Monday, May 22, 2017

First Look review: Animal Farm


by Lauren Strifling

Have you ever wondered what would happen if animals took over a farm? In the First Stage Young Company production of ANIMAL FARM you can! As soon as you enter the theater, the actors are already in their roles of animals. I was amazed by how the cast members moved, talked, and had the characteristics exactly like the animals they portrayed. The dogs kept the animals in order, the hen was perched high, and the horses were pulling the plow.
ANIMAL FARM is about a political revolution where the animals overthrow the farmer who had mistreated them. After that, things get better - at least, at first. The animals come up with a set of rules that can be summarized as “All animals are equal” and “Four legs good, two legs bad.” But as time goes by, the pigs try to take power away from the other animals. The other animals get frustrated, and they start fighting among themselves. Who will prevail: The strongest? The smartest? The bravest? It was interesting to see how the animals adapted, reacted, and changed with the revolution. You will be amazed by the ending, when the true moral of the story becomes clear.
               
Matt Daniels (Director), Madelyn Yee (Scenic Designer), and Kristina Sneshkoff (Costume Designer) did an excellent job, as did Marisa Abbot (Lighting Designer), Matt Whitmore (Sound Designer), Julia Xiong (Stage manager) and all the Young Company performers. Their combined efforts transported everyone into the world of ANIMAL FARM. Whether or not you’ve read the book, the play will be very thought-provoking. My father said that it made him want to read the book again, and even my younger brother said he liked it. Although the play is intended for ages 12 and up, my whole family enjoyed being on the farm.

Young Company cast “became” the animals they played, and taught us an important lesson in the process.  I highly recommend seeing the production Animal Farm at First Stage.

Reading, writing and drawing a just a few of our reviewer Lauren's favorite things. Thank you for your review of ANIMAL FARM!


ANIMAL FARM concludes the Young Company's season. Please save the date for 2017-2018 Young Company performances: THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH (December 8 - 17, 2017) and Shakespeare's HENRY V (March 9-24, 2018).

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

First Look review: JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK

by Jonah Bertram
Jonah (right) and his little brother Jack.

First stage is currently performing JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK, and it’s amazing!

The play was just like how I imagined it, and the background was perfect for this play. It reminded me of when I was in fourth grade, and read the book, “Junie B. Jones and the Tale of a Fourth Grade Nothing.”  I loved how the actors spoke, as if they were actual kindergarteners. Throughout the whole play, I enjoyed it. In fact, everyone laughed at least once during this play, and the audience was packed. The way that the actors acted out the play was very good, and how they went into intermission got me very excited to watch the rest of the play. The play was really easy to understand at all times, and the ending tied great with the whole play. The ending was perfect just the way it was.

I have a little brother named Jack. He is five years old, and this play is for kids around his age. He enjoyed the background with the lights and how they changed color. He really enjoyed when the kids would talk like they were actually kindergarteners. He also enjoyed the animals that were on the background, and he thought that it added to the kindergarten classroom setting. He also liked when the pictures fell from the ceiling. He thought that the characters did a great job of acting out this play.

This story teaches some great lessons for all people at any stage in life. It taught my brother that the rule is not always “finders keepers, losers weepers.” It also reminded me that when you loose something you feel bad. If you are the one that finds something, you should always try to return the item to its rightful owner or to the lost and found. Finally, it reminded me that it should not matter what you wear or how you act, it just matters that you are what you are and people should respect that.

JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK continues at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater through June 4.

Thank you to 13 year old Jonah for this review of JUNIE B.! Jonah enjoys seeing plays, sharing his ideas and writing about them.

Friday, April 28, 2017

ANIMAL FARM: A Look Behind The Scenes

The third and final Young Company (YC) production of First Stage’s 2016-17 season is the George Orwell classic ANIMAL FARM, opening Friday, May 12. As rehearsals started for this production, we caught up with Director and Associate Director of the Young Company, Matt Daniels to get a behind-the-scenes look at this production of ANIMAL FARM, how the YC and Academy training influence the overall process, and a bit about Shakespeare.
An exercise utilized by the YC both on and off stage is viewpoints, a technique to study movement and improvisation through the concepts of space, shape and gesture, time, emotion and story. During the rehearsal process of Animal Farm, viewpoint exercises were used as warm-ups for the YC actors, allowing them to fully transition into character – in this case, the animals on Mr. Jones’s farm. According to Matt, deconstructing the individual elements of a character along with the work itself is an integral part of the process, and this collaboration begins with the students. Matt talked more about this open exchange of new ideas as the cast works together in defining the themes of the play and how best to communicate those, offering the students a unique opportunity by bridging the gap between classroom and stage.

The viewpoint exercises are also used more practically for scene changes and transition. In an earlier YC production, TXT U L8R, actors performed the scenes in slow-motion before speeding back to real time to contrast the fast-paced, tech dominated story. Matt discussed how making those transitions feel part of the world takes what could be mundane and makes it artful, ultimately the goal of acting.
As a classic piece and political satire, ANIMAL FARM provides some interesting challenges for the young actors, including only one human character in the entire play. To help the cast fully embody those animalistic traits, the group visited a local farm to study how each creature moves, and how they interact with each other. That interaction plays a crucial role as the story unfolds and we begin to see the similarities between these animals and our own society. ANIMAL FARM is a cautionary tale with themes that always seem relevant regardless of the current political climate. Not knowing the current state of affairs when the play was chosen a year ago, Matt was noting that this ultimately provides another teaching moment as the actors learn to distinguish their own political views from those of their character.

The Young Company serves as an excellent training tool to bring all the incredible skills of First Stage’s Theater Academy to the stage. Within the diverse mix of opportunities and areas of study throughout the Academy, there is an affinity for the classics among students, something for which Matt Daniels is very proud. This past weekend was the YC’s 7th Annual Bard-O-Thon, where students spent the day learning and memorizing as many Shakespeare monologues as possible, to later perform a selection before a public audience gathered at 88nine Radio Milwaukee. In addition to again having that classroom to stage experience, deconstructing such complex text has it’s applications in many different areas, though perhaps most directly during auditions when an impromptu monologue is required.

See the results of the Young Company’s hard work on stage in ANIMAL FARM!

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.