Although outsiders may not see Milwaukee as a hotbed for the performing arts, locals know there's plenty of talent to go around. And, there are numerous venues across the city that proudly show off area actors, dancers and musicians.
But, despite the wide array of opportunities available, Katie Rhyme and Karen Zakrzewski still felt something important was missing.
"We felt like theater was sort of off in a corner, and music was off in a corner, and dance was off in a corner," said Rhyme, who – together with Zakrzewski – decided to form MKE Follies, a showcase aimed at highlighting the interdisciplinary accomplishments of Milwaukee's performing arts community.
"We have a lot of friends and know a lot of people in the community, so we thought we'd like to have a showcase that incorporates as many forms of art and gives people a chance to show off what they've been working on," said Zakrzewski.
The pair aren't new to the entrepreneurial side of the arts. MKE Follies is actually an offshoot of their company Dance Revolution Milwaukee, which they started after graduating from UW-Milwaukee's dance program in 2009. Currently Dance Revolution Milwaukee provides opportunities for kids ages 3 to 14 in Germantown and Jackson, but Rhyme and Zakrzewski also had local outreach in mind.
"We decided that part of the goal with our company was to give performances, and give performance opportunities to other artists – as well as ourselves – so through that we decided to produce this show," said Rhyme.
MKE Follies held its first show in May 2012, following its debut with a second performance – and upgraded digs – in November.
"We were looking for something that had a bar in it so we could have the social atmosphere that some casual music shows have, and then also a theater to present some more formal works," said Rhyme. "When we found Carte Blanche Studios we decided to try it there, and we had a great experience."
Rhyme and Zakrzewski return to Carte Blanche, along with six brand-new Follies acts, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. Performers include Milwaukee theater group The MUTES, singer/songwriter Nastassja Bates and dance performers Jaimi Patterson, Lindsey Krygowski, Catey Ott Thompson and Betsy Guerrero.
Featured acts are presented on a constantly rotating basis and are sourced from all over the city via organizations, professional contacts and Facebook groups. MKE Follies is a first come, first served process, said Rhyme, but there's no shortage of quality talent interested in signing on.
"So far for the past two shows, we haven't had a problem," she said. "We have a maximum of eight acts per show, and we do hold spots for theater and music and dance, so we get a nice variety."
Rhyme and Zakrzewski have also performed some of their own choreography in the past, but due to MKE Follies' quick surge in popularity they've had to focus their talents more on the production side lately.
"Katie and I did perform in the first show," said Zakrzewski," (but) we didn't in the last one we had in November. We had such a great response, and so we wanted to include as many people as possible in that one. We're looking to have another one at the end of March or April, and we're planning on presenting work in that one."
The popularity of MKE Follies is evident on the other side of the curtain, too.
"At our last MKE Follies show, I think we had a 55-person audience, which was great for the space," said Zakrzewski. "We saw a lot of people we knew from the dance community and a lot of unfamiliar faces. We're really excited to keep the momentum going and keep getting the word out so more and more people can come see the show."
Rhyme and Zakrzewski hope to continue putting on new shows every two months. Although they're still in the beginning stages of their venture, the pair are confident that MKE Follies will become a permanent fixture in the Milwaukee arts scene.
"It's sort of a continuous process," said Rhyme. "We're still in our testing stage a little bit. We want to make sure there is an audience and enough acts to continue doing it every two months. Right now we're only doing a one-night show, but if demand calls for it, we would like to do a two-night show, a Friday-Saturday, something like that.
"We want to make sure other people in Milwaukee who are artists like ourselves have opportunities to perform and feel like they're part of a community. We're trying to build a bridge between all of them."
Contrary to her natural state of being, Renee Lorenz is a total optimist when it comes to Milwaukee. Since beginning her career with OnMilwaukee.com, her occasional forays into the awesomeness that is the Brew City have turned into an overwhelming desire to discover anything and everything that's new, fun or just ... "different."
Expect her random musings to cover both the new and "new-to-her" aspects of Miltown goings-on, in addition to periodically straying completely off-topic, which usually manifests itself in the form of an obscure movie reference.