Friday, March 24, 2017

Utilizing Best Practices: On Stage and in the Classroom

Brenna Kempf with a student
Autism is called a spectrum disorder because there is a large variety of characteristics and symptoms that could be present, ranging from mild to severe. All of the intricacies and variables make each individual person and their story unique. The main character in our story, Caitlin, has autism. This play follows her story as she navigates life after the loss of her brother, Devon.

Mockingbird is presented in partnership with the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin. The young performers portraying characters with autism (Caitlin and William) have participated in rehearsals with Julie Quigley, program manager for the Autism Society. Julie provided a wealth of information on autism to assist the young performer’s research. Throughout the rehearsal process, she ensured that the artistic interpretation of the characters on the spectrum is both authentic and respectful. With her help, Director Marcy Kearns and Next Steps Director Brenna Kempf coached the young performers as they found purpose and meaning to drive every choice they made for their performance.

The art of making intentional choices with reasoning behind each one is a “best practice” for an actor. This type of work provides authenticity and honesty on stage. The portrayals of Caitlin and William are not rooted in their autism, but in who they are as a person, their intentions and objectives, and the obstacles that they face.

This mirrors some of our best practices that we use our Next Steps program. Now in its fifth year, these Theater Academy classes for students on the autism spectrum provide the community, confidence, training, and tools to help each individual to take their next step as an artist and as a person. Students take classes in Musical Theater and Acting, and following our philosophy of teaching life skills through stage skills, students are simultaneously practicing social skills, emotion recognition and expression, empathy, conversation and listening skills, and non-verbal behaviors and gestures.

Since our pilot year, we have worked closely with Mary Stone of Stepping Stones, LLC, who helps ensure that we are using the most recent, research-based best practices. We create a safe and welcoming environment with meet and greets, social stories, and visual schedules. We provide resources for our students, including fidget toys and quiet rooms. Our most important practice, however, is seeing the student first. We see who they are as a person – their interests, their comforts, the things that they need support with – before we look at their autism.

Also part of our Next Steps program are our Sensory Friendly performances, designed for audience members on the autism spectrum or other sensory sensitivities and their families. These select performances have modifications and accommodations to make a trip to the theater a friendly and inviting experience, including lowered sound and lighting, and resources such as social stories, noise-cancelling earmuffs, and more.

Our Sensory Friendly performance of MOCKINGBIRD is on Saturday, April 8 at 1pm. Registration is open for our Next Steps Academy classes during Spring Break, April 10 – 14, as well as our summer sessions beginning August 7.

Learn more about our Theater Academy classes and Sensory Friendly performances.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Note From Director Marcella Kearns: MOCKINGBIRD

Marcella Kearns
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, widower and lawyer Atticus Finch defends an innocent man who is condemned and lost because of a vicious racial divide. His children, Jem and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, try to make sense of the senselessness. In the end, innocence, kindness, and an attempt to protect one another persist both within their family and, to a nominal degree, within their community.

Innocence, kindness, and an attempt to protect one another don’t always prevail, but they do persist.

In Kathryn Erskine’s novel MOCKINGBIRD, a 21st-century Atticus and Scout of sorts have lost their Jem to a shocking act of violence. Erskine’s Scout and our narrator, Caitlin, navigates another community’s journey through tragedy and healing even as she herself strives to find her own place among them. It’s a tough road as, by her very nature, she views and experiences the world radically differently than others around her. Nevertheless, she’s accustomed to “Working At It,” and she’s persistent. Her path to understanding may even accelerate the healing of those around her.

In response to the tragedy that in part inspired Erskine’s novel, the poet Nikki Giovanni said, “We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness… We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail.”

May Caitlin’s tenacity in seeking closure and learning empathy serve as a guidepost for us as we all try to view the world from others’ eyes.

Kearns and cast at a Mockingbird rehearsal
I’d like to offer special thanks to the families of our fearless young performers and the entire MOCKINGBIRD team. Many thanks as well to Julie Quigley, the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin, First Stage’s Next Steps creators, and Brenna Kempf, whose instruction and candor provided a platform for our young performers to explore and begin to understand the experience of autism. 

-Marcella Kearns

MOCKINGBIRD opens Friday, March 24 and runs through April 9, 2017 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater.

Sensory Kits now available for all First Stage performances!

As part of the First Stage accessibility initiatives, we are excited to announce that Sensory Kits are now available to accommodate our patrons on the autism spectrum or with other sensory, social, or cognitive disabilities for all performances at both the Todd Wehr Theater and the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.
Sensory Friendly Kit photo
A Sensory Kit is a backpack containing items that may provide ease or comfort to audience members with sensory sensitivities. Our kits include a social story outlining the theater experience, noise-cancelling earmuffs, and an assortment of quiet fidget toys. These Sensory Kits will be available during all public and school shows, and may be checked out from the House Manager for the duration of the performance attended.
Our hope in creating these kits is to help the theater experience be accessible for all patrons.

First Stage offers 3-4 Sensory Friendly performances each season, which include modifications and accommodations to make a trip to the theater as welcoming as possible. First Stage’s next Sensory Friendly performance will be for MOCKINGBIRDon April 8, 2017 at 1 p.m. at the Todd Wehr Theater.

Learn more about First Stage programming for students with autism.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Let your imagination take flight with First Stage's 2017-2018 season

With two world premieres and celebrated family favorites, First Stage continues its commitment to spectacular theater experiences for young people and families.

at the Todd Wehr Theater 

October 6 – November 5, 2017
Take a fantastic musical adventure with an out-of-this-world car that flies through the air and sails the seas. Cheer on the devoted father and eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, and his children, Jemima and Jeremy, as they plot to rescue Grandpa Potts and the children of Vulgaria from the dastardly Baron Bomburst. Based on the beloved 1968 film based on Ian Fleming's children's book and featuring an unforgettable score, this is one family-friendly blockbuster that audiences will find "Truly Scrumptious.” For families with young people ages 6 – 16+

November 24 – December 31, 2017
Back by popular demand, this treasured classic comes to life on stage this holiday season. Everyone is giddy with Christmas cheer, but Charlie Brown has the Yuletide blues. Will directing the Christmas play help him get in the spirit of the season? Join Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang as they learn the true meaning of Christmas. This is one holiday gift the entire family will adore. For families with young people ages 4 – 14+

January 12 – February 11, 2018                                
With his handmade silk suits, wide array of hats and tiny gold pocket watch, Edward Tulane is the most exceptional toy in Abilene’s room. He is adored and he is happy. But when Edward is thrown overboard on a cruise ship by mean boys, he begins a remarkable journey of discovery across Depression-era America. Based on Newberry-winner Kate DiCamillo’s celebrated book and brought to life through imaginative storytelling and folk music, don’t miss this breathtaking story of finding friendship, finding yourself, and eventually finding your way home. For families with young people ages 7 – 16+

February 23 – March 25, 2018
It’s the timeless classic you know and love, with a modern, soulful twist. When an epic tornado lands Dorothy in a faraway place, she is sent on an unforgettable adventure to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West, and find the great and powerful Wiz to help her return home. Come along on a spectacular journey as Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion ease on down the yellow brick road to the magical land of Oz. For families with young people ages 6 – 16+

April 6 – 22, 2018
In Milwaukee there lives a very special young man. One who sees more deeply than others. He sees so much that he loves in his city, but he also sees the fractures. And when this special boy begins to see icebergs floating into Milwaukee, he alone must find a way to help his community navigate through the dangerous waters. From internationally recognized playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer comes a contemporary folk tale inspired by conversations with our community. For families with young people ages 10 – 17+

May 4 – June 3, 2018
Third grade has put Judy Moody in a mood. She's got to figure out what to include in her "Me" collage, and her know-it-all little brother Stink keeps getting in the way. When the Moody family drops anchor on “Artichoke” Island, they meet Cap’n Weevil with a secret treasure map, launching them on a mad dash across the island in search of gold. But they’re not the only salty dogs lookin’ for loot! Can Judy Moody and Stink outwit their competition in time? Will Judy finish her project? Set sail on this world premiere and find out! For families with young people ages 5 – 9+

at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center

October 1 – 29, 2017
Spookley the Square Pumpkin is teased by the other pumpkins because of his odd shape. His new friends – three hilarious spiders named Edgar, Allan and Poe – try to convince Spookley that square or not, he has a right to be the Pick of the Patch on Halloween. Spookley isn’t sure he has what it takes until a mighty storm threatens to destroy the entire patch, sending the round pumpkins rolling towards the raging river. Just in time for Halloween, Spookley – the Official Spokes-Pumpkin for National Bullying Prevention Month as recognized by PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center – teaches us there are times it is better to be square. For families with young people ages 3 – 7+

January 21 – February 25, 2018
Leave it to the Cat in the Hat! Everyone’s favorite feline in the red and white hat turns a rainy afternoon upside down with his madcap mischief and wacky adventures. Speaking only in rhyme, the Cat in the Hat shows Sally and her brother that “it’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” despite the misgivings of their well-mannered Fish. But what will Mother think of all the antics when she returns home? Find out when all of your favorite moments from this Dr. Seuss classic come to life before your eyes. For families with young people ages 3 – 7+

at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center

December 8 – 17, 2017
By Thornton Wilder
Produced by Special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.

Dinosaurs. Wooly Mammoths. The Ice age. World War. And your basic suburban family. Thornton Wilder’s allegorical play about, well… the entire history of mankind. This Pulitzer prize winning play by one of America’s finest playwrights is a wildly entertaining and thought provoking explosion of time and space that will stay with you long after the final curtain. For families with young people ages 12+

HENRY V                                                           
March 9 – 24, 2018
By William Shakespeare
 “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, Or close the wall up with our English dead!” Join us as the Young Company, nationally renowned for their excellence in performing the Bard, dives into the breach with one of our favorite plays by William Shakespeare. King Henry the Fifth has rallied the nation to invade France and this war won’t end until the famous Battle of Agincourt. The English must succeed against seemingly impossible odds – or be killed in the process. An epic story of a country at war and England’s most popular king. For families with young people ages 12+

Family Packages for First Stage's 2017-2018 season are available beginning April 1, 2017ORDER YOURS ONLINE or contact the First Stage Box Office at (414) 267-2961. Single tickets will be available beginning September 1, 5017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

First Look Review: Robin Hood

by Zach Bertram

I saw Robin Hood at First Stage and thought it was an outstanding play. It was the funniest play that I have ever seen. The props were well chosen to give the feeling that it was the medieval times. When they changed scenes you could tell which one was in a castle and which one was in the forest. The set was trees; the trees looked very realistic and they were 3DEven though their costumes were made recently, they looked as if they were from long ago. The entire play looked like it could've been from the medieval days.

The play was very easy to understand. One of the characters was an entertainer that 
explained the play very well either through song or just talking to the audience. If you wanted to see this play and understand it you wouldn’t need to read a book on it because it was very well explained.

The play used some old English but not too much. There was a great mix of old English 
and sayings from today. At one point I heard them say BURNNNNN. Now clearly this is a phrase from today and not from the medieval times. Many times this type of humor 
caused the actors/actresses to have to wait so the audience could quiet down. When they showed the bad guys (Sir Malcom, Sheriff, Bishop, and Guards) the Bishop kept our interest with his very funny voice. In the play there were also life lessons. This play is so funny that every other line you would be laughing.

One of the scenes was a flashback telling the story how Robin Hood met little John. In this flash back the action was amazing and Robin Hood showed his athleticism by doing a flip. They used real steel swords which made for good action scenes and great sounds from the banging swords. I have never seen a play with such great action and so much humor.

In conclusion, I think you should go and watch this play because it is very funny, easy to Understand, and has great action.

ROBIN HOOD is showing through March 12 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater.

Twelve year-old Zach is an avid theater-goer and enthusiast. He is interested in getting more involved with theater in the future. When Zach was younger he would try to rewrite plays he had seen to make them better. Thank you Zach for your review of ROBIN HOOD!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Putting young people at the center of ROBIN HOOD

Jeff Frank 
A note from Director Jeff Frank

Three years ago, when John Maclay, Joe Foust and I first began discussions about a potential Robin Hood, a central question was – how do we adapt the tale in a way that puts young people at the center of the legendary adventures? We quickly realized young people would have been attracted to the cause – desiring to be a part of the revolution, wanting to fight to make things right in the kingdom – wanting to be merry men. John and Joe took that premise and ran with it, creating something quite wonderful that speaks to days of yore, but also reflects issues that still plague us today.

At its core, our Robin Hood is a grand adventure told with humor, energy, action and verve – but underneath it are important questions. What action do we take in the face of corrupt authority? Is it acceptable to break the law to right a wrong? What makes a leader? How do people of different backgrounds unite to battle common enemies?

Our story also speaks to the power of mentorship. When young people have adults who are willing to take the time to share their wisdom, guidance and love – those young people can blossom, and the mentors themselves are richer for the experience. And finally, I love how fierce, and how respected Marian is, and I admire her efforts to model and to teach independence to the other young women in the troop. 

ROBIN HOOD, by Joe Foust and John Maclay opens Friday, February 17 and runs through March 12, 2017 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater.

The professional actor cast of ROBIN HOOD includes: Dominique Worsley* and Domonique Champion as Robin Hood; John Maclay* as Sheriff of Nottingham; James Fletcher* as Little John; Joe Foust* as Archbishop; Allie Babich as Marian/Sir Malcom; and Tommy Novak as Friar Tuck. *Member of Actor's Equity Association

Young performers are double cast. The Sherwood Cast includes: Grace Berendt, Elliott Brotherhood, Jack Burns, Nicholas Doermann, Teddy Esten, Anna Fitzsimmons, Bree Kazinski, Taylor Loomans and Amanda Wielichowski. The Nottingham cast includes: Zora Allision, Jennie Babisch, Jacob Badovski, Dominique Hamilton, Ben Kindler, Johathan Neustifter, Alyssa Ratkowski, Camara Stampley and Ben Sturcyz.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Making dragons fly with Design Supervisor Brandon Kirkham

Meet First Stage Design Supervisor Brandon Kirkham. If you've been to a First Stage show in the last eight seasons, you've undoubtedly seen his work. From sets and costumes to puppets large and small, Brandon's work is memorable and nothing short of magical.

We recently caught up with Brandon to find out more about his latest project - LOVABYE DRAGON.

What do you do at First Stage?
As the Design Supervisor I personally design at least three production elements (usually costumes, sets, or puppets) each season and oversee the design processes for all of our shows. This includes assembling design teams, organizing meetings, and communicating design information to the shops.  I’m also a part of  First Stage’s Artistic Team which works to guide the artistic vision of the company.
Brandon Kirkham, photo by Paul Ruffolo
Have you always wanted to be a Scenic/Puppet Designer? No. When I was really young I had a whole list of things I wanted to be, including Mad Scientist, Opera Singer, Architect, and Animator (Architect and Animator stuck for a long, long time and I still think these would be very fun careers!). When I was in high school I started acting in plays and at my school there weren’t really designers… you just worked on production elements as you had time/interest. I didn’t even realize that being a theatre designer was a job that existed! It wasn’t until a college acting audition that the idea of being a designer was suggested (As I was leaving the room I offhandedly mentioned that I also brought some of my costume and set drawings … the rest is history).

What was the first puppet you ever made?
When I was really little my Mamaw (grandma) used to have craft days with my sister and me. One day we made puppets out of old socks… mine was a version of ‘Charlie Horse’ from the Sheri Lewis and Lambchops TV show. 

Is the Dragon Puppet the largest puppet you’ve designed? 
He’s among the largest, though I’ve actually been lucky enough to build and design quite a few of these large puppets.  I also designed and built the Bumble (Abominable Snow Monster) for RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, worked on the crocodile for PETER PAN & WENDY, and built ‘Aunt Beast’ for A WRINKLE IN TIME (all at First Stage).   In grad school I designed a nearly-life-sized elephant and some 12’ tall nightmarish professor puppets for shows. I also built a Utahceratops (a dinosaur similar to a triceratops) puppet for the Utah Museum of Natural History in 2011.

What challenges did you face with working on a puppet of this size?
When you’re working on any puppet you need to start by thinking about what the puppet needs to do, how many people are available, and how you’re going to build it given the time and money available. Larger puppets tend to bring up lots of other issues like how much it will weigh, where it can be stored, and how the actor will be able to see. The Lovabye Dragon is one of the central characters in the play and spends most of its time onstage. The script calls for the dragon to fly, sail, play hide-and-seek, and have the ability to show emotion and character throughout the duration of the show.

How does the Dragon Puppet work?  
The base structure of the body is an aluminum frame held together by pop rivets. Inside the body is an actor who wears the frame like a backpack. This actor carries all the weight of the puppet and moves the dragon across the stage. That person is also responsible for the wing and arm movement, all controlled by levers on the inside of the body. The aluminum frame is covered with opaque purple stretch fabric on the top and sides of the puppet, and the underbelly is covered with mesh… this is how the body puppeteer can see where he’s going. Two other puppeteers are needed – one for the head, the other for the tail. The neck and tail are a series of aluminum hoops. There’s a pocket/sleeve on the tail into which the puppeteer puts their forearm.  The head is a hand puppet attached to the neck that is controlled by the third actor. The mouth opens and closes and the eyelids can close when the dragon’s asleep.  All three of the actors have to work as a team to create the Dragon’s movements. Since they can’t speak to each other onstage (and since one is inside the dragon’s body) they’re developing a communication system that relies on their foot motions.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
All theatre - and especially the work we do at First Stage - is collaborative by nature. None of the shows we produce would be possible without the work of the shops, designers, directors, actors, and countless others who bring the project to life. We're very lucky to have a dedicated team of people who care about the project and work very hard to make great shows.
LOVABYE DRAGON, winner of a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation for puppetry featured in the production, opens January 21 and runs through February 19, 2017 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Visit for tickets and information.