By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jul 25, 2005 at 5:10 AM

{image1} It was 1983 and the now hub of Milwaukee's East Side was in dire straits. Brady Street businesses were deteriorating, and when Jim Searles asked for a loan to open a pharmacy on the corner of Brady and Astor Streets, he was denied on the basis that "the neighborhood was dead, and would never come back."

On his fourth try, Searles found a bank to support him, and by 1984, Brady Street Pharmacy was open for business. Twenty years later, in November of 2004, the pharmacists who had always had a passion for theater and film, eliminated the grocery section of his building and re-opened the "Astor Theatre."

Inside you can see photographs of the original theater, which opened in 1915 and showed movies until 1952. Although Searles's 37-seat space is a fraction of the original 950-seat photoplay parlor, his multi-disciplined theater is providing an outlet for Milwaukee artists that the original never could.

Upset by the inadequate amount of funding and appreciation that he feels the fine arts department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee receives, Searless has taken matters into his own hands. He offers his theater space to artists for free. Why?

"Because if I don't do it, no one else will. If you don't give these kids a place to start, so much original creativity is lost. There is no way they can afford to rent out most spaces in this city. You add in the cost of all the equipment, and it's way to expensive. It just won't happen and that's a huge loss for Milwaukee."

He doesn't accept just anyone and everyone to use his theater, however. "We screen. We have a standard of quality. Are we going to allow some grunge band play here? No. I want originality." Also, he enforces a PG-13 rating limit. He does admit, however, that to be an original, cutting edge theater, you have to let the artists have creative control.

Searles says his advantage is his ability to take the risks that most other theaters in the city are unwilling to do. "By keeping everything at low cost, we're not hurt too bad if a show bombs." But that theory, of course, is assuming that one of his shows will actually bomb. According to Searles, the eight months that the Astor Theatre has been open has been an overwhelming success. With shows just about every weekend, many of which sell out, he says it's just been a blur of excitement.

{image2} Currently, S-martkino Theatre Underground's "None of These is Nothing: Brief Acts in the Tradition of the Absurd" is showing through Saturday, July 30. From producers Ben Turk and Tracy Doyle, the makers of "Bring the War Home," "None of These is Nothing" is an evening of 45 plays ranging from 30 seconds to 15 minutes long.

Forty of the acts are one-line skits written by Peter Woods and Jeff Graupner, and the remaining five, written by Jason Hames, Brian Jones, John Manno, Shiren Rattigan, and Ben Turk, are longer plays. Turk and/or Doyle have acting roles in four of them.

"Ben and Tracy are offering some of the most creative and original pieces I've seen in a long time. It's really a complicated and intense night," says Searles of the duo's second production hosted by the Astor Theatre.

Turk and Doyle agree that much of their success is attributed to Searles. "Jim makes it really easy for us," says Turk. "No one else in this city provides do-it-yourself performing arts with this kind of opportunity."

But is Milwaukee responsive to what they are doing? With "Bring the War Home" selling out every show (except for one blizzard-filled night), Turk says yes. "Milwaukee is really ripe for this. Everything we do is an original work written by, directed by, produced by and acted by people living in Milwaukee."

Now at about 15 core members, Turk and Doyle say that S-martkino is continually growing. "Because we deal with political themes, people get involved for the cause, whether they've had theater experience or not. But once they work with us, they end up wanting to stay and do more."

Tracy and Ben have been working together for 3 years, originally collaborating on "Reverb," a modern remake of Satre's "No Exit." After returning "Bring the War Home" to Milwaukee for a second run in late summer (they took the show on tour), the pair plan to focus in on their next project, a 2-act, full-length play called "Ulysses Crewmen." This Web site has the details:

The Astor Theatre is located at 1696 N. Astor St.
Show time for "None of These is Nothing" is 8 p.m.
$8 suggested donation.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”