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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Liam Hartnett and Blakely Martin star in First Stage's production of "The Cat in the Hat," which opened Jan. 25.

First Stage is about theatrical transformation


When Jeff Frank tells the story, there is a little catch in his throat, and it's easy to tell that the emotions run deep.

"I was at a chili cookoff on North Avenue, and I noticed this couple that kept sort of looking at me," he recalled. "I was eating my chili or whatever. And the couple came over. 'I'm sorry, but we had to come over and just thank you. Our child is now in college, but First Stage changed his life.' That happens so often."

Watch Frank tell this story, and it's easy to see how important that moment was for him. His emotions about this run deep but are never far from his surface. He really cares about this.

Frank is the artistic director of First Stage. It used to be called First Stage Children's Theater, but now it's just First Stage. Perhaps it's gotten away from the words "children's theater," but it has not retreated from its mission: "Transforming Lives Through Theater."

Essentially, there are three divisions of First Stage.

One is the performance part, another is the Theater Academy and the third is Theater in Education. Although they seem separate, there is a lot of crossover, combining to make one of the very best professional theater companies in Milwaukee and, by reputation, one of the best companies for audiences of children in the country.

Frank is the artistic director, and John Maclay is the associate artistic director and director of the Young Company. They are the hands that guide the organization, while the spirit of founder Rob Goodman still provides a demanding philosophy of "only the best will do" that infuses every aspect of the company.

To say that First Stage has an impact in this city is like saying the Green Bay Packers are one of the football teams in Wisconsin.

Last year, First Stage drew more than 113,000 viewers to its play season. The academy taught lessons to over 2,000 young people. The Theater in Education program reached 20,000 students in nearly 500 classrooms through professional theater performances and 2,000 classroom workshops and residencies.

Those are the numbers, but they don't come close to telling the complete story about First Stage, its gift to Milwaukee and the opportunities it provides to so many.

Constantin Stanislavski was a Russian actor and director in the early part of the last century, and his teachings are still used today by many actors and acting teachers. One quote in particular really sticks with Frank.

"He said, 'The only difference between adult theater and children's theater is that children's theater has to be better,'" Frank said. "It's so true. Your audience is going to be right there, telling you what they think.

"An adult will have sort of their polite mode on. Maybe if I didn't understand it, it's on me. Or I paid a lot for these tickets so I better applaud. Kids either willingly suspend their disbelief and come with you, or they say, 'nah, I'm not coming. I don't believe it.' They may not be able to articulate the why, but if the characters aren't believable, they step back out."

Maclay got out of college and set out to make his mark as an actor.

"I said to myself that the only two things I didn't want to do were dinner theater and children's theater."

He ended up founding Milwaukee Shakespeare with County Executive Chris Abele, but after a couple of years there found himself looking for work. First Stage beckoned, and he hasn't looked back since.

"John came to us, and he had no interest in children's theater or what he saw as the world of children's theater," Frank said. "But coming here, it opened his eyes to what it could be. His expertise in Shakespeare and in actor training helped elevate us."

Maclay started out in the academy, and has acted and directed in a number of First Stage productions.

"I remember seeing children's plays when I was young, maybe 9 or 10," he said. "I was aware that people were talking down to me. I was being dumbed down."

That attitude is something First Stage fights against on a number of levels.

"Every now and then, a designer or someone will come in who has worked in another town or community, and they will qualify a sentence with, 'Well, it's children's theater so … ' and we just cut them off," Maclay said. "Stop. Stop. Whatever you say next is wrong. If you are qualifying how we are going to create art because it's children's theater, then you don't get what we do."

One of the things that distinguishes First Stage is the hiring of all professional adult actors and doing age-appropriate casting for the children's roles.

"There are those in the world who stigmatize children's theater in general as being less than professional," Maclay said. "The only way to battle that perception is to hire well trained professionals. Everybody here, from designers to directors to actors, is a highly-trained professional.

Excellent theater is, above everything else, about truth, and that truth extends to the stage. It's harder to get at the truth when you have a diminutive 35-year-old playing Junie B. Jones."

Michael Cotey is one of Milwaukee's best young actors and directors, and has frequently worked at First Stage.

"I appreciate that First Stage does age-appropriate casting," he said. "Of course Jeff and John are taking a risk because how can you expect a student to be as ready or skilled as a professional? But it's a learning experience, and while certainly countless man hours are put in to create a quality product in the end, engaging young actors is all about process and development, and you see time and time again that these student actors rise to the challenge under their mentors at First Stage. First Stage is one of the few children's theater's in the country to invest in age-appropriate casting, and they don't get enough recognition for it."

Niffer Clarke is one of Milwaukee's busiest actors, creating memorable roles at First Stage as well as other theaters in town. She originally came to Milwaukee to play Ida in "Honk" in 2005. She stayed, and we are all better for it. Her work with children in the cast is especially meaningful for her.

"The YPs – the Young Performers – are held to a standard of professionalism, in auditions, preparation, rehearsal and performance," Clarke said. "So much is expected from these young people – and all in addition to their schoolwork and home life. It's very, very demanding. And the YPs are very, very impressive in their commitment, their spirit, their focus and what they bring to the stage."

Clarke played the mother in the company's recent staging of "Pinkalicious," a production that opened some eyes to the quality of children's theater, according to Frank.

"Sean Cerconel is the director of professional licensing for Theatrical Rights Worldwide, the company that owns the rights to "Pinkalicious," Frank said. "He was in town to see 'Ring of Fire' (at the Stackner Cabaret at the Rep).

We were doing Pinkalicious at the time. He had seen a bunch of productions all over the country with adults playing all the roles. So he was pretty skeptical coming in. He was blown away by the level of the performance and the young people in the performance, and it gave him a whole new understanding of this piece they'd represented for awhile. He got back to New York and called about lots of things, saying he'd love to have us work on stuff."

There is a vastly under appreciated value to the arts for children, and theater is no exception.

"Children learn a lot of different ways," Maclay said. "And theater connects children. Seeing something brought to life in front of you can really entertain them, educate them, edify them and inspire them."

That's why they do what they do.

Part two tomorrow will talk about the educational values and opportunities at First Stage. More information can be obtained at firststage.org.


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