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!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Kid to Kid Stories - Mia Yiannias

By A.J. Magoon

As Summer Academy goes on, our incredible students are always finding ways to help their peers through Kid to Kid! Students donate money to help others be able to come to Academy. Check out the creative idea Mia Yiannias had for raising some extra funds!

Mia Yiannias is an incoming 7th Grader at Pilgrim Park Middle School in Elmbrook. In school, she likes studying language arts, math, and music; and in her free time, she enjoys singing, playing guitar, and figure skating. In the midst of all of this activity, however, Mia found room for one more thing – raising $220 dollars for Kid to Kid!

The idea started in a class at Mia’s school, where she was tasked with creating an enrichment project. Her idea? A talent show to raise money for her favorite nonprofit, First Stage! After she reached out to First Stage to get information about Kid to Kid, Mia created a flyer and invited everyone. She made sure that her event was inclusive, inviting everyone to attend and even participate! “No one would be judged,” Mia assured, it was “just an opportunity to show off something you love doing.”

On the night of the event, 35 people showed up at the studio Mia’s family had rented for a collection of both serious and silly acts. Even friends who couldn’t be there gave money – all in all, Mia raised $220! 

Mia loves performing, so giving everyone the opportunity to do the same is important to her. “Everyone has a chance,” she said, “I can imagine myself in their shoes and would want kids to help me out, too.” She and her family were blown away by the turnout, and said it really made the community see the importance of supporting students.

While this was the first fundraising event Mia has ever put together, she’s been seen around First Stage before. In addition to seeing First Stage shows for six years, she’s been attending Summer Theater Academy classes at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield for four years now! Mia says this might not be the last community project she does for First Stage, and she’ll definitely be coming back.

“I want to be involved in First Stage as long as possible,” says Mia. “This is what I love!”

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Young Company Senior Speech: Natalie Alteri

On Sunday, May 30, our First Stage Young Company students and their families gathered at Casablanca on the East Side for their yearly Young Company Senior Dinner. A chance to acknowledge the successes of the past year as well as congratulate seniors and wish them well in their coming adventures, the Senior Dinner also allowed some graduates the chance to speak. Here is what one student had to say:

Hi, I’m Natalie Alteri. I’ll start out by attempting to share with you both who I am and why I’m here in as few words and stories as possible. When I was 9, I only wanted two things. One was a real bell from Santa’s sleigh. The other was to be in a First Stage show. I have my mom to thank for the bell, and Jeff Frank to thank for the show. My future aspirations include being a doctor, having 0 to 1 kids, and donating money to support theater.
via Alison Pogorelc
Next year, I’ll study lots of science and Spanish at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. When I was 12, John told Josie and I to keep Young Company in mind as we got older. What John doesn’t know is that I’ve kept those words in mind as I’ve gotten older. John had confidence in my character before I ever did. He has this way of complimenting us just by reminding us of who we are. They never fail to be what I call “Mark Twain Compliments” because he once said “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” John has a lot of love for Young Company and for the people in it; it’s this love that has become the core what we all know Young Company to be. I’m incredibly grateful for all the time I’ve spent at First Stage, time that has undeniably shaped me into a much better version of myself. But the truth is that I won’t do justice to all that time by attempting to share it in this little speech. So instead I’ll leave you with a variety of knowledge and wisdom that is important to me for one reason or another. I’ll give credit where credit is due. Enjoy.

It is a sign of self-worth and great maturity if your behavior doesn’t change much based on who’s in a room. -John Maclay

Some of the most disturbed minds with the most difficult lives have left us the most beautiful art. -Alison Pogorelc

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. -Shakespeare

Don’t just talk about the importance of something, do it. Especially recycling. -Zoey Knox

You can take love and truth with you wherever you go. -Marcella Kearns

When life gives you lemons, you can’t make any lemonade, because you don’t have any sugar or water -Josie Trettin

Comparison is the thief of joy. -Theodore Roosevelt

Here is a play. It has never existed quite like this before and never will again. That is the beauty of it all. -Matt Daniels

Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room. -Michael Dell

Only speak when silence will not do. Only move when stillness will not do. -Joshua Pohja

I could have thanked nearly everyone in the room for an exorbitant list of things, but I wouldn’t really have the words, so instead I stole some words from other people. I’d like to think it’s alright though, because we say that so much of acting is stealing, and even if I never do another play again, everything I’ll ever know about acting is indisputably part of who I am.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

First Stage Students Win Tommy Awards

by A.J. Magoon

All photos in this blog by Paul Ruffolo Photography

Have you heard the latest news about our Young Performers? With this much talent and success, sometimes it’s hard to keep up! Four First Stage Academy Students and Young Performers have received 2016 Tommy Awards – a high honor in Wisconsin High School theatre!

The Tommy Awards—named after Wisconsin-born Broadway star Tom Wopat—are annual awards that “encourage, recognize, and honor excellence in high school musical theater.” Every year, productions at over 70 high schools are evaluated by theatrical professionals and awards are given out for excellence in countless categories for performers, technicians, and creative teams.

Maddie Mainwood in ALL'S WELL THAT END'S WELL

Maddie Mainwood of New Berlin Eisenhower High School received an Outstanding Stage Management Award for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Maddie has previously been seen in First Stage’s productions of HOLES and ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.

Liam Hartnett in ANTIGONE

Liam Hartnett of Whitefish Bay High School received an Outstanding Supporting Performer Award for his performance as Doody in GREASE. Liam was previously seen in First Stage’s productions of BIG FISH and ANTIGONE.

Josie Trettin in ANTIGONE

Josie Trettin of Whitefish Bay High School received an Outstanding Supporting Performer Award for her performance as Jan in GREASE. Josie was most recently seen in First Stage’s production of ANTIGONE.


Max Pink of Shorewood High School received an Outstanding Supporting Performer Award for his performance as St. Jimmy in AMERICAN IDIOT. He recently finished First Stage’s production of ELLA ENCHANTED.

Congratulations go out to all of these talented students!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Young Performer Spotlight: Madison Jones and Lina Singh

by A.J. Magoon

How much do you know about the Young Performers on our stage? First Stage is far from the only thing they do; beyond their acting talent, they’re busy with numerous other activities, hobbies, and interests! Spend some time getting to know the two talented actors playing Julius in LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE:
Madison Jones, student and 'Plastic' cast member.
Nine-year-old Madison Jones plays Julius in the ‘Plastic’ cast. This is her first show with First Stage, but she’s been an Academy student since she was 4. Madison loves First Stage – she looks forward to becoming an Academy Intern and was named our May Student of the Month! She belongs to two choirs outside of First Stage and has many other interests as well: singing, dancing, drawing, texting, swimming, playing with her stuffed tiger Alissa, and especially cooking! She wants to be a chef when she grows up and open a restaurant in New York City; in her words, “When I’m cooking, it’s just me, the stove, the food and my imagination!”

Lina Singh as Julius. Photo by Paul Ruffolo Photography
Our Julius from the ‘Purple’ cast is Lina Singh. Lina is an 8-year-old second-grader who sure isn’t the baby at home – she’s a big sister to her brother, Oscar, and her dog, Nancie! This is Lina’s first show with First Stage, but she’s also been in 101 DALMATIANS and SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK at North Shore Academy of the Arts. She loves singing, playing outside, spending time with her family, learning about geography and history, and smoothies! Lina says that one thing she learned from LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE was “to be LOUD on stage. Marcy Kearns told me to try and get louder and louder and now I'm louder than I ever thought I could be."

LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE continues through June 12. Come by and catch these little mice in action!