Tuesday, June 9, 2015

First Stage to offer "Les Paul, Wizard of Waukesha" workshop for schools

First Stage was honored to receive a grant from the Les Paul Foundation to create and implement an Arts-Integrated Teaching Through Theater program based on Les Paul’s extraordinary life and musical accomplishments. The weeklong program, facilitated during our 2014/2015 season, utilized dramatic activities such as role-play, improvised scene work, movement-based exercises, and pantomime to explore Les Paul’s legacy and specifically his impact in Waukesha, Wisconsin. During the workshops, students explored his songs, his use of rhythm, and his exemplification of the Four P’s of Performance (Project, Plant, Purpose, and Personalize). By engaging in the dramatic arts, students also re-enacted important moments from Les Paul’s life and explored his innovative inventions.

Thanks to the generosity of the Les Paul Foundation, First Stage reached 6 schools in Waukesha through the Les Paul workshops, reaching a total of 375 students and their classroom teachers!

We're excited to announce that First Stage will now offer “Les Paul, Wizard of Waukesha” as a workshop option as part of our Theater in Education programming. The workshop is available for any interested classroom throughout Southeastern Wisconsin. First Stage looks forward to sharing the impact of Les Paul’s music and life with more young people and classroom teachers in our community.  

Workshop Description:
Les Paul, Wizard of Waukesha
 (Grades 3 – 5): Examine the life of Les Paul and discover the local legend's many attributes which have forever influenced music. Through dramatic activities, students will explore the innovative, problem-solving, and creative skills of Les Paul and how such attrubutes are an inspiration in their lives and future pursuits. (CSS.ELA-Literacy: RI.3.1, RI.3.3, RI.3.4, RI.4.2, RI.4.3, RI.4.7, RI.5.5, SL.3.3, SL.4.1.D, SL.5.2).

Visit our website for more information about First Stage’s Teaching Through Theater workshops (facilitated in your classroom).

What educators had to say about the Les Paul workshop:

“The Les Paul workshops for our third graders were great. The material was perfect for our study of the history of Waukesha.  The presenter was very enthusiastic and held all of the students’ attentions. We would like to participate next year in the workshops. Both third grade teachers agree, it was a great program.”
– Third Grade Teachers at Meadowbrook School

“…People in the music industry don’t go a day without thinking about how much Les Paul has changed their lives, but for the average 3rd grader this might not be the case. It is, however, the case now thanks to this workshop. Kids usually had a small grasp before the workshop about who this guy was, but after the workshop they started to listen to music a little differently. After the first day of teaching I would encourage the students to go home and listen to their favorite band or artist and think if that song would exist without the inventions Les Paul brought into the world.” – J.T. Backes, First Stage Teaching Artist

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Transforming lives through theater – Beck's story

This season, First Stage played a big role in the lives of the Lawrence family. Read below as Kelly shares her story about the impact First Stage has had on her family.

“My son started at First Stage with a Next Steps session after we received the flyer from his special education teacher. I was thrilled to hear about this new program within First Stage's Theater Academy because there are really not many activities for him. My son Beck is eleven years old and in 5th grade at Fairview Elementary in Milwaukee. He is also on the autism spectrum.

We always love the First Stage productions which we have been attending since he was three. We knew there was an Academy but we also knew it wouldn’t work for him. The timing of us learning about Next Steps was perfect because Beck was in third grade and that is the starting age. After his second Next Steps session, one of the instructors suggested that his “next step” be an acting class on Saturday. He did that class and has done several others since then.

First Stage is one of the most positive influences for Beck. 
He is completely accepted and encouraged there. We joke when he starts a new class about who the teacher will be to ease his anxiety. It is a joke because we have learned is doesn’t matter. They are all awesome! They also have older kids intern and help with both Next Steps and other Academy classes. This is great for Beck because it shows him the “next steps” he can take with First Stage as he gets older.

The First Stage cheer has become a part of our building blocks for life. We printed it out to put on his desk at school. It helps him to remember not only the positive reinforcements in the cheer but also the people at First Stage who believe in and encourage him. The cheer goes:  ‘I can’t’ is NOT in my vocabulary, I take risks, I conquer my fears, I am not afraid to lead.

The difference First Stage has made in my life, in my son’s life and in so many others’ lives is priceless and any amount you can give First Stage makes a difference for all of us.

One and two-week Next Steps Summer Academy classes begin August 17! To learn more, CLICK HERE.

First Stage is honored to play a role in the lives of thousands of young people and families, just like the Lawrence family. Whether it’s on stage, in the classroom, or in the audience, people are transformed through the power of theater.

We are less than one month away from the end of our fiscal year and need your help to reach our year-end goal. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution before June 30 so First Stage can continue making a difference in our community.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why we make art

Another First Stage Young Company student - and graduating senior shares his thoughts on art, and the many moments that made his experience at First Stage exceptional.

Maxwell Zupke in Our Town, 2015
Hi, I’m Maxwell Zupke, and I’ll be studying English, creative writing, and lifelong poverty at the University of California-Los Angeles. This is only my second year in the Young Company, but I’ve been at First Stage in some capacity for over ten years.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why we make art, specifically theater, why it’s important to us. There are a lot of popular reasons – because it’s entertaining, because it teaches us morals or lessons, because it’s a historical or cultural mirror – and they’re all somewhat true but I think there are flaws and exceptions to each of those arguments.

But the most irresistible argument is that great art becomes immortal –our ideas, our feelings can live on beyond our own short lives. But I’m not sure that’s the case, either. There’s a line the stage manager says in Our Town: “Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ‘em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts.” We like to say that Shakespeare is immortal; Hamlet may die in act five but he’ll live forever. The truth is that Hamlet has a much longer life than any of us – he was born hundreds of years ago and he’ll likely – hopefully – outlive us all by a good deal more, but there was a day when he was born onstage and there will be a day when he dies onstage as well.

In the end, all theater is – like life – just a series of moments that somehow form a human experience, some of which we take on in memory and which we pass on ourselves so that they might live a little longer; moments of discovery, of conflict, of bliss, of melancholy, of magic, of mystery. So I thank you for the moments – onstage and off – I’ve spent with you, with the understanding that most everything worth expressing has either already been said in small words here and there or else is, in fact, unsayable.

So thank you to Noa Rubnitz for always asking questions – even if half of them make no sense, to Josie Trettin for your sly glances across the room, to Max Wilson for your bemused ingenuity, to Mary Elsa Henrichs for your impressive combination of grace and fierce intelligence, to Caroline Fossum for sharing the anxiety of a first Company Class and a last Young Company show, to Hannah Engel for your emotional honesty and your contagious nervous excitement, to Max Pink for gently correcting my cockney (many times), to Lexie Peterson for the warmth and love in your backstage hugs, to Katherine Pollnow for your calm and your resilience in the face of small children and other seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and to Conlan Ledwith for your gleeful abandon in everything – especially things which have never before been treated with gleeful abandon. Thank you to Henry Lynch for your ease and good humor and for acting as a point of semi-reliable mental and emotional stability through the years. God knows we all need it. Thank you to Ben Braun for our late night movie rants and for our close encounters with death of the automobile kind. Thank you to Erin Bentley for your loyalty and for your ability to always make me laugh. Thank you to Alison Pogorelc for our forays into theater of questionable quality and for our Saturday afternoon coffee sessions.

And thank you to my mom, for convincing me – when it became apparent that soccer was not my thing – to try a theater class. Thank you to Marcy Kearns for showing me the sheer joy of continual, ceaseless discovery. Your bald, unmitigated enthusiasm for just about everything is a source of infinite inspiration. And to Matt Daniels for showing me how to build a character and a world from the text up, and for including me in the creative process like I’d never been before. You made all of us feel as though it was not only our town, but our play. And of course, thank you to John Maclay for teaching me to love Shakespeare, to wrestle like a kung fu master, and to be stingy with my cookies.

At First Stage I’ve played a king and a street urchin, a drunken priest and an arrogant wrestler, a count with a cheating fiancée and a boy with a mouse infestation, an embattled circus ringmaster and a probably underpaid stage manager. But by far the roles I’ve cherished most have been student and friend – and I hope to continue playing them for a long time. Thank you, my friends, for all these wonderful moments.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What I learned at First Stage: The Moscow Rules

Grace Bobber with Associate Director of the
Young Company Matt Daniels
On Monday, May 25 members of the First Stage Young Company gathered with their families and teachers at Onesto in the Third Ward to celebrate the end of a successful year and to send off our graduating seniors. Graduates had the opportunity to address the group and provide acknowledgements as they ended their time as First Stage Theater Academy Students. Here is what one student had to say.

My name is Grace Bobber, and in a few months I will be going to Northwestern University to study Theater and English, with hopefully a certificate in Musical Theater.

Recently, I was going through a binder I’ve kept throughout my four years of Young Company and I found this sheet of paper. This paper has “The Moscow Rules” written across the top, followed by the ten rules. As I was debating what to say up here today, I read through these rules and realized they summed up pretty much everything I’ve learned as an actor and as a person in these years here.  So I’d like to share them with you.

Grace Bobber with Young Company
faculty member Marcy Kearns
The Moscow Rules

1.    Assume nothing.  Assuming nothing out of others can make life a pleasant surprise.  Assuming nothing onstage can make for a smarter, more aware actor.

2.    Never go against your gut.  Young Company has shown me how to trust myself and my character choices and my knowledge as an actor.  One of my teachers especially, Marcy Kearns, taught me this skill as I was lying on my basement floor working on a monologue with her for my college auditions.  This choice of lying on the floor was completely spur of the moment and I had never done it before in this piece.  I remember her stopping me and just saying, “I love this choice, and I love that you trusted yourself enough to do it.”  Even when my choices aren’t as successful, in the future, I will take this skill of trusting my gut with me, and I will have Marcy and First Stage to thank for that.

3.    Everyone is potentially under opposition control.  Karl Miller taught me a lot more than just some Fosse dance moves.  Karl helped me take the skill in theater that I was least comfortable with and sent me on my way to being totally confident with it.  He taught us and showed us that some people in this business are going to try to get you down - directors, fellow actors vying for the same role, producers, anyone.  But his positive attitude, passion for dance in theater, and extensive knowledge about any kind of dance pushed me and motivated me to be better.

4.    Don’t look back; you are never completely alone.  My mom and dad have given me 18 years filled with a lot of support, encouragement, and learning experiences, but mostly, a lot of love.  I don’t quite know how to thank them not only for letting me be involved in Young Company, but for letting me be involved in the arts as a whole.  This helped me flourish into who I am now.  Mom and Dad, we’ll miss you more than we’d like to admit.  Simply, all I can say is thank you so much, for being my best friends and my biggest fans.  I love you.

5.    Go with the flow; blend in.  First Stage taught me to pretty much do the opposite of this.   Different teachers have asked me to perform pieces with my eyes closed, in a Southern accent, very slowly, very quickly, hopping on one foot, and pretty much anything you could imagine.  A lot of the stuff was weird and scary and uncomfortable, but I did it, and I took something from each experience.  First Stage’s mantra of supporting risk-tasking on the stage has slowly but surely transferred into my life.  Thank you for letting me develop my weird, eccentric self here.

6.    Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.  In the last few years, I have fostered a particular gratitude for a teacher of mine named Matt Daniels.  He teaches a class called Viewpoints, and for you parents out there, I’m gonna be honest, I never really knew how to describe Viewpoints to my parents when they asked what I did that day in YC.  It’s very physical work, and I like to think of Viewpoints as the foundation of building a character, and it all begins with soft focus.  To me, “varying your pattern” is kind of like trying a new tempo, duration, repetition, focusing on the architecture of the room; “varying your pattern” is keeping the acting fresh, honest, and aware.  Thank you, Matt.  Viewpoints has begun to teach me how to do that.

7.    Lull them into a sense of complacency.  At the beginning of this year, John Maclay pulled us seniors aside and told us, when colleges ask us why we deserve a spot in their program, that the last thing we should say is “because I love performing.”  Every applicant is gonna be passionate about performing, John said.  “What you have to tell them is why and what you have to show them is how.”  John, and our other teachers here, never wanted us to be lulled into a sense of complacency; we were to always strive for more.
8.    Don’t harass the opposition.  Here in the Young Company, you learn how to be professional, how to have patience with the craft, both for yourself and for your peers, and how to treat your teachers and fellow actors with respect and admiration.  You learn that harassing the opposition will never get you anywhere, and that kindness and gratitude are the keys to starting successful relationships and careers.
9.    Pick the time and place for action.  Over the years, I’ve picked up some pretty great quotes from our teachers. Recently at the intense 2015 Bard-o-thon in which she asked me to perform some of my pieces screaming on the floor, running around the room, or as the “broiest-bro I know”, Angela Iannone told me: “I don’t care if you feel it up there.  Screw your emotion.  Give me the words.  I’m the audience member.  I want to hear you, and I want to cry.  I didn’t pay my ticket to see you cry.” Additionally, as the First Stage community and my community of Mequon and Homestead mourned the loss of our friend Marty Bergquist, these words of Marcy Kearns comforted me: "Matter is neither created nor destroyed.  Energy never dies; it simply moves on to its next point.” And lastly, John Maclay’s quotes really bring me to the point of this particular Moscow Rule, picking the time and place for action.  Several of my favorite words of his include:

Don't worry about the acting. Just be.
Living with yourself as your #1 priority is not a negative or selfish way to live - it's the only way to live.
Take the risk to trust your work and this process.

John, Marcy, Angela, Matt, all of you teachers here or not here today, thank you for showing me how to pick the time and place for appropriate action, for guiding me to trust my work and its process, and simply, for being the foundation of inspiration that motivates me every day to become a better performer.

10.  Keep your options open.  I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next four years, but I do know that if I don’t give my passion for performing a shot, that I will be depriving myself of something extremely powerful and dear to my heart.  Theater and First Stage have built up an immeasurable portion of my character, my confidence, and my abilities as a performer.  Even if I don’t end up on a Broadway stage or in community theater, I am confident that I can still be content in life because of the opportunities First Stage has given me.  (But you can be sure I’m gonna damn well try to end up on that Broadway stage.) In or out of theater, life will give us the options that we work hard for, and First Stage has reminded me of that over and over again. I know I can take all of these stage skills and truly thrive with them as life skills.  Thank you to the teachers, to all the Patrick Schleys of the world, to my parents, to my friends, and to everyone who has made my time with First Stage so wonderful and life-changing.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Theater Academy alumni return to First Stage in full bloom

Heading into its 24th summer, First Stage Theater Academy has fostered life skills through stage skills to thousands of young people.  These students have learned acting, musical theater, improvisation, and much more, developing the creativity, confidence, and self-esteem needed to achieve one’s dreams both on the stage and beyond.

For some, those dreams have continued on stage.  Beginning their theater studies at First Stage, three of our adult actors have come full circle, returning for our production of BIG FISH.

J.T. Backes
J.T. BACKES’ (Fisherman/Male Understudy) story starts back when he began Academy classes at age 8, and had roles in several shows including MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL (2002). Now as an actor, J.T. summarizes what he learned over the years in one phrase – “to make choices.”  “First Stage is a safe place to be ‘you’ and take incredible risks without fear of consequence.  The teachers and students choose to treat others with respect and give to each other wholeheartedly without need of incentive,” said J.T.  This helped him build confidence and self-worth, allowing him the dedication, resilience, and an open mind into pursuing the craft of acting as a career. J.T. left us with this advice, "Whatever the situation, always be you! That is something nobody else can replicate. Take risks, fail big, and be you.”

Susie Duecker
For SUSIE DUECKER (Mermaid/Understudy Jenny Hill), coming home to First Stage for BIG FISH is “living life in full bloom.”  Susie began as an Academy student in the fourth grade, was a member of First Stage Young Company in its inaugural year, and was a young performer in four First Stage plays including THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY (1999). Not only did her love of theater grow, but many strong friendships bloomed, which Susie credits to the encouraging, inclusive atmosphere First Stage continues to nurture today.  Susie remembers what her First Stage teacher Aaron O’Rear told her, “if there’s anything else you can see yourself being happy doing, do that.” Susie always knew she would pursue theater as a career, and taking Academy classes confirmed that the dream could be a reality.

Nate Lewellyn
First Stage “provides a place to be one’s self, to be goofy and fun, and not have to worry about being ‘cool’ or looking cool to others. It was a very special experience growing up,” says NATE LEWELLYN. During his years as an Academy student, Nate appeared as a young performer in ARTHUR – THE BOY WHO WOULD BE KING (2001) and THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL’S CHRISTMAS GIFT (2002).  Through these formative First Stage experiences, Nate knows how many life skills can be learned through the theater, such as responsibility, empathy, and collaboration. Importantly, being present each moment is a vital skill not only for an actor, but in dreaming bigger and living life to its fullest. “Be present in the moment, value the time that we have with the people we have in life,” says Nate. “Don’t take anything for granted.”

See J.T., Susie and Nate in First Stage’s BIG FISH, May 8-31, 2015 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater.

Learn more about First Stage Theater Academy and the philosophy of teaching life skills through stage skills! Summer Academy classes for students in grades K5-12 begin June 15!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Famed Broadway Director Leads First Stage's BIG FISH

Jeff Whiting
With the opening of our final show of the season, 
BIG FISH, May 8-31, 2015, First Stage is thrilled to welcome back Jeff Whiting as the Director and Choreographer of the show.  Jeff comes to us from New York City where he was the Associate Director and Choreographer of the Broadway production of BIG FISH. His resume is long and his talent is vast, having worked on numerous theater productions throughout the country including THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and James Taylor in Concert at Carnegie Hall. Next up, Jeff will be directing the national touring company of Tony-nominated BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. This is his second affiliation with First Stage, having been the choreographer for BIG, THE MUSICAL in 2012.  

“After working on the Broadway production of BIG FISH, 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 who inspire all of us."

The cast and crew is enjoying the opportunity work with Jeff in Milwaukee. Several First Stage Young Company students have had the opportunity to attend his Open Jar Institute in Manhattan, a week-long, Broadway-integrated actor training workshop for high school students.

First Stage Company Manager and Music Director of BIG FISH Jeff Schaetzke shared his excitement about the show. “We are doing a Broadway musical in 75 minutes and not skimping on anything. Our production team is truly moving mountains, using their expertise, skill, energy, and every resource they have to create over 20 settings and countless costumes and quick changes [Costume Designer Kärin Kopischke created over 170 designs for BIG FISH],” said Schaetzke.  “Our young performers are top notch, sound wonderful and are acting as adults and children. Their task is enormous. The adult actors on this show [the show features Milwaukee stage veterans Jonathan Gillard Daly as Edward; Niffer Clarke as Sandra; Nate Lewellyn as Will and Paul Helm as Mayor/Dr. Bennett, to name just a few] are making us laugh and cry and it’s a reminder of what a moving piece this is,” he continued. Jeff went on to say that he expected BIG FISH to be the most beautiful musical in Milwaukee this theatre season.

First Stage is thrilled to present the new Theatre for Young Audiences adaptation of this larger-than-life Broadway musical! We hope to see you at the theater for BIG FISH, a show that will inspire us all to dream bigger! For ticket information for BIG FISH, please visit www.FirstStage.org/BigFish.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sneak peek: LUCHADORA set features original art by Bruce Guadalupe Middle School Students

First Stage’s upcoming world premiere LUCHADORA! is in part inspired by the Chinese legend of Mulan, and the strong women in playwright Alvaro Saar Rios’ family. Told through the prism of Mexican culture, this bold story is unlike anything First Stage has presented before. Integral to the story, is the set. Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank set about capturing the world of Lucha Libre, or Mexican masked wrestling, by incorporating the mask theme, iconic papel picado and of course a full-size wrestling ring. 

LUCHADORA! set model

Sarah and First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank, who directs LUCHADORA! collaborated with 120 Bruce Guadalupe Middle School students and their teachers, including art teacher Jacobo Lovo to create over 500 original pieces of papel picado. Instantly recognizable at religious, cultural and family celebrations in Mexico, papel picado, literally translated at “perforated paper,” is created by chiseling intricate designs in as many as 40 sheets of tissue paper at a time. This posed a bit of a conundrum for the LUCHADORA! set – due to its proximity to the theater lights, a thicker, flame retardant paper was used. Students created designs based on themes within the play including Lucha Libre masks, family, identity (a Luchador’s identity is closely guarded and never revealed), and honor. The papel picado created by students has been fully incorporated in to the set design, bursting off the stage, creating an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation of what’s to come!

Papel picado detail 
LUCHADORA! set at the Todd Wehr Theater

The discovery of a pink wrestling mask in her Nana Lupita’s briefcase sends Vanessa on an uncharted exploration into her Mexican American heritage, revealing family secrets that change her forever. Starting in 1960s small town Texas to present day Milwaukee, LUCHADORA! unmasks the significance of family traditions and the cultural identity that is shared by generations. For everyone ages 7 and up.

This world premiere play by Milwaukee-based playwright Alvaro Saar Rios opens April 10 and runs through April 26, 2015 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater. Tickets and information available at www.firststage.org/Luchadora or by phone at (414) 267-2961.