The role that live theater plays in a community is, under most circumstances, fairly well established: put on plays and musicals that delight and entertain, and if they inform on occasion, then we have gotten some added value.
The charge goes to the men and women who run theater companies in Milwaukee, and there is a high level of professionalism. Night after night, the theatrical offerings in this city are abundant and entertaining.
But there are some people who clearly go beyond their roles as artists. They have become crusaders for the world around them, staging productions and activities that try to shed light of some kind of a wide variety of social issues. Let’s take a look at three of the most community conscious companies in town.
The Milwaukee Rep, under the guidance of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Managing Director Chad Bauman, have recently staged productions that demonstrate a deepening commitment to the community in which they live.
Earlier this year, The Rep provided resources for the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble to stage a powerful production of "The Mojo and the Sayso." The production would never have gotten off the ground if not for help and support from The Rep.
"I think it’s critically important that we, as an institution, reach out to places in this community where we may not have had a presence before," Bauman said. "It’s part of our responsibility."
Clements has long held a deep and abiding concern about violence – especially gun violence – in this country, and he has spent considerable time finding a way to bring those issues to the stage.
The Rep commissioned "American Song," the powerful one man play starring James DeVita, that ran this season. After each performance, The Rep played host to facilitated small group discussions about the issue of gun violence.
First Stage has a long history of producing plays that deal with issues like bullying, ethnic stereotyping, heredity and all the struggles most young people face. It is still regarded as a children’s theater, but it’s motto, "Transforming Lives Through Theater," applies to adults as well as children.
"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," Associate Artistic Director John 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."
Maclay and Artistic Director Jeff Frank guide both an extensive education program as well as a production company that together reach thousands of children every year.
"It’s our hope that by producing a play that provokes deep thought and discussion that we will foster greater understanding and empathy," Frank said.
Next Act Theatre
There is, arguably, nobody in the city who has as deep a commitment to using theater to examine the world around us as David Cecsarini, artistic director at Next Act.
Just in the last two seasons, he has staged plays that examined urban education, evolution, the plight of veterans, faith and urban racial violence.
Cecsarini has never staged a lesser play in order to make a political point. He is deeply committed to finding top flight plays that speak to issues.
"If we are to live together in prosperous proximity," Cecsarini said, "we must know more."
A theater need not display a sense of social consciousness in order to be successful, but we are fortunate that we have several who mix high-level theater with mindfulness of where they live.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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