Thursday, April 6, 2017

MOCKINGBIRD: A Look Behind The Scenes

During last week’s meetup of First Stage’s Mentorship program participants, the First Stage Design Supervisor, Brandon Kirkham, presented the group with a unique behind the scenes look at MOCKINGBIRD, and the creative process that went into the various aspects of the show. The story of MOCKINGBIRD centers around Caitlin, an 11-year-old on the autism spectrum, dealing with the loss of her older brother, and what this means for her. There is a sense of overwhelm as we accompany Caitlin through her journey to cope with life and loss. Starting immediately with the first scenes as characters and lighting set the very intentional tone of uncomfortability, and in many ways a feeling of being out of place in the world around us. Every element of set design, lighting, sound, and costuming was created with Caitlin’s perspective in mind, guiding the audience along with Caitlin as she continues to cope with the concepts of life and loss, adding to the incredibly thought-provoking, and heartfelt nature of the piece.

Production Stage Model, MOCKINGBIRD, 2017
To literally set the stage, the set design focused on simple lines and shapes, symbolizing Caitlin’s very simplified, black and white view of the world. Few items were clearly defined to bring clarity to that which is important to Caitlin’s character: her blanket, pillow, and the emotional chart she studies to better understand herself and others. All other elements on stage are very abstract and linear, exemplifying Caitlin’s perspective and contrasting those things that are important with sharp clarity, while all others are background and therefore superfluous. The only other item as clearly defined is the project that Caitlin’s brother, Devon, had started before his passing. Devon’s Eagle project, a wooden chest, plays a pivotal role in Caitlin’s journey, and as such is always present on the set, though not in every scene. Only Caitlin and her father ever interact with the chest itself, which brilliantly serves as both a point of conflict for the two characters, as well as an eventual sense of peace.

Costume design, MOCKINGBIRD, 2017
Another of the storytelling elements was presented in the use of costuming. Purple is Caitlin’s favorite color, she does not care for the mixing of colors or patterns. In fact, her uniform consists of sweatpants and a purple long-sleeve t-shirt in the winter and sweatpants and a short-sleeve t-shirt for summer. Costume Designer Lyndsey Kuhlmann expertly used these color details to further define the relationships between Caitlin and the other characters. Those who Caitlin liked less, or who caused her additional stress were wearing bright colors and patterns, things that from Caitlin’s perspective are messy and unnecessary. Those characters she did call friends had a much simpler look, even incorporating her favorite color.

Color plays a key role in Caitlin’s journey from darkness to light. We see her slowly begin to be more open with those around her as she continues to “Work At It,” even going so far as to bring color into her own artwork, as we see with the finished chest.

This play between light and dark, chaos and silence as Caitlin learns to walk her path towards acceptance was captured beautifully by the incredibly talented lighting and sound designers, Jesse Klug and Sarah Ramos. Throughout the show, the grid-like pattern of the stage floor is illuminated to help guide Caitlin, as well as the audience, from scene to scene and moment to moment, providing a grounded reality when things become too overwhelming, as we could hear very clearly through the sound design. The original concept was to have no music whatsoever, but to compose sounds based on schools and classrooms, breathing and words. The effect is incredibly unnerving at times, assailing the senses and drawing us further into Caitlin’s world.

Final performances of MOCKINGBIRD this weekend, including a sensory friendly performance on Saturday, April 8 at 1pm.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

WHY I LOVE JUNIE B. JONES (and Writing Plays for Young Audiences)

by Allison Gregory, Playwright
Allison Gregory

1. She isn’t afraid to look bad.
Junie B. says what’s on her mind, tries things that she will fail at, and doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how she comes off. She is blatantly, boldly flawed. I wish I were half as awesome as her.

2. She speaks like children think.
Barbara Park, the late author, took a lot of flack for creating such a (to my mind) real character. I know parents who actually refused to let their children read the books; they feared their progeny would pick up Junie B.’s incorrect use of words and forever be saddled with a language deficit. What?! The way I see it? Junie B. is an expressionist: she seeks to present the world from her own, subjective perspective – that of an out-going, curious, confident 6/7 year-old. Her distortion of words for emotional, intellectual, or utilitarian purposes might be considered artistic if she were an adult artist. At the very least, they are entertaining malapropisms which generally convey meaning more accurately than standard “acceptable” language.

3. She made my daughter laugh harder than I ever heard before.
This was no small feat. Every parent knows the downside of reading to your child: once you find a book they love they will want to hear it ad nauseam. It is soul crushing; you will come to dread the nightly ritual, at least the part where you have to read what has become a mind-numbingly boring book for the eighthundredth time. That never happened with the Junie B. books, and believe me, we read them at least eight hundred times. Each. And there are, like, twenty-eight books in the series!
That’s, oh you do the math, that’s a lot. Somehow – not somehow, but through Barbara Park’s gifts and skill as a writer, the stories were always funny, gut-laugh-till-you-weep funny, every dang time. I still laugh at them, because they are still funny, twenty-plus years after the writing.

4. Junie B. stories make really great plays.
When I’m looking for a children’s book to adapt, I am most intrigued by stories that offer an inner dilemma with an outer obstacle. In other words, a moral quandary that will affect an action taken (or denied). In Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!, there was a very clear and relatable, situation: Junie B. had unwittingly selected her nemesis May’s name for the classroom’s Secret Santa exchange – at a time when Tattletale May was being particularly unpleasant and annoying to Junie B. Add to that the fact that Junie B. didn’t even have enough cash to buy her family their gifts and the Squeeze-A-Burp she so desperately needed to have; what’s a first grader supposed to do, I ask you? Read the play, silly. With Junie B. is Not A Crook, our hero is similarly painted into a corner of her own making. She finds something at school that has value and obviously belongs to one of her schoolmates – but they were careless so it’s their fault for losing it and she should
be able to keep it, right? Right???

5. The stories are honest; the characters are real.
One reason I return to this series – and will continue to do so until someone arrests me, is that I trust these stories. The books are genuine, there is a singular truthfulness to each narrative that, no matter how hair-brained Junie B.’s antics, they never become ‘silly’. Funny, yes. Rash, wrong-headed, thoughtless, yes. Silly, never. However flawed her thinking there is always a compelling reason for Junie B. to do what she does, and there is invariably an unintended consequence that requires her to respond. Her actions cost her something; in that sense these stories feel very real to me. Yet, and this impresses me to no end, however dire the situation, however deeply she’s dug that hole, Junie B. manages to call up some unexpected well of goodness within, and disaster is mostly averted, the dilemma is resolved. That is what’s so engaging and joyful about these stories and Junie B. herself: her scrappy resourcefulness, her unbridled sense of right and wrong, her bull-in-a-china-shop
zest and imagination. Barbara Park got Junie B. so right because, well, she was Junie B. And luckily, I get to keep telling her stories.
                                                                     -Allison Gregory January 20, 2017 Austin

Catch Junie B., the funniest girl in room nine in JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK, April 28-June 4, 2017.

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!