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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Local actress Gretchen Mahkorn founded the World's Stage Theatre Company when she was just 16.

Mahkorn is the face of theatrical dedication and hope


Gretchen Mahkorn is the beautiful face of hope.

She's 21. She's an actor. She has a BFA in acting from a respected program. She's smart. She's determined. She networks. She has a resume. She has history onstage from a very young age.

And her next acting job is in a play produced by the theater company she founded when she was just 16 years old, the World's Stage Theatre Company.

The company, where she is the artistic director, will stage "Seminar," by Theresa Rebeck, an absolutely smashing play about a summer seminar for four young writers with a credentialed professor who has more creep than creativity in him. The play opens on Thursday, Aug. 21 and runs through Sunday, Aug. 31.

The production will be at the lovely Tenth Street Theater, home to the highly respected In Tandem Theatre Company. It's the latest in a long line of temporary spaces for World's Stage.

The production is likely to be a top flight one, and it's going to be a part of the beginning of what I expect will be a great season of Milwaukee theater. World's Stage, though, is an example of the difficulties that fledgling companies have getting their show on the road.

"We move around a lot," Mahkorn said. "We don't have a permanent home, so we do a plot of site-specific work. Part of our mission is to create a full theatrical experience; we want to collaborate and incorporate music, film, dance. It's an emotional journey.

"As the artistic director, I'm in charge of bringing the creative, the financial and business side of theater together," she continued. "'Seminar' is the brainchild of our director David Bohn, who brought it to us."

If this sounds like a big job for someone who is 21 years old, it is. But it is the kind of thing that she finds both fulfilling and necessary.

"How do you get to be known as an actor in this community," she asks, repeating my question. "Well, I started my own theater company." She adds a hearty laugh.

"You try to network and go see what everybody is doing. It's a process."

It's a process that is fraught with challenge. There are a finite number of roles each season in Milwaukee, and if there is one thing that is true – not just of Milwaukee theater but of regional theater throughout the country – it's that there is a familiarity bias. Producers and directors tend to use actors and designers they have worked with before.

They can't be faulted for it, especially since the economics of running a theater company are such a fragile thing. It's difficult to take a chance on an unknown. It's why so few original plays get their premiere in Milwaukee, and why it's so difficult for new talent in any form get an opportunity.

If you are a new young actor, perhaps the best you can hope for is to win a minor role in a production that will lead to more and more work.

"I don't think you need to be on stage every second," Mahkorn said. "You can work on your monologues and read and see plays and just live your life. That's what theater is. Life."

Mahkorn does not lack for the kind of courage it takes to make it in the world of theater. And she knows how important it is to keep learning. She studies voice with one of the best teachers in Milwaukee, Diane Lane.

"Gretchen is admirable in many ways, but my favorite aspect of her is her ability to learn," Lane said. "In the last year, she's become a remarkably curious, willing, enthusiastic student. As a teacher, nothing impresses or pleases me more."

She recently produced a production of "Phaedra's Love" by British playwright Sarah Kane. I hated the play and thought all the sex was truly gratuitous and gave it a resoundingly bad review, but Mahkorn was unfazed.

"I don't think it's a play for everyone," she said. "But I thought this play could be easily produced in New York or Chicago, why be afraid to do it in Milwaukee?"

I have never seen Mahkorn on stage and am looking forward to seeing her for the first time in the quirky, driven role of Izzy in "Seminar." I hope it goes well, and I hope people in the theater see it. My guess is that she's a good actor who deserves a shot with some of the bigger companies in town.

I'm also interested to see what this company of youngsters does with such a difficult and sophisticated play.


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