southeastern Theatre Conference; I fell in love with the program. The fact that this program helps other students understand theatre, as well as helps them use theatre in life is what I have been doing all my life.

What are you looking forward to most about being a Fellow this year?
Gaining stronger teaching skills and my first opportunities of professional theatre experience. Before I came to First Stage I was really great at teaching high school and college students how to perform monologues and scenes in addition to giving them voice lessons. Being at First Stage will help me enable me to do the same thing for kids of all ages.

What are your impressions of First Stage so far?
First Stage Theater Academy has so much love, acceptance and talent. I’ve never seen such talent in children until I came here. These students are dedicated and want to learn about theatre and those are the best students to teach. I am so blessed to work at a place where the students and faculty can be who they truly are with no judgment.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
One of my favorite shows is RuPaul’s Drag Race! Yeah, I know drag queens right? But drag is another form of art and performance. Also, one of my dream roles to perform is Genie in the musical Aladdin. When that performance was shown on the Tony Awards, all my friends were like “This is totally your character and your personality!!!” Ever since then, I have been researching James Monroe Iglehart and the shows that he has done.

Don't miss LaDareon this season in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER and WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE, among others!

Lachrisa Grandberry

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My favorite thing about living here are the many festivals and all the good cheese to eat! I love my city because there's always an opportunity to meet and connect with so many other amazing people!

Why did you want to be a First Stage Fellow?
Over the past few years I've taught in private schools in Milwaukee. As much as I enjoy teaching, I've missed teaching arts and performing. Becoming a FirstStage Fellow is a way for me to not only teach arts and perform, but to be challenged, learn, grow, and collaborate with other artist who are doing the same.

What were you like as a kid?
As a kid I was very loud, outgoing, a little crazy, and involved with too many extra curricular activities! Not much has changed since my childhood when it comes to my personality.

How did you discover theater?
My first theatrical experience was in the 6th grade and I got play Oprah Winfrey in a living museum show! This was a life changing moment for me. As a kid Acting was my outlet, but soon after I realized it was my purpose and gift to share with the world.

What are you looking forward to most about being a Fellow this year?
I'm beyond excited for the Journey First Stage will take me on. So far, I've received nothing but good vibes from everyone at the organization! I'm looking forward to learning the different teaching concepts for theater, as well as taking part in many of my first young audience productions.

Lachrisa can be seen this season in WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE, Lois Ehlert's MOLE HILL STORIES, and JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Kid to Kid Stories: The Annual Cabaret

By A.J. Magoon

Summer's not over yet, and we have even more fantastic stories of students supporting their peers through Kid to Kid! Students donate money to help others be able to come to Academy. Most recently: the Cabaret! Photos in this blog post by Heather Crouse.

On Tuesday, July 19th, Youth Arts Hall at the Milwaukee Youth Center was full. Students, alumni, family, and friends all came out to support our Third Annual Kid to Kid Cabaret. An incredibly successful yearly event, the Cabaret allows First Stage Theater Academy students to cheer on their teachers and staff in a variety of acts and performances. Though admission is free, donations and raised awareness have a huge impact – this year, over $300 was raised!

There’s no doubt that First Stage Theater Academy students learn from the best, and this Cabaret just served as proof. Attendants were entertained with a dance duet by Emilie Thomas and Teaching Artist Fellow Giana Blazquez; a dance solo by Liz Faraglia; songs by Joey Chelius, Will Esty, Katy Radiske, Amanda Satchell, and Teaching Artist Fellow LaDareon Copeland; a monologue by Jeremy Tardy; and musical improv by J.T. Backes, Audra Handschke, and Patrick Thompson. There was even an accordion!

The entire night was masterfully overseen by emcee duo Chantae Miller and Megan Grizzle, with Paula Foley Tillen on piano throughout.

Feelings were high all night as students, staff, family, and friends all supported Kid to Kid! Liz Faraglia, who called the opportunity to dance solo “so exhilarating and freeing” also stated “I have been touched by such wonderful lives there and wanted to give back.”

Many other shared the sentiment, and give back they did! Over $300 was raised to help students afford classes through First Stage Theater Academy, making this night a bona fide success!

If you’re inspired by our fantastically supportive student community, you can always make a contribution yourself! Simply visit and note “Kid to Kid” in the comment section of your donation form. First Stage has never turned a student away from the Academy because of a lack of funds – thanks to incredible students like these, this continues to be true year after year!