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. 


by Ryienn Rideout

First Stage’s new play WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE was an instant attention-grabber! The set design was a practically perfect reflection of the year 1957, with a beautifully constructed mural (by artist Mutope J. Johnson) that featured paintings of people during that time, and the Bronzeville community. Speaking of which, the strong sense of community and support that anyone may have if they look hard enough is extremely evident in the play. It enraptured me in a world of a family filled with love, struggles, and achievements. It is something to share with everyone you know.

The amount of times I laughed during this play was countless, with the humor being so simple but so infectious. The main and heartwarming theme to this play that stood out to me was the kindred spirit and amity of the community, and the way they were always there to help encourage, love, and when needed to, correct and discipline. It also showed what peer pressure can lead to, and following the crowd rather than listening to your family's needs. It gave insight on the relationships in a family and how they can be affected by things like not focusing on your children enough and giving them love, and the different kinds of love parents may show. It was very relatable at times with the father and son relationship depicted, and opened my eyes to the fact that there is a love that is specific to sacrifices rather than hugs and “I love you’s.”

This story also showed how a relatively important stranger can help in many more ways than expected, and how anyone can simply offer something of value or advise to make people feel better. This play gave me strength because I can choose what I want to be, and make my own path in life; not according to what my family has done before or to what they expect, but for my own interests and desires. Anyone can be whatever they want, most likely, with the backing of family and the entire community.

WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE continues through February 5, 2017.

Ryienn is a 15 year old home-schooled freshman who loves tap, contemporary dance, singing and theater. Ryienn is a First Stage Theater Academy Student who has been involved in Touring Company, the Student Advisory Board and Advanced Musical Theater. In her spare time Ryienn enjoys spending time with her 7 siblings, reading and sketching. Thank you Ryienn for this great review of WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Continuing our commitment to new play development with The Foundry

As The Wisconsin Cycle –– our six-year series developing new plays that celebrate the history and people of our state – concludes with the world premiere WELCOME TO BRONZEVILLE, First Stage looks ahead to our next phase of new play development. The Foundry seeks to forge the next generation of new plays, new artists and new audiences.

“The term ‘foundry’ pays homage to the work ethic and manufacturing traditions of Milwaukee,” said Artistic Director Jeff Frank. “Our latest new play development initiative honors the effort required to craft new plays and programs while simultaneously developing artists and building community,” Frank continued.

A reading for The Sisters Eight by John Olive, December 2016
Beginning this season, The Foundry is comprised of a series of new play readings, engaging the community in conversations about the work and our process of creating a new play. These new play readings give First Stage’s artistic team an opportunity to hear a new work read aloud and receive vital feedback on the new script from those who matter most – our family audiences.

“As artistic director, I find the conversations we have with audiences about a new play are invaluable,” said Frank. “Learning from families what they enjoyed most about a story, what moments really resonated, what parts they find unclear – the feedback is necessary in shaping the piece to the high caliber theater we require ourselves to deliver to our audiences.”

In addition to gaining insight from audiences with these new play readings, The Foundry nurtures the talents of our local playwrights and artists, providing additional opportunities for youth and adult actors, writers and directors. The Foundry also looks globally for stories and the tellers of those new tales – tales that build awareness and understanding, foster empathy, and promote unity.

The following three new play readings are slated for the remainder of the 2016-17 season. These events take place at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Mark your calendars, and to step into The Foundry and help us forge the future of theater!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 at 7pm
By Alan Ayckbourn, Musical Adaptation and Lyrics by Paul James, Music by Cathy Shostak and Eric Angus

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 at 7pm
An original play by Finegan Kruckemeyer

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at 7pm
Adapted by Marie Kohler, From the novel by Gene Stratton-Porter

Admission is free for these new play readings; advanced registration is encouraged. For full details on these readings and to register, visit

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Gift Giving at First Stage

With the holiday season well under way, you may find yourself driving around town, searching for “that” perfect gift. Checking off items on your “to-do” list can be made easier though! 

Looking for a gift for the whole family? First Stage is holding a 30th Anniversary Vacation Raffle! The winner will receive a beautiful, 5-night vacation property in Punta Mita - a few miles from Puerta Vallerta. Only 100 raffle tickets will be sold. Drawing will take place on January 12. Who wouldn’t want to win a luxurious family getaway this winter? Learn more 

If you’re avoiding the malls, and looking for a gift online, you can make your purchase while supporting First Stage at the same time. Shopping through sites like, AmazonSmile or goodsearch/goodshop, make it easy to give back to First Stage. A percentage of every purchase you make is donated back to First Stage, at no additional cost to you!

Barnes & Noble Bookfair: Visit BN.COM/bookfairs to support us online from December 16 - 22, 2016 by entering  Bookfair ID 12049581 at checkout.  A percentage of your purchase will be donated to First Stage!

Maybe your loved ones would prefer an evening out together at one of our shows.  A gift certificate to First Stage is the perfect gift for theatre-lovers, and children at heart alike.  Gift certificates for Academy classes are also available for your favorite student! Learn more about ordering First Stage gift certificates.  

A First Stage Family Package is a great gift for any family. Choose three or more plays in our 2016-2017 season and you’ll receive 30% off regular single ticket prices, free backstage tours and family workshops, and much more. Learn more.

While you’re getting into the holiday spirit at Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, consider supporting our Mini-Campaign in the lobby and walking away with either a custom First Stage ornament, or a commemorative 30th Anniversary coloring book.

For the loved one who has it all, consider making a donation to First Stage in their honor.  All gifts of $100+ will be recognized in our Playbill. More information about making a gift can be found HERE

During this busy time of year, we hope that you’re able to take some time to relax, and find yourself surrounded by the ones you love.
Happy Holidays from our First Stage family to yours!

Monday, December 5, 2016

First stage continues its commitment to new play development with THE FOUNDRY

This year First Stage launches a new play development initiative The Foundry, designed to launch new plays, and create new audiences. This initiative creates outlets and opportunities for young and emerging artists to share their collective voices, stories and unique perspectives. The focus of the program is to lay the foundation for young people to be part of the theater community, nurturing the talents of local playwrights and artists to help build awareness and understanding, and hopefully – through the power of theater and it’s collaborative process – foster empathy.
A reading from Welcome to Bronzeville

You're invited to attend, and participate! 
Through a series of new play readings each season, THE FOUNDRY seeks to engage the community in discussion about the work and the process of creating a new play. It's your chance to tell us what you think, and get an inside look at some of the plays being developed and considered for First Stage's future seasons.

Readings will take place at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Admission is free, but registration is recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016 at 7 p.m.
A play adapted from the books by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
Play written by John Olive
Eight sisters. One big mystery. Let the fun begin!
Learn more and register

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 at 7 p.m.
By Alan Ayckbourn
Musical Adaptation and Lyrics by Paul James
Music by Cathy Shostack and Eric Angus
Ten-year-old Kevin Carter falls into his book and meets his fictional hero, tough and hard-bitten Private Investigator, RockfistSlim - 220 pounds of solid muscle and now only too real. Together the gallant, incongruous pair, pursued by arch-enemy Monique, set out on the most exciting journey of their lives on a quest to save the world!
Learn more and register

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 at 7 p.m.
An Original Play by Finegan Kruckemeyer
Young Lenny sees things other people can't. Traveling around his beloved city, he is troubled by some of the things he sees, so he decides to make a difference by sharing his unique insights with his community - and magical things start to happen.  Inspired by conversations with young people and families of Milwaukee, internationally renowned playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer (THE SNOW) explores the challenges of growing up in a world that is increasingly difficult through which to navigate.
Learn more and register

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at 7 p.m.
Adapted by Marie Kohler
From the novel by Gene Stratton-Porter
Growing up at the edge of the wetlands, young Lenora endures turn of the century hardships, but finds comfort in the beauty of nature.
Learn more and register
Step into The Foundry and help us forge the future of theater!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Virtual Storytelling Experience connects MPS students and First Stage, MPM.

Published by Danae Davis, Executive Director of Milwaukee Succeeds

By Gaye-Lynn Clyde Milwaukee Public Museum 
Distance Learning Coordinator and Julia Magnasco First Stage Education Director.

Last week, three of Lois Ehlert's most famous stories came to life with a Virtual Storytelling Experience (VSE) for MPS students. A collaboration between Milwaukee Succeeds,The Milwaukee Public Museum and First Stage made it all possible. 

First Stage is a national leader in storytelling, specifically for young people and their families. Having the opportunity to learn from stories, interact and play with stories, and become fully immersed in stories helps students deepen personal connections to the content, strengthen language and comprehension skills, and build empathy. The VSE with MPM and Milwaukee Succeeds has allowed First Stage to explore new ways to engage students in the power of story, and provide teachers and students the chance to actively participate in an arts integrated learning experience together. 

Gaye-Lynn Clyde (MPM), Sheri Williams Pannell
and Julia Magnasco (First Stage)
"Students LOVED the workshop," said one teacher. "They believed that the presenters were talking to them and watching them. It was awesome!"

In Mole’s Hill, students transformed into “teeny, tiny, little seeds” which were cared for by the teachers who “sprinkled” them with soil, water, and just enough sunshine to become big beautiful flowers. In Moon Rope, students got to stomp and sing along as they went on a fox hunt, looking for one particular fox that wanted the moon just for himself. While “swimming” through rivers and using their manners to pass by on a grumpy troll’s bridge, children were engulfed in the story. They were engaged physically through the actions, but also had opportunities to discuss solutions to problems they faced on their “journey.” Finally, Cuckoo embraced the importance of beauty coming from the inside. In between the performances were moments for students to learn about real-world applications of the problems characters faced in the stories. Shown through pictures of the exhibits at the Milwaukee Public Museum, students were given an opportunity to make concrete connections of communities coming together.
First Graders at Hopkins Lloyd Elementary School
enjoy the Virtual Storytelling Experience

Virtual Storytelling Experience supports the Milwaukee Succeeds Transformative Reading Instruction (TRI) model by providing professional development and support to teachers in the art of engagement through creative interactivity and play, while their students receive amazing experiential opportunities that increase vocabulary and comprehension through authentic stories. Because the Virtual Storytelling Experience connects directly to each classroom via video streaming it allows for many classes to participate simultaneously. The teachers facilitate activities within their own classes, providing everyone the opportunity to be engaged at the same time. And, Milwaukee Succeeds experiential network group can bring rich content to many more teachers and students to help improve literacy in Milwaukee through the TRI model!

The Virtual Storytelling Experience provides students and schools an opportunity to engage in valuable experiences that may not have been possible otherwise. Field trips to the museum or theater may be costly or difficult for schools. This budget-friendly alternative doesn’t skimp on the fun. The VSE served  28 teachers and more than 1,003 students. With this collaboration, still in its early stages, with positive feedback and continuous improvement we hope to continue expanding this great opportunity, providing as many children access to theater arts and living history as possible.

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