When Jacque Troy got her first taste of acting in prime time in Milwaukee, she used a cast mate to whom she did not speak onstage as her touchstone. The year was 2001, and the show was the Milwaukee Rep's production of the old newspaper comedy "The Front Page."
Troy had taught high school at Janesville Parker and Racine St. Catherine's before getting a foothold in the Milwaukee theater community. Along the way, she, like so many other local performers, had studied acting with C. Michael Wright.
Although her role was small, Troy was understandably nervous in her Rep debut. But as she walked onstage every night, she would see Wright had preceded her there, and she was reassured.
"As an actor, you can feel Michael's energy onstage, and he was my touchstone," Troy recently said.
Fast forward five years. Troy was hired by the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre to be its literary manager and education director. It's her day job while she continues to act.
Wright is the company's artistic director. "When I went to work for the Chamber Theatre I requested that sometime in the future I have one scene onstage where I would talk to Michael," Troy said.
The Chamber is doing much better than that for the actress. She spends the entire play talking with Wright in the company's next production, "Duet for One," which opens Feb. 18 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. The drama contains only two characters.
Troy portrays a concert violinist whose advancing multiple sclerosis is dooming her career and threatening her marriage. Her character and the play are loosely based on the life of the late British cellist Jacqueline du Pre. A film version of the play shares the same title, and du Pre's tragic life also served as the material for the movie "Hilary and Jackie."
Wright is the violinist's psychiatrist in "Duet for One." The play is structured as six therapy sessions.
Troy spends the show in a motorized wheelchair, and that is proving to be slightly daunting. "I'm a very physical actor," she said. "Being confined to a wheelchair has been a very interesting challenge for me."
"Duet for One" contains another challenge. Memorizing lines is a basic skill required of all professional actors, but this play really puts the memory muscle to a test. There are only two characters, and they spend most of 2 hours and 15 minutes talking to each other.
"We have a lot of language to learn," Troy said. "Normally in a show, you have one big monolog to memorize. I think I have 12. And both characters have a quirky way of talking."
Troy spent three months observing physical therapist Kelly Herbst Frailing working with MS patients, and Herbst Frailing coached her on using typical physical movements while in the wheelchair.
"I want to represent this disease with as much dignity as possible," the actress said.
"MS has so many symptoms and ways of manifesting itself. I was allowed to select what worked best for me and the play."
"Duet for One" is notable because it is Wright's first onstage appearance in four years. An actor whose credits stretch from Broadway to Israel and to the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, he suspended performing to devote all of his time and energy to running the Chamber Theatre. That included directing many of its productions but not acting in them.
The company, which was in deep financial peril when Wright arrived as artistic director five years ago, has stabilized itself, and he feels comfortable taking time out to act again.
"Once I got this job (artistic director) I realized I had to have a single focus for a while," Wright said. "But I sure missed acting.
"I love assuming a new persona. I love the opportunity to get into somebody else's skin. It is freeing. I love that I wouldn't talk that way or wear that clothing, but the character would. And I think I listen better in life when I'm acting."
Wright continued, "when I am directing I have to be the parent all the time. I'm in charge. Now Paul Barnes (the director of "Duet for One") is in charge."
The Chamber Theatre will use the same configuration of the Studio Theatre it employed earlier in the season for "Moon Over the Brewery." The playing space is in the center of the room, with seats on three sides.
"Duet for One" will run through March 14.
The theater company formerly known as Milwaukee Shakespeare, which now calls itself goats & monkeys, is throwing a cocktail party-theater event in the Fifth Ward Friday night. It starts at 8 and includes appetizers, liquids, music, interactive art and selections from David Ives' "All in the Timing." Nicholas Harazin, Courtney Jones and Brian Vaughn are the featured actors.
The event is at the Live Artists Studio, 228 S. 1st St., and while admission is free, don't be a piker. Make a donation. If you plan to attend, go to www.goatsandmonkeys.org and click on the reservations button ...
The hits keep coming back. Last week I reported that "Wicked" returns to Chicago for eight weeks on Dec. 1. Now comes word that "The Lion King" will also be back in the Windy City for six weeks, beginning Sept. 29. It's the third Chicago run for the musical.
Keep an eye on www.broadwayinchicago.com for the date when individual tickets go on sale.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.