Touching the lives of Milwaukee’s youth – First Stage Theater in Education Residency at Daniels-Mardak Boys & Girls Club

By: Jenny Loeffler

First Stage continues the celebration of its 25th anniversary by making a significant impact on the Milwaukee community. To understand the mission of First Stage, one just needs to take a look at the lasting impression that the Theater in Education program has left on the students of the Daniels-Mardak Boys & Girls Club.

First Stage has partnered with the Daniels-Mardak Boys & Girls Club since 2005 with an after-school program, reaching 250 students each year. The partnership is comprised of three sequential programs that explore stories and cultures from around the world through a dramatic lens, including: 1) Early Literacy Sessions for those in the Positive Attitude Learning Skills program (PALS); 2) Professional Theater Outings; and 3) Production-Based Program.

The Early Literacy Sessions for PALS is for the youngest students at the Club (ages 6-8) and uses theater arts to foster a love of reading while simultaneously developing curriculum-based skills in reading, writing, and language arts. Specially trained First Stage Teaching Artists visit the PALS classroom at the Daniels-Mardak Boys & Girls Club for 14 sessions – one hour every other week. Using classic picture books as the springboard for lessons, this program brings stories to life with dramatic activities and theater exercises. This active learning approach ensures all students are engaged, making the learning experience natural, fun, and exciting.

The Professional Theater Outings offer all Club members and their families free tickets to attend preview performances of First Stage’s Family Series productions at the Todd Wehr Theater. Before each show, students are able to participate in a 45-minute pre-show workshop, which gives them a greater understanding of the play’s subjects and themes.

The Production-Based Program offers students two opportunities to showcase their talents: Introduction to Acting Workshops and a Culminating Production.

The first, Introduction to Acting Workshops, is a series of four 2-hour workshops for all students at the Club who are interested in participating. The workshops focus on teaching basic acting skills, including: voice and speech techniques, creating characters through movement, playing objectives and tactics, listening to scene partners and truthfully responding, giving and taking focus, and working as an ensemble. The workshops also prepare students for the audition process that take place in mid-January for the Culminating Production.

The second opportunity, the Culminating Production, is a more advanced program that offers a final performance for 12-18 students. Auditions are held in mid-January and rehearsals begin in February. The production process becomes more advanced as the performance nears, with rehearsals only once a week in February and March and twice a week in April and May. The final performance is held at the end of May at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, followed by a reception for the actors, their families, and audience members.

The Culminating Production for spring 2012 is titled FOLK TALES FOR ALL FOLK, a piece that was deliberately chosen for its impact on how students understand the humanities. FOLK TALES FOR ALL FOLK is a collection of folktales designed to bring a variety of countries and cultures alive for young learners. The folktales range from humorous to thought-provoking and include samples from African, Native American, and Central American cultures. In between the folktales, students will weave multicultural hymns, poems, and songs selected with help from the directors and assistance from a choreographer.

The cast members and other interested students from the Club will help First Stage’s technical director and production manager in creating the set for the production. The performance is also filmed and presented at a screening at the Daniels-Mardak Boys & Girls Club for the entire Club to see. There is a reception and a talkback session with the actors after the screening, which will allow other Club members to ask the young performers questions about their experience of being a part of this production.

Julia Magnasco, First Stage’s education director and developer of the program, believes that the students can learn valuable lessons such as commitment, responsibility, and teamwork. She says, “Of course the students are going to gain the experience of being in a production, but above all, they will gain a commitment to following through on tasks, a responsibility to their cast, director, and self, and learning teamwork while being an ensemble member.”

But that’s not all they will learn. She adds, “With all of these traits, they will also gain respect, leadership, and time management skills with school work, rehearsals, and family.”

Julia says that her favorite part of the program is the gratification that the students and their families gain. “They grow so much from when we first start to when we finish the production. The gratification they gain is immense, and that’s why I love doing this,” she enthuses.

FOLK TALES FOR ALL FOLK will be presented on May 18 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, and the screening will take place at the Daniels-Mardak Boys & Girls Club at the beginning of June. For more information on First Stage’s Theater in Education programs, visit

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