Heroes Among Us

First Stage is incredibly grateful to the heroes among us who are keeping our community safe, healthy, and fed throughout this challenging time. To aid the cause, First Stage joined forces with the Milwaukee Rep and Milwaukee Ballet to make masks and face shields for our fearless frontline workers. This cumulative effort, thanks in part to funding from the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, has resulted in the creation of more than 10,000 pieces of PPE that have been donated to Children’s Hospital, Froedtert Hospital, and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Learn more here.

Last month, First Stage was the beneficiary of an unexpected heroic effort done to help our organization navigate through this crisis. Knowing that First Stage faces significant revenue loss due to the pandemic, fourteen-year-old Casey Westphal organized a virtual talent show to raise vital funds for First Stage. His virtual talent show featured current and past Theater Academy students and young performers. Watch the virtual talent show here:
First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank was simply blown away by the outpouring of support and love. In response, he shared: “I can’t thank you all enough! It had been a hard day and then I discovered this. Thank you for uplifting me and the rest of the First Stage family! You are all amazing, and I promise you—we will work through this together, keep fighting, and find even more ways to connect through the power of theater.”

First Stage interviewed Casey to hear more about his heroic generosity and inspiration.

What gave you the idea to create a fundraiser for First Stage?
I had seen and heard about a lot of businesses really struggling since “safer at home” started. First Stage is such a monumental part of my life that I had to do something.

Quite honestly, I first viewed things very selfishly… thinking about what would happen to me if this pandemic negatively affected First Stage.

When my mom and I were asking people to participate, not only did everyone agree, but also the first video that came in immediately helped me understand the seriousness of the situation. Mallory’s video told about how much First Stage helped turn her life around. Her story helped me see the situation in a more serious light and I told my mom we needed to help however we could.

So, not only was it a fun project, but it was definitely a learning experience for me on so many levels. 

It looks like it took a lot of coordination. How did you go about the planning and programming of it? How many people were involved?
My mom won’t let me have a Facebook account so she had to help me reach out to all of the kids and alumni that I’ve been in shows with and taken classes with at First Stage. It was really easy to rally and get all of the First Stage kids to participate once they read my message about what was going on.

In total, we got about 20 kids to participate and raise money for First Stage by submitting a video of them singing, performing a monologue, or doing the First Stage cheer along with a plea for donations! I was really excited to see how many kids wanted to help! 

I took point on editing and putting together the video itself. I am currently taking a Video and App Design Class and I applied all that I learned from that class into editing the video, adding background music, balancing the volume across all videos, and transitioning between the individual performances, etc. I was also able to use this video for my final project in that class, so that was pretty cool. 

Is there a favorite story you have about compiling these videos and creating the talent show?
My personal favorite part about putting together these videos was just getting to see so many faces that I haven’t got to see in so long.

One of my best friends Ella, who I hadn’t seen in a while, submitted a video of her favorite First Stage memories. It was so fun seeing the creative ways that Ella, and some of the other kids, like Scarlett, Zoah, and Zach, found to show their support for the theater that they owe so much to. Jake made me laugh through the stress of editing everything by texting me asking if I was “done yet” over and over and sending my mom pictures of moths for some reason. You know when it’s late at night and you start getting loopy? 

Another one of my personal favorites was when Marina and Evie submitted their video with a separate video file called bloopers. We did not ask for that but they were the sole inspiration behind the hilarious blooper reel at the end! 

Why was it important for you to raise money for First Stage?
Personally I feel, as do so many others, such an amazing bond and love for First Stage and all the people who work and teach there. Without First Stage, there would be a tremendous hole in my life. 

Sure, I could take another theater class, do a show at a different theater, but there is just a “magic” at First Stage—such a sense of community, acceptance, and friendship. First Stage is a safe place. If it were gone, so many kids would be denied a place to dream, learn, and grow.

Were you expecting to raise $5,000? Why do you think this was so successful?
Personally, I had a feeling that the community would really show up and support First Stage, but when conducting this sort of thing there is always a little bit of fear and doubt. I think the project did so well because at that point, we had been “social distancing” for a while and that sense of fear and doubt was nagging everyone. I think people were excited to see kids being kids while also taking initiative to give back to the adults who have given us so much. 

I believe that people really see First Stage as an outlet of positivity in our community and with the fear in our world right now, everyone is excited to see the positivity of First Stage return.

The responses of all the First Stage staff watching the show also made it apparent that we had really surprised them! When we spoke with sincerity and love for First Stage and even used songs from First Stage shows to drive home the message of hope, I think that showed the magnitude of this organization’s mission.

I want to thank everyone who participated in the project, those who donated in support of First Stage, and of course, everyone at First Stage who are always there and really strive to provide the best for their students.

The adults at First Stage go out of their way to make us kids feel safe and secure while we are in their care, and it felt really good to turn the tables and provide them with security and love to remind them that we will be back together again soon.

Everyone, please stay safe!

Thank you to you, Casey, and your mom Julia for your generosity and inspiration. First Stage is so grateful!

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