Friday, October 24, 2014

Alumni spotlight: J.T. Backes

Academy alumni J.T. Backes returns to First Stage this season, taking on the role of Artistic Intern on Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street IrregularsRudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer™: The Musical and Big Fish. J.T. also joins our Theater In Education team as an adjunct teaching artist. This past spring J.T. received his B.F.A. in Musical Theater from Viterbo University. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with J.T. about Sherlock Holmes, fond First Stage memories and more!

How long have you been involved with First Stage?
I’ve been involved in First Stage for a LONG time. I started First Stage classes in 2000 when I was just eight years old. I’ve done several First Stage shows as a young performer including: Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I’ve also done a few new play workshops as well, including: The Quiltmaker’s Gift and Bunnicula. I was also the last original member of Organized Chaos, the First Stage improv comedy team taught by Patrick Schmitz. I joined that in 2005 and graduated from the group in 2010. Finally, I taught improv for the Academy alongside Alex Grindeland in the summer of 2011.

J.T. (left) in The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 2002
What is your favorite First Stage memory?
Back when I was a wee lad, I was in First Stage’s production of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. I believe that I was still in elementary school at the time and the big “thing” at that time was called the flipper dance. I’m sure it’s still better than this modern day “twerking” thing. Anyway, I did this for John Maclay one day and soon he became so dependent on it that I had to do it as part of his preshow warm up before every performance. Who could have thought that imagining your left and right arms as flippers could catch on so fast? I know I didn’t. I thought it was super silly. To this day if I bump into John Maclay, the request for the “flipper dance” is still being made.

Each element of this show is so darn specific: the color and period costumes, the incredible set, the lighting and exciting special effects, and of course the remarkable cast that brings Eric Coble’s piece to life. Our director, Jeff Frank, has a brilliant vision, but he is also up for collaboration. I love that aspect. This is a world premiere piece and we have the privilege to create something no one has ever seen before. And we are doing just that. Both of the young performer casts add their unique flavors to their characters and the adults create unforgettable moments throughout. Todd Denning has created unbelievably intense fight scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. My favorite thing about working on this show is seeing how it’s all coming together. I can’t stop thinking about how cool this show is going to look.

How did your time at First Stage prepare you for your current path?
If I had to boil down all I’ve learned at First Stage into a single phrase it would be “to make choices.” First Stage built inner confidence that brought out my inner worth –worthiness as an artist and as a human. This is something First Stage does better than anyone else. The Academy is a safe place to be you and take incredible risks without fear of consequence. This environment wasn’t merely established in a rule book. Teachers and students choose to treat others with respect and choose to give to each other wholeheartedly without need of incentive. I’m sure if you asked any First Stage Academy student, they would tell you that some of their life-long friends were made through this organization.

What would you like to say to current Academy students?
This craft is by no means an easy one. It takes true dedication, resilience, and an open mind. If acting were easy everyone would be doing it! We are artists that are given a color palette and our job is to paint something for the whole world to see. And that takes time and patience. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional you always want to fail big. Only from there will you learn how to grow. Whatever the situation, always be you! That is something nobody else can replicate. Take risks, fail big, and be you.  

See J.T. Backes on stage this season in Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street IrregularsRudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer™: The Musical and Big Fish.  

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Playwright Eric Coble visits local schools upon the world premiere of SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS

Eric Coble speaks to students at
Parkside School for the Arts
In town for the world premiere of his play SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS, playwright Eric Coble arrived in Milwaukee Thursday morning.  The first stop on his weekend itinerary was at Parkside School for the Arts, a First Stage partner school, to visit with fourth and sixth-grade students that will be seeing the play themselves later this month.

Eric introduced himself to the students, explaining that well before the start of his playwriting career he was interested in storytelling and illustrating.  As a child, his mother would tell him stories and he would draw pictures to illustrate her tales.  This developed into his own interest in comic books.  In high school, he acted in a few plays, and later realized he could mix both of his interests – theater and storytelling – into playwriting.

Eric then explained the background behind his adaptation of Tony Lee’s and Dan Boultwood’s graphic novels The Baker Street Irregulars.  When adapting these graphic novels, which take place shortly after the battle between Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarity and Sherlock’s subsequent disappearance, Eric pulled parts from these novels which excited him the most.  Eric sought to find the fun and unique aspects of the characters, and how the Baker Street Irregulars – the street kids that took over Sherlock’s detective work after his disappearance – related to one another.

The Parkside students had the opportunity to ask extensive questions about Eric’s writing: 

Q:           “Can you turn any book into a play?”
A:            “Yes, although some stories may end up working best as books or even movies, such as the Harry Potter series.  The writer would need to use his or her imagination to figure out how the stories may come to life on stage.”

Q:           “Can you adapt a fairytale, like Fractured Fairytales, into a play?”
A:            “Absolutely!  In fact, I've done this with my play called Cinderella Confidential, which tells the story of Cinderella from the perspective of two investigative reporters that compete for the scoop of the century.”

Q:           “What do you look for when deciding to adapt a book into a play?”
A:            “I like to find a story that is interesting, exciting or funny to me.  Many times a theater, like First Stage, will approach me to adapt a particular book into a play.  I enjoy all sorts of genres, and I've written anything from comedy to sci-fi to mystery; plays for both adults or for children.”

Q:           “How is writing a play like writing a comic book?”
A:            “They are quite similar.  With each, you need to plan what each character will say throughout the story.  Then you draw pictures to go with that story that the characters tell.  But with a play, instead of drawing those pictures, you’ll indicate what the actors will do while saying those lines on stage and the director will decide exactly how that scene will look.”

Q:           “Have you adapted a comic book to a play before SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS?”
A:            “Yes!  Storm in the Barn is a play I wrote based on the graphic novel by Matt Phelan, which is about a boy discovering a way to save his family by bringing back rain to the farms and crops during the 1930s Dust Bowl era.  The book doesn't have too many words itself, but relies more on the pictures to set the scene and tell the story.

Want to learn more from playwright Eric Coble himself?  See SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS at First Stage opening weekend.  Eric will participate in our talkbacks following performances on Friday, October 17 at 7 p.m., Saturday, October 18 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, October 19 at 3:30 p.m.  Tickets start at just $14.50. Order online at or call (414) 273-7206.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Original work by graffiti artist Zen Castillo featured in THE THREE LITTLE PIGS!

We recently had the opportunity to visit Zen Castillo's studio, the Milwaukee graffiti artist commissioned to create art for First Stage’s production of THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. Based on the original set designs by Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank, Zen created vibrant graffiti pieces, drawing on Milwaukee's neighborhoods and landmarks for inspiration.  After previewing some of his work, we can't wait to see the art and the set designs come together, bringing the world of THE THREE LITTLE PIGS to life. 

Artist Zen Castillo in his Milwaukee studio
Zen’s studio is located in the Lincoln building in Bay View. It has a beautiful view of the city and enough wall space to host Visual Warfare graffiti battles, a local graffiti competition Zen sponsors. In between photos and spray painting, Zen told us a bit about his work, his inspiration and the graffiti battles. 
FIRST STAGE:  What inspires your work/what did you draw on for inspiration while working on this project?
ZEN CASTILLO:  What inspires my work is the pursuit to evolve by trying new techniques and ways to apply paint to various surfaces.  I push myself to be innovative and utilize various geometric and mechanical shapes and forms throughout my graffiti style letter structures. 

For THE THREE LITTLE PIGS project I worked towards a more youthful, vibrant and energetic style while creating the background scenes for this play. Also drawing positive influence and inspiration from my hometown of Milwaukee.

FS:  How is working on this project the same or different than others?

ZC:  This project is familiar to me in the way it incorporates a traditional graffiti style that is legible and can be recognized by most viewers. It is different in such by painting the character's individual names in different styles and colors. This makes for an interesting and individualistic identity for each character.

FS:  Can you share a little more about the graffiti battles, the blog and how it impacts the community? 

  Visual Warfare is a locally based graffiti competition held at the Emphcon studio. I sponsor and host local artists to go head to head in a friendly and positive graffiti competition.  These battles inspire, motivate, and give the graffiti community a safe platform and outlet to showcase their talent.  The battles are captured by video and are open for the public to vote for the victor on the emphcon blog site

FS:  When did you come into your current studio space, and how has it impacted your work?

ZC:  I have been at my current studio space for over two years now.  This is an amazing and inspiring place to create my art and also host the Visual Warfare battles.  I plan on hosting more battles and gallery events in the near future!

First Stage's First Steps production of THE THREE LITTLE PIGS will be performed November 1-23, 2014 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Playwright ERIC COBLE gives opening weekend talkbacks

First Stage is happy to announce that playwright Eric Coble will be in Milwaukee during opening weekend of his world premiere play, SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS.

Eric will join the actors on stage to answer audience questions and discuss how he set about adapting 
The Baker Street Irregulars, an edgy series of graphic novels for our audiences. The talkback is included with your ticket to the show, and will take place after each of the following performances:
  • Friday, October 17 at 7:00 p.m *Opening Night
  • Saturday, October 18 at 7:00 p.m. Steampunk Night
  • Sunday, October 19 at 3:30 p.m.
Learn more about Eric Coble on his website, and in this recent interview with First Stage.


Sherlock Holmes is missing, and the streets of London are awash with crime. Without the famously shrewd detective to save them, who will help the people of London?  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, including the criminal mastermind believed to be the notorious Moriarty. Based on the graphic novels by New York Times best-selling author Tony Lee, drawn by critically acclaimed artist Dan Boultwood, and supported by one of the world’s foremost authorities on Sherlock Holmes, Leslie S. Klinger, this family-friendly adventure will unveil clues as to the true fate of Sherlock Holmes. The game is afoot!  For everyone ages 7 and up.

Tickets start at $14.50 and may be purchased at or through the Marcus Center box office at (414) 273-7206 or at 929 N. Water Street, Milwaukee. Special rates are available for groups of 10 or more, call (414) 267-2964 for tickets and information.

*Join us for the Opening Night Reception, immediately following the 7:00 p.m. performance on Friday, October 17. Enjoy refreshments courtesy of First Stage as you mix and mingle with the cast and crew of SHERLOCK HOLMES! This event takes place at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut Street, just one mile from the Marcus Center. There is no cost additional cost to participate and all are welcome.

Steampunk Night at First Stage!

Get ready for Steampunk Night at First Stage!

At the 7:00 p.m. performance of SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS on Saturday, October 18, families are encouraged to come dressed in their favorite Steampunk attire to get in the spirit of the play’s Victorian London setting. Those in costume may have their photo taken in the lobby upon arrival. Attending our Steampunk Night in costume adds another layer of fun for the whole family!

What is Steampunk?
The Baker Street Irregulars from the Holmes Cast in costume. Pictured:
Max Pink, Matthias Wong, Eloise Field, Elizabeth Robbins and Max
Zupke. Costumes by Lyndsey Kuhlmann. Photo by Lindsey Abendschein.
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century's British Victorian Era or American “Wild West,” in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Our very own SHERLOCK HOLMES THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS is a 19th century story based in London during the British Victorian era.

What should I wear to Steampunk Night?
Here are some tips for coming up with a perfect Steampunk outfit:
·         Think of a persona to fit the kind of look you want.
·         Search your closet for any accessories that will work for you.
·         Go thrift shopping!

For women, a blouse, skirt, shoes, and lots of accessories is the basic way to complete your Steampunk look. Ankle-length and almost ankle-length skirts are the historically correct choice but skirts can also reach the mid-calf or knee. Basic accessories that would also work well include belts, hats, coats/jackets, and antique jewelry.

For men, a shirt with pants and shoes would work fine. Shirts usually have buttons that run either fully or half fully down the front, and sport a variety of collars. Men should stay away from jeans, tennis shoes, and sandals. Basic accessories that would look great for men include suspenders, vests, coats/jackets, and hats. If you’re looking to go all out, you might even consider a traditional kilt instead of pants.

Additional resources are available online to help you plan your costume for Steampunk Night at First Stage:
·        For purchasing Steampunk clothes and accessories, visit
·        For suggestions on finding Steampunk costume pieces both in thrift stores, online, or in your own closet, visit 
·      Our friends at also have some fun Steampunk pieces available for purchase. Select accessories will even be available for sale in our lobby during performances.

Steampunk Night at First Stage is during the performance of SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS on Saturday, October 18 at 7:00 p.m. at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater.  Performances of this play run October 17 through November 15.  Tickets start at just $14.50. Visit the First Stage website for tickets or more information.

Friday, September 26, 2014

First Stage young performers shine in The Color Purple

By Michael Hantke

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple is a magnificent musical saga spanning four decades. An unforgettable story – of a woman finding the strength to triumph over adversity and discover her own unique voice in the world.  With a joyous Grammy-nominated score featuring jazz, ragtime, gospel, and blues, The Color Purple captures the hearts of young and old, and reminds us that, “it only takes a grain of love to make a mighty tree.”

The Color Purple features a cast of 25 including some First Stage favorites including Young Performers Chantae Miller as Young Celie (A Midnight Cry), Esther O’Brien, Ensemble (Shrek, To The Promised Land);  Braylen Stevens, Ensemble (A Midnight Cry, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer); and Zuri McGowan as Young Nettie (Folk Tales for All Folks and A Midsummer Night's Dream). Also joining the cast is seasoned actor Malkia Stampley, Ensemble (A Midnight Cry, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).

Chantae, Esther and Zuri will be making their Rep debut with The Color Purple and we wish them nothing but the best! Braylen returns to the Rep after appearing in A Raisin in the Sun. 

We recently spoke with Esther and Braylen about their experience working on The Color Purple, and how their time at First Stage has prepared them for this moment.  This is what they had to say:

Braylen Stevens: “Working with the Milwaukee Rep is so much fun! Every time I walk into the building I learn something new,” said Braylen. “First Stage has helped me a lot throughout the industry and has pushed me to be the young performer I am today. Having those supportive mentors and teachers there to help encourage you to ‘own the stage’ or ‘live the moment’ helps build confidence in yourself to know that you are not only capable of doing the job but doing it well.”

Esther O'Brien: “The Color Purple has always been a production I wanted to participate in. The dynamic of the show and the storyline is so captivating,” added Esther. “The theme of forgiveness and love in the play makes me really have a passion for it. The characters face their own battles throughout the story but in the end overpower them. That in itself is inspirational to anyone watching. First Stage was truly one of my first experiences on a stage. There was so much I learned ranging from stage directions to Tech week. I learn something every time I go there!”

The Color Purple runs September 23 to November 2, 2014 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Also, look out for Chantae Miller and Esther O’Brien in two of our upcoming productions in the First Stage 2014-2015 season! Esther will be performing in Stargirl and Chantae will be performing in Big Nate: The Musical.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Congratulations Mary Elsa Henrichs for the 2013-14 Teen of the Year award!

By Lindsey Abendschein

Conlan Ledwith and Mary Elsa Henrichs in Romeo And Juliet (2014)
Mary Elsa Henrichs is the recipient of First Stage's 2013-14 Teen of the Year award, an award given by the First Stage Academy staff as they evaluate what it means to embody the First Stage spirit of taking risk, conquering fears, and going above and beyond in all aspects of life. Mary Elsa is no stranger to our stages, having appeared last season in MAUL OF THE DEAD, CRASH and ROMEO AND JULIET. She also participated in the 2014 Bard-o-Thon, performing 34 consecutive Shakespearean monologues, a feat even for the most devout of Shakespeare fans. In addition, she has continued to further her involvement with First Stage as an Academy intern, and in the community in roles at Skylight Music Theatre.

While graciously accepting the award, Mary Elsa had the following to say about her experiences with First Stage, and what they have meant to her:
Wow, what an incredible honor. The first two people I have to thank are my parents, who drove me here tonight. They drive me to First Stage a lot and they are responsible for supporting me behind the scenes. I don’t thank them enough for that, so thank you. 
There are a lot of people here tonight who make First Stage happen from behind the scenes, and I would like to thank all of you for creating this place where I can grow not only as an actor and as an artist, but also as a human being. Something that I’ve learned at First Stage is that acting is really the art of being a human being. We deal in the business of being people, and that training goes on both on and off stage. 
I have incredible teachers and incredible peers who help me feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations, which is part of acting. My teachers force me to take huge risks and have given me amazing opportunities, and I am so thankful for that. My teachers push me to new heights, and then they are ready to catch me when I fall. Because I do fall, all the time. And that’s something I’ve learned is part of being a human and part of being an actor. I love that at First Stage I can fail boldly and be applauded. Because that’s the only way to learn: by screwing it up really badly. 
Mary Elsa Henrichs accepting the First Stage 2013-14 Teen of the Year Award
First Stage believed in me before I really understood what it meant to believe in myself. And that’s something that I think is amazing about First Stage: that they believe in every student who walks through their doors. They also believe in my brother who has been at two summers of Next Steps recently. First Stage’s belief in the potential of every human being is magnificent and astounding. To conclude, First Stage is a pretty great place to be a human being. And with that, I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.