The end of the year is the traditional time to talk about your hopes and wishes for the coming year, and the world of theater is not exception.
We are in the middle of the 2015-16 theater season, but decisions are now being made about casting and scheduling shows for next season.
I have a dozen things that I’d like to see in the 2016-17 theater season. I’m not an expert in theater, but in my role as a drama critic, I see lots and lots of plays. These dozen wishes are things that I think are possible and that could really help live theater in Milwaukee.
1. Increase public funding
I’d love to see a serious move to drastically increase public funding for the arts, including theater, in Wisconsin. As I wrote in a special report here, Wisconsin has a dismal record in publicly funding the arts. We allocate 14 cents for every resident. Minnesota allocates $6.31 per capita. Wisconsin is 48th among all the states. As we constantly try to figure out ways to make this state and city an exciting place, it is critical to pay attention to the arts. It’s time to move out of the dark ages on this, but it will take a political leader with some courage to get this started.
2. More Shakespeare
With the quality of acting and directing in this town, it would be a thrill to see someone do some Shakespeare. The late and lamented Milwaukee Shakespeare brought top flight productions on an annual basis before it folded because Chris Abele had to withdraw his critical support when the recession hit. Optimist Theater does one play from the canon each summer. But this is an unmatched well of stories from which to draw. I wish some company would stage the bard more regularly. There is nothing better than well-done Shakespeare (even if there is nothing worse than badly-done Shakespeare). In addition, I would bring Michael Cotey back to his hometown to direct.
3. Bring back "The Fantasticks"
"The Fantasticks" opened off Broadway from 1960 until 2002. That is over 17,000 performances. It was revived in 2005 off-Broadway and is still running. There is a reason. It’s one of the loveliest, most tender and funniest stories about love that you will ever see. Theatre Unchained put on a fantastic performance just this past January, but why not get a company (hello Viswa) to stage it yet again.
In order to help, I’ll even cast most of it. Katy Johnson plays Luisa (she played the part in a 2014 production directed by James Padovano at Alchemist Theater), Chase Stoeger as Matt (we’ll bring him back from Door County for this) and El Gallo, full of sinister mystery, will be played by James Ridge (from APT). The two fathers can be played by Gerard Nugent from The Rep and either Bo Johnson or Chris Flieller from In Tandem. The Old Actor can be played by Chike Johnson and his partner by Rick Pendzich. Finally, the Mute will be Matt Daniels, an actor who can often say more with a turn of the head than many other actors can say with a page full of of dialogue. Stage director will be Jill Anna Ponasik and Viswa Subbaraman will be music director. You’re welcome.
4. The best American playwrights
It’s not as if we never see Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry or David Mamet. But there’s a reason they are great American playwrights: They write great plays. I’d love to see some theater company find a sponsor for a multi-year commitment to produce one great American play every season. It could also could be an engagement process for their audiences by giving them a chance to vote on what the play or playwright should be. Tally the votes at the end of one season and stage the play the next.
5. Experiment in diversity
Last season, Marti Gobel staged "Suddenly Last Summer" with an all black cast. It remained true to the story and added a dimension not seen in previous productions. That’s where diversity worked. Also last season, Alchemist Theater staged "Oleanna," changing the gender of one of the two characters from a female student to a gay male. It totally changed the dynamic of the story in David Mamet’s play. This was a horrible example of diversity for diversity’s sake. Still, I’d like to see companies in Milwaukee continue to expand their non-specific gender and ethnic casting in a manner careful to the story and the characters.
6. Grow diversity in playwrights
There are genders and races writing plays that are not written by white men – and it’s a fertile field. I think back to "Luchadora," written by UWM professor Alvaro Saar Rios and staged last season by First Stage. It was written by a Latino and about a slice of Mexican culture. But it was also a profound and emotional examination of the way a woman can fulfill her dreams, even if those dreams don’t traditionally belong to females. These other voices need to be heard, again perhaps under a multi-year commitment for sponsorship with a theater company.
7. New faces
Running a theater company is a perilous business, and there is a disincentive to take chances and risks. Part of this makes it problematic for new talent, especially actors and directors, to get an opportunity to practice their craft. I understand why artistic directors continue to hire the same actors. But somehow they need to fight a talent drain that is the inevitable result of the inability to get work in their hometown.
8. Milwaukee theater awards
Everybody likes to be publicly recognized, and theater people are no exception. Milwaukee has a theater climate that is truly major league, and we should have an awards process. The details need to be worked out, but I’d recommend that annual awards be sponsored by theater programs at UWM and Marquette or by the Milwaukee drama critics with selections made by a panel of professional theater workers, audience members and academics.
9. Music, music, music
Musicals don’t have to be big, like Skylight or the Rep. Meaningful plays can be musical, like "Adding Machine," with a score by Milwaukee’s own Joshua Schmidt. Music is more than just entertainment wrapped around a play. It can, and should, be a meaningful part of the story being told. It can be serious, it can be funny or it can be emotional. Think of "The Drowsy Chaperone" or "I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change." I’d love to see some of the smaller companies in town, Renaissance or Next Act, take a shot at some interesting musicals.
10. Risk-taking productions
Taking a risk is both difficult and important. Most small companies do not operate with big budgets, and the idea of having a play that doesn’t draw presents a potential problem. However, there are plays that should be seen, and it’s really up to these small companies to do them. I think of the courageous production of "Burying the Bones" by In Tandem a couple of years ago or Next Act Theatre, where David Cecsarini regularly produces plays of social importance.
11. Expand First Stage
Getting kids interested in the world of live theater is critical to the future health of the industry, and nobody does it better than First Stage. But I would like to see them expand their First Steps program with a series of a couple of plays a season for the real little ones, like three and four year olds. I’d also like to see smaller professional companies produce plays, perhaps with actors from college and high school programs, designed for the little ones to get their first taste of how exciting live theater can be.
12. More coverage
My final wish is not so much for theater professionals as it is for radio and television outlets in Milwaukee. It’s beyond time that they recognize how important theater and the arts are to the quality of life in a city. There needs to be regular coverage of theater. Perhaps a weekly show, or a weekly segment on the news. Radio stations need to factor the performing arts into their programming. There are all kinds of things that can be done to promote theater in this town, and the great creative minds need to move on this. How about a top advertising or marketing agency taking on live theater as a pro bono client? Don’t laugh. It could happen.
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.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.