Friday
Jan102014

COMMENTARY: First Stage Reprises A Midnight Cry for Wisconsin Series

The initial conception of the First Stage Wisconsin Series began about 15 years ago, when Artistic Director Jeff Frank commissioned James DaVita to write a story about Caroline Quarlls-Watkins, One of the first slaves to escape though the underground railroad in 1842 Wisconsin, DeVIta delivered her story as this unfolded in A Midnight Cry and becomes inspiration for all those seeking freedom from oppression in a contemporary context, a story worth reprising.

During the commissioning and planning of the first 2003 production, “the genesis of the significant Wisconsin Series began” Frank explains. He enjoyed the process of creating new theater for young audiences so thoroughly, and after the premiere, A Midnight Cry completed a national tour with the Dallas Children’s Theater through the play’s distribution with Dramatists Publicists. However, revisiting A Midnight Cry a second time made Frank think, “What a testament to how good a play Jimmy wrote.”

As the third edition in the First Stage Wisconsin Series, these new works are commissioned to combine the culture, drama and history of an event or person unique to the state. The series also presented the World Premiere of Y York’s adaptation of artist Della Well’s childhood in Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly, which garnered Distinguished Play Recognition from the American Alliance of Theater Education. Next year, the series continues with a play by Alvaro Sarr Rios, who adapted Lois Ehlert’s successful Mole Hill Stories, in a play titled Luchadora and reflects the state’s Latino culture.

In each of these plays from the Wisconsin series, a difficult topic might be explored or examined through a youthful perspective. In regards to A Midnight Cry, a story about slavery and the undue suffering this caused, Frank admits he was asked: Why produce a play (or plays) about such a painful time in the state’s or a country’s, history?

“This play [and in general, the Wisconsin Series], speaks to the perseverance of the human spirit,” Franks answers with confidence.  “What do you do when you need to leave your loved ones behind? You carry their strength with you so you can conquer the obstacles ahead, in front of you.”

Lida is the young girl in the play who escapes to the North for freedom. In the powerful script before she must leave, her father attempts to encourage her before her frightening and solitary journey ahead. “When you feel alone, we’re right here,” her father says as he pats Lida's heart before she suddenly disappears on her journey for freedom through the Underground Railroad.  

To develop the marvelous, evocative tenor in the plays, an element of music connects the audience to the specific cultural community presented on stage. In this play, Music Director Sheri Williams Pannell and Percussion Director Jahmés Tony Finlayson worked with musicians to tweak the original 2003 performances  with original songs from the African American spiritual tradition. “Music,” Frank explains, “Underscores the production and we usually have little more than 90 minutes, so the score, the music helps the audience move emotionally through the play."

For the audience who will be attending A Midnight Cry for the first time, Frank describes how very realistically the play documents how slaves were treated. “A heart wrenching production,” he says, “To honor Caroline and the other nameless, faceless people who went through those experiences….palpably real.”

To begin 2013, A Midnight Cry returns to First Stage in the Todd Wehr Theater and runs through February 9. In several talkbacks during the opening week, Kimberly Simmons, the great, great, great granddaughter of Caroline Quarlls-Watkins will be here to illuminate and give her insight on this dangerous and yet, as she says, shining moment of history, when people worked together for the slaves who were called the freedom seekers. Where the young girl Lida learns in her perilous journey that, as Frank puts it, “Some people will close a fist, others with push her away, or a very few will open a hand.”

If one missed this miraculous play remembering the pain and joys on the road to freedom, the time is now to journey to First Stage with Lida and the company. Discover these complex, rich new works being commissioned and reflecting Wisconsin history, and have been adding to the repertoire of Theater for Young Audiences, a crucial component to culture and our society. Why do these plays become significant as live theater? Frank offers two closing comments: “To read about these happenings is one thing, to see and hear the sounds makes the experiences very real to the audiences.”

If someone needs any more inspiration to see the acclaimed A Midnight Cry, Frank praises this particular production when he adds, “These actors and musicians are incredible. We have an outstanding cast that bonded over the importance and relevance of the play that still rings with truth.”

First Stage presents A Midnight Cry by Wisconsin playwright James DeVita at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through February 9. For further information or tickets, please click the First Stage link to the left.    by Peggy Sue Dunigan

 

Sunday
May122013

Beauty of the Arts Beckon in Young Company’s Gathering Blue

Acclaimed children’s author Lois Lowry sets her book Gathering Blue, and the play adapted by Eric Coble “in and around a village.” The time frame she chooses: “Soon.” Do Lowry’s post apocalyptic stories foretell the near future?

First Stage Children’s Theater tackles Lowry's Gathering Blue in their premiere collaboration with Marquette University’s Theater Department at the Helfaer Theatre when showcasing their Young Company performers with poignant results. The play from her popular trilogy opened Friday under Todd Denning’s direction and showcases the select Young Company in their first, full stage production.

Assistant Artistic Director John Maclay heads Young Company, the college level actor training program geared for the 15 to 18 year olds that has garnered numerous awards in national competitions. In this production, Christine Pollnow, Erin Stapleton and Jordan Horne, all Young Company members, were cast as the main characters: weaver of threads, Kira, and carver of wood, Thomas. Orphans that invest valuable gifts to create beauty from ordinary materials in a society that might have been destroyed by a nuclear war, burned into living in this primitive setting.

Scenic Designer Stephen Hudson-Mariet (Chair of Performing Arts at Marquette) envisioned this through his bi-level stage where banners of golden cloth, similar to woven wild silk, were dropped from the ceiling to frame rustic wood furniture. A lush wooden flower box holds all the herbs that Kira plants to make her dyes that color the threads. She must weave these threads to repair an important robe that recalls the history of the world for the village.

In Lowry’s story, a celebration every year marks the villagers retelling their civilization’s history, one where bigger cities were built, with bigger destructions that followed.  A song, a staff and an embellished robe recall this for the village, all produced by artists, “the people who do and make things beautiful. “

The weaver of threads Kira is an artist who was born with a physical limitation, a twisted leg, and then survived the culture’s laws that anyone born imperfect should be left to die at birth. Saved by her powerful father at the time, he was then killed, and Kira learned her weaving skills, gifts passed to her from her mother. Kira even realizes, “Those who first appear imperfect are stronger and have valuable gifts to contribute to the village, sometimes more than those that are perfect.”

Friday night the Stitcher’s Cast performed with Erin Stapleton playing Kira with determination and grit that Lowry would have applauded. Jordan Horne’s Thomas kindly befriends Kira as the carver. Young Performer Josh MacCudden embodies a small boy Matt, another child without a father, who “carries” Kira’s supplies, protects her on her journeys to learn the secrets of the colors from the crone Annabella (Marquette Student Hannah Klapperich-Mueller, and steals some scenes with his impish charm. As Jo, the small future singer Kira befriends, Young Performer Claire Holtebeck captures a frightened child, scared without her mother.

In the production, the title Gathering Blue represents the very difficult task of producing the color indigo---the infinite color of sea and sky---a color that Lowry also chooses to represent freedom. Something as artists, Kira, Thomas and Jo hope to gather for themselves and the villagers in need of hope. Matt eventually travels a long, dangerous distance to find the herb that produces blue for Kira’s weaving, his special gift to her, in a tale that cherishes friendship.  

Perhaps more importantly, First Stage illustrates the beauty of the arts by staging this production, their students’ expanding talents, and then through Lowry’s play depiciting artists that reflect every genre. Essential arts that encourage, nurture and support any society. Otherwise the possibility exists that culture will disintegrate into Lowry’s very primal based, wild world, a world rejecting the creative potential of the arts. Do support First Stage, their Young Company and Marquette University’s Theater program, a new generation working to preserve the arts, and see this evocative production before Lowry’s fictional vision appears in reality sooner than one imagines.

First Stage Children’s Theater in partnership with Oregon Children's Theatre presents a limited production of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue at Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre through May 19. Please call for performance times at 414.267.2961 to reserve the $10.00 general admission seating tickets by clicking the First Stage link to the left, or find them in the previous preview of Gathering Blue on this same page.            by Peggy Sue Dunigan   

Monday
May062013

Preview: First Stage’s Young Company Graduates To Full Staged Production

Young Company at First Stage Children’s Theater begins a new tradition. Instead of producing their work at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, the Young Company graduates to a fully staged, complete with every costume, prop and scenery in place, to attract a wider audience for their professional efforts. 

This begins with the world premiere of an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue on May 10 at the Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre, courtesy of the award winning First Stage Young Company. Eric Cole’s adaptation of Gathering Blue, the second in a trilogy of Lowry’s post apocalyptic novels, happens when Young Company collaborates with the University’s Theater Department, although the script was developed in partnership with Oregon Children’s Theatre.

By chance or choice, the two Young Company actors Christine Pollnow and Erin Stapleton will also be graduating from high school and their time at First Stage Theater Academy. Gathering Blue will be their final performances before heading to college in the fall.

Gathering Blue casts Pollnow and Stapleton as the main character in the drama, Kira, a teenager who has a visible physical limitation, a person considered unworthy in Lowry's post apocalyptic society. However, Kira’s mother was an accomplished weaver and passed this gift to her daughter before she died. A significant gift where Kira’s talent becomes more valuable to the primitive culture where she lives, despite her physical imperfections. In an interview with Polllnow, the high school senior said Lowry’s play addresses, “That a person can be stronger because of a limitation than others who are considered physically perfect.”

Gathering Blue requires Pollnow to walk with a twisted leg, supposedly a limitation her character was born with. She also discovered when rehearshing that this physical characteristic helped considerably in “getting into Kira’s personality much earlier because this usually happens when you step into the costumes and then are completely immersed in the character.” 

For Pollnow, to christen the first, fully staged Young Company production was definately worth waiting for, and also incorporates a First Stage outreach to capture teenage audiences. When a teen sees someone on stage, near their age, that individual can be challenged to embrace other new accomplishments or experiences.  At 19, Pollnow sets an inspiring example because after graduation she plans to attend New York University this fall to major in Theater. The other actor alternating as Kira and a friend of Pollnow, Stapleton, will also be majoring in Theater at Webster College.

Another high school senior. Jordan Horne. was cast as Thomas in the play, a talented carver who befriends Kira. While he connects with Kira as one more orphan in the village, Thomas is expected to restore several lost arts to the village's special celebrations. Horne came away with this perspective on the play that he chatted about when sitting at the MYAC while he related, “The arts have fallen by the wayside in Lowry's play, in this setting, because the village fights for food, their survival.”

Horne has performed with First Stage in the Young Company’s Cymbelline, Tom Sawyer, The Thief Lord, and Peter Pan. He emphasized how Lowry’s story “glorifies the arts” in this desperately grim culture. The carver, singer and weaver in her story represent all the arts and eventually become valuable to the villagers. Arts that need to flourish and provide soul sustenance similar to the mere necessities in any time period. Horne will also be graduating to the Theater program at Carthage College, ready to grow into the next phase of his life. He explains, “I think of leaving First Stage similar to any actor who also graduates from role to role.”

Pollnow then related that Lowry’s production will be a great last performance, with so many senior Young Company members in the show: ten young company members, three young performers and five Marquette colleges students, two who are First Stage Theater Academy alums. After 25 years, First Stage tries to keep in touch with their many graduates to note what they have accomplished after leaving, whether working full time in some aspect of theater or in another profession. 

Whatever life course First Stage Theater Academy graduates choose, the young adults take the principles they learned at the First Stage Academy to heart. As the Young Company expands to more full stage productions, this year with Gathering Blue and in the 2013-2014 season with Romeo and Juliet, students following behind Horne, Pollnow and Stapleton will be further inspired. Pollnow expresses these exact sentiments where she believes playing Kira has been a great role model for her, and she hopes for the audiences, when she says: “Kira's not one to take no for an answer, she keeps searching to make something right…and is willing to make a difference in the world.”

First Stage Children’s Theater presents a limited run of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue at Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre, 525 North 13th Street, and opens on Friday, May 10, 7:00 p.m. The production recommends viewing for those 12 years and older. General Admission seating is $10, with other performances at Saturday, May 11, 7:00 p.m., Sunday, May 12, 3:30 p.m., May 17 & 18, 7:00 p..m. and a final performance on May 19, 3:30 p.m.. First Stage plans a breakfast with author Lois Lowry on May 19, and for tickets or information please call 414.267.2961 or click the link to the left.                     by Peggy Sue Dunigan

 

Tuesday
Apr162013

Legacy of Jackie Robinson Hits Home at First Stage

Red, white and blue buntings hang from the balcony at the Todd Wehr Theater. The decorations proudly celebrate the First Stage Children’s Theater production of Jackie and Me, an all American story retelling how Jackie Robinson forever changed professional major league baseball by becoming the first African American on the field when he primarily played second base.

The First Stage production focuses on character and story instead of technical effects that splendidly affirms Robinson’s legacy. Only one wide screen is used to help project images of scenery and different places throughout the performance in a subtle way. Steven Dietz adapted Dan Gutzman’s tale about a young baseball fan, Joey Stoshach who travels back in time with the help of a Jackie Robinson Bond bread card.

Joey travels back to meet Jackie Robinson when he does a report for his school, and learns he and Jackie have tempers that need to be controlled before someone gets hurt. When Jackie is hired by Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey to play in the majors against every odd that he will last, Jackie tells Joey, “Put your temper into playing the game. How are we going to fight? We put our fighting into the game.”

As Joey learns, Jackie fought unconscionable racism when he began to play, segregation the norm on and off the playing field, where even hotels refused to take him with the rest of the team. Front doors were closed while Robinson went through the back way.  Robinson counteracted this blatant racism with strong courage, perseverance and willpower---and his incredible athletic prowess. 

The production recalls Robinson’s amazing  Baseball statistics through the story, for one when he became Rookie of the Year in 1947, primarily told through Joey’s voice when he narrates his time travel journey while he grows in understanding to the racial prejudice at the time. When Joey goes back to 1947, he is seen as a young African American boy. One of the most poignant scenes in the play happens when Joey tries to drink from a “Whites Only” water fountain. A woman spits at him, and her male companion harasses Joey, and he unfortunately learns when hate can be seen in another human being’s eyes.

Chauncy Thomas recreates the Jackie Robinson persona with fierce and gentlemanly elegance, even when running bases in slow motion. And he’s a great match with Tiffany Yvonne Cox playing his wife Rae who supported him even though fears for their lives, death threats, accompany Robinson when he takes the field. On Saturday, the Dodgers Young Performers cast Seth Horne as a Joey with believability in a role that requires him to be on stage for the entire performance. Georgina Mckee underplays Joey’s mom with reserved emotion, trying to help Joey calm his own anger.

Even when the audience knows the outcome of how an exceptional Robinson was voted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame and transformed the faces of the Major Leagues, experiencing this live on stage makes confronting Robinson’s horrific challenges more powerful. A great story for “boys’” of any age or the girls sitting in the last row of the theatre who played softball, equally excited about the Jackie and Me production.

Baseball, like life itself, is a day to day game worth playing. Sometimes one strikes out and at others, hits a home run where dreams do come true, as they did for Jackie because of his commitment and dedication. As baseball season returns to the stadiums around the country for another year, commit to seeing this beautifully conceived First Stage Jackie and Me portraying the legacy of an American hero, Jackie Robinson. Remember what is really important in life, other than double hits and grand slams, to preserve the brother/sisterhood of humanity, each individual's unique dignity. Then trust as Robinson ultimately expressed, in spite of what people said or did to him only because of his skin color, “I believe in the human race.”

First Stage Children's Theater presents Jackie and Me at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through May 5. Season subscriptions are on sale for the 2013-2014 season "Discover, Imagine, Explore," or sign up for First Stage's Summer Theater Academy beginning June 17. For information or tickets, please call 414.273.3800 or click the First Stage link to the left                by Peggy Sue Dunigan

 

Monday
Apr082013

PREVIEW: First Stage Children’s Theater Believes in “Jackie’s Nine”

What exactly is "Jackie’s Nine?" Could this be one of  baseball star Jackie Robinson’s greatest nine inning games? First Stage Children’s Theater looks ahead to summer’s baseball season and the life of Hall of Fame player Jackie Robinson in their final selection at the Todd Wehr Theater Jackie and Me. The April 12 opening of the production’s run coincides with the first weeks of America’s 2013 baseball season and the film debut of 42, a biography named after Jackie Robinson’s iconic number stitched on his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. To finish this triple hit, April 15 was officially named Jackie Robinson day.

As the first Negro, or African American professional baseball player, Jackie embodied the personal character and athletic skills to become this groundbreaking figure who broke color barriers in professional sports. Robinson paved the way for others including Hank Aaron and Rickie Weeks. Perhaps more than his physical prowess, Robinson lived by what his daughter Sharon wrote about in her book “Jackie’s Nine:” citizenship. commitment, courage, determination, excellence, integrity, justice, persistence and teamwork. 

First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank believes that in Jackie and Me the main character Joey Stoshack travels back in time with the help of a baseball card to learn about how Robinson faced the challenges in his life, breaking into major league baseball and white culture with incredible integrity. Joey encounters his own struggles as a white boy dealing with anger, a temper and family insecurity. Meeting Robinson in his own time frame challenges Joey to choose, to choose and live according to Jackie’s nine principles. However, when Jackie travels back into time, Joey appears as a young  black boy to every one who sees him instead of the while, Polish American he is. 

This gives Joey unique insight into Robinson’s life and professional sports on multiple levels, A story that Frank admits, “ shows the best and worst of American life, “ and carries the audience on the same journey, also one of “the immense possibilities in any one life and that dreams do come true.” Frank explains the play speaks to several big league character issues and says, “We all need to look inside and find inner strength to face challenges, now and in the future.” 

In the production Jackie and Me, Joey and Jackie eventually discover a way to make a difference in their respective lives. Frank adds, “While Jackie played a game, an American game, he became a powerful example, and a conduit for change.” Frank continues, “We look back so we can look forward, and see what needs to be done yet.” 

These principles speak to First Stage’s new 2013-2014 season recently announced with the theme “Discover.” In an effort to continually challenge audiences and actors while pushing theatrical boundaries, the company will feature Shrek, The Musical, a theater for young audiences adaptation from the Broadway production.  A reprise of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever followed by a tenth anniversary production of James DeVita’s A Midnight Cry will include selections by Sheri Williams Parnell in the third play from the company's Wisconsin series.  

Afterwards several world premieres appear, a theatrical treat fast becoming a hallmark of First Stage. One world premiere features Wisconsin’s own John Maclay, Lee Becker and James Valcq as composers and writers for the musical Anatole, based on the beloved children’s classic. Another premiere ends the season for mystery fans with the classic tales of Carolyn Keene’s female sleuth in Nancy Drew and the Biggest Case Ever, written by First Stage artistic staff Jeff Frank and John Maclay combined with a score by Milwaukee’s Willy Porter.

And in between, the First Step series features A Cat in the Hat, a production for ages 8 and up at Todd Wehr titled Crash, a zombie holiday production for teenagers, Maul of the Dead, and a collaboration with the Young Company in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. With this exciting line up, First Stage also embodies Jackie’s nine, a proverbial home run for the season that leads into live theatre performances transcending age classification and then transforming lives. 

Everyone needs adventures to discover, ones with heroes and First Stage addresses these concerns for all those over the age of three, boys and girls, no matter what their ethnicity. Jackie and Me is only the current production that will inspire athletes of either gender with these compelling experiences featuring John Brotherhood and Seth Horne, the young performers who play Joey. Chauncy Thomas, last seen in Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly, inhabits Jackie Robinson for a story that requires the young performers to be on stage almost the entire play, often narrating the story while Jackie mentors the young Joey.  

In his career, Jackie embraced baseball and brave nobility, a true sense of character with integrity to transform a country’s thinking on integrating professional sports. Frank reiterates First Stage strives to accomplish this with each production, in this current season and in 2013-2014, with theater as magical to compete with any sport. He concludes when he says, “The arts have the power to change people, so they think more deeply, so a person can change their perspective and ultimately their actions.” 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Jackie and Me at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in sponsorship with the Brewer Community Foundation. April 12 through May 5. Sharon Robinson’s Book “Jackie’s Nine” will be on sale in the theater lobby. Help First Stage have a Grand Slam year and subscribe with season tickets for 2013-2014, which may be purchased at a discount through June 30. For tickets or information please call 414.273.7206 or click the First Stage link to the left.       by Peggy Sue Dunigan