Entries in First Stage Theater Academy (4)


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   


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




First Stage Children’s Theater closes the curtain on its 25th Anniversary season with performances to warm the heart at any age: “Diary of a Worm, A Spider and a Fly.” While waiting for the final production to open at the Todd Wehr Theater this weekend, a stellar year had unfolded for the company that produced Y York’s world premiere Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly and the 50th anniversary production of Madeleine L’Engles’ A Wrinkle in Time. While one selection brought to light a child coping with a mother’s mental illness through creating art, the other fantasized about the consequences to time travel in outer space. The great diversity in this one season reflects the professional theatrical light years traveled over the past 25 seasons. 

Besides productions on the Todd Wehr Theater stage, the company supports one of the largest theater academies in the country, which includes the award winning and productive Young Company. This talented group accepts teenagers who audition for special performances, national Shakespeare competitions and select events that included a recent run of The Winter’s Tale at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

In this challenging English verse from a play representing Shakespeare’s later writings, Arianna Imperl gave a convincing portrayal of Hermione while Kelly Venable as her grown daughter Perdita at 16 enchants the pastoral scenery in Act II. Garett Hanson, in the dual roles of Antigonus and Atuolycus, added incredible acting ability to minor roles that uplifted the production.

Young Performers also provided In Tandem Theatre with a star crossed performance by Eric Schabla in their production of The Chosen, a tribute to the acting experience the First Stage Academy and the Young Company offer. Three other First Stage Academy students had the privilege of performing in The Rep’s profound production To Kill A Mockingbird, a play that broke all previous revenue records at the company this year.  

John Brotherhood, Thomas Kindler and Mallorey Wallace enlighten these critical roles of the children the beloved drama revolves around and radiated magnificent performances for Milwaukee audiences. How fortunate for The Rep and First Stage that these collaborations have benefited more than personal lives or careers, but the city’s wider theater community with uncommonly mature professionalism from all their young performers. 

While about half of the more than fifty members of this company will pursue a career in theater, only half of those graduates will actually be involved as theater professionals in acting, choreography, designing costumes or sets, management or stage technicians. However, countless others gain self-confidence to pursue other professional life dreams. For the first time in the coming year, the Young Performers will mount a full-scale production at Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre next May with an adaptation of Lois Lawry’s Gathering Blue. 

These collaborations with other Milwaukee theater companies provide a constellation of stars in 2012-2013. Jonathan Gillard Daly, who currently performs at Next Act Theatre in One Time, will be premiering his play from the second addition to the First Stage Wisconsin Series: To The Promised Land. The story centers on an African American girl living in late 1960’s Milwaukee who finds inspiration in the life of Golda Meir. Another world premiere joins this production during January with Lois Ehlert’s Mole Hill Stories in a cooperative effort with Danceworks and their choreographer Dani Kuepper. 

First Stage continually concentrates the spotlight on the city’s talent of all ages, from author Ehlert to accomplished artist Della Wells. Or Thomas Kindler, who gave Dill his wiser than his years voice at The Rep and played a small part for the announcement of the 2012-2013 season in a vignette from Jackie and Me. The April 2013 selection travels back through time to 1947 when a young boy Joey meets baseball great Jackie Robinson. 

The new season also welcomes a past friend into the commanding role as Managing Director. Betsy Corry will replace Rob Goodman after 25 years and support Artistic Director Jeff Frank when as First Stage says, “Let us Light the Way for a Magical Season.” Find that inner light in one’s heart and illuminate a child’s life through First Stage Children’s Theater. Attend their closing performance this weekend, send a child to one of their summer camps or buy season tickets to anticipate unveiling more magic in September. Who knows when and what stars will arise in the theater's sky for the mercurial season ahead? 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly from opening night April 13 through May 13. Or purchase tickets to their upcoming season that begins on October 19 with big: the musical, adapted from the 1987 movie in an adaptation by Jeff Franks and Michael Babbitt. Or sign up for Theater Academy summer classes. For information, season subscriptions or tickets call 414.267.2961 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan












Chocolate candy bars, chocolate rivers and chocolate mixed with walnuts. These delicious sweets inspire children the world over. British author Roald Dahl combined chocolate with a host of fantasy treats to inspire a child's iimagination instead of their bad behavior in his 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For the only time in 25 years, First Stage Children’s Theater produced an adaptation by Richard George that opened in the Todd Wehr Theater last weekend.

Director Jeff Frank’s playbill notes dedicated the production to his technical staff, although his careful attention to the entire set becomes a hallmark to performances noted in these technical details.  And indeed, the show stars an industrial looking set backlit with brightly hued, double hung windows that transforms into a working candy factory. Scenic Designer David Minkoff, Lighting Designer Jesse Klug and two Co-Sound Designers (Kevin O’Donnell and Ryan Cappleman) bring the confectionary's interior and machines to a brilliant reality on stage. How easy for the audience to place themselves in the factory, wishing to eat a chocolate bar or dancing with the delightful Oompa-Loompas created with help from Costume Designer Brandon Kirkham.

Bo Johnson dazzles the five children who visit the factory as Willy Wonka, resplendent in a grape colored velvet suit coat wearing high black boots. Each of the five children from the Loompa young perfromer cast provide fine performances, especially Jelena Vorkapich playing Verucka Salt, a girl spoiled by her father’s wealth.

Robert J. Spencer plays Grandpa Joe with charm, adding an encouraging presence to Charlie Bucket’s bleak future. Spencer's exquisite facial expressions complement Seth Horne’s generous young Charlie and remind him to dream big dreams. The two underpin an accomplished adult cast to complete the Chocolate Factory entourage dressed again in Kirkham’s delectable costumes reflecting fruit flavored colors. Banana yellow, bubble gum pink, cherry red, and lime green hued costumes by Kirkham pop to life on Minkoff’s silvery blue and steel like set.

The entire show entertains the audience with original music and special effects carefully integrated into the story telling for a complete afternoon of great fun. Blinking windows, a concoction of tubes and slides and a glass elevator makes for the magic First Stage continually conjures with growing expertise and professionalism. Proven by the wonderful performances their young performers from the First Stage Theater Academy give in The Rep’s To Kill A Mockingbird and In Tandem Theatre’s The Chosen.

At the talkback after the performance, one parent exclaimed that this was the best production she had seen at First Stage. Anyone could endlessly discuss that comment because the company has staged multiple memorable performances in stellar productions reflecting a variety of subject materials suitable for every age.   

One could remember Hana’s Suitcase, James and the Giant Peach, One Thousand Cranes, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, The Wiz, A Year With Frog and Toad, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse and two wonderful productions of Seussical. Who could possibly choose from this selection in their silver anniversary history? Yet, this spring First Stage enchants the audience with a mesmerizing performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so they again believe in their hearts that one’s own dreams might eventually be rewarded.    

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory through March 31 at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For information and tickets call: 414.273.7206 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan