By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Mar 22, 2017 at 7:03 PM

The United Performing Arts Fund has launched its 50th year of raising funds for performing arts groups in Milwaukee, leading the way for the vibrant arts scene in Milwaukee. UPAF is one of the most successful arts funding groups in the country and plays a crucial role in the development of attractions in the city. As part of the drive, OnMilwaukee will feature each of the 15 member groups every week during the 15-week campaign drive. Today we look at Renaissance Theaterworks.

For more than two decades, Renaissance Theaterworks has produced some of the most memorable shows I’ve seen in Milwaukee. And the health of the group has been made possible, in large part, by support from the United Performing Arts Fund.

Founded 24 years ago by five women who wanted to provide more opportunities, both onstage and off, for women, Renaissance Theaterworks has created some amazing work. It has also been successful in carrying out its mission and opening doors not only at RTW, but also throughout Milwaukee, for female artists.

The company was established in 1993 by Suzan Fete, Marie Kohler, Raeleen McMillion, Jennifer Rupp and Michele Traband. They recognized a gender imbalance within professional theater and sought to correct it by producing excellent theatrical work, while actively promoting the careers of other women in professional theater. In 2001, Renaissance hired Julie Swenson as producing director.

The key to its mission is not just to give opportunities to women, but to produce excellent theatrical work. It is among the leading companies in the city.

"Milwaukee has a strong and vibrant performing arts community, and I believe this is the direct result of the financial support from UPAF," said Swenson. "Because the monies from UPAF are unrestricted, they can be used for any need. Capacity building, creating a new employment opportunity, producing a show with a bigger cast or higher technical budgets are all ways that UPAF support is used and valued. It allows the performing arts to dream big and do better work."

The issue of gender equity is one that the world of theater has struggled with, and RTW has a great gender equity page on its website that details just how far the theater world has to go. Some of the numbers are startling: In 1908-09, only 12.8 percent of the productions on Broadway were written by women. Some 100 years later, the percentage of major New York productions written by women was 12.6 percent.

In 1993, the year of RTW’s inception, women comprised 70-80 percent of the American theater ticket-buying audience, according to Backstage Magazine. But only 17 percent of the plays produced were written by women, 11 percent directed by women and, most importantly, just 6 percent of U.S. professional theaters were run by women.

At that time, Milwaukee mirrored the rest of the country with no female producers, less than 50 percent of plays produced were written by women, less than 10 percent of plays produced were directed by women and less than 35 percent of 200-plus acting roles were filled by women.

Since 1993, Renaissance has produced 59 full productions and over 30 staged readings, providing work for more than 500 theater artists and technicians. Over 70 percent of the people hired have been women. It has produced six new plays by local female playwrights, 65 percent of the plays were written by women, 95 percent of the plays have been directed by women, and it has given first time professional opportunities to over 50 local female artists in directing, stage-management, lighting design, set design and acting.

The 2016 UPAF grant for RTW was $138,016, and since it became a member group in 2000, RTW has received $1,226,880. It’s hard to underestimate how important that money has been to the programming at Renaissance, which, like most smaller theaters, has to watch expenses with an eagle eye.

"Any show Renaissance Theaterworks has produced that has more than three cast members is made possible, in part, through the support of UPAF," Swenson said. "In 2015, Renaissance took a chance on hiring six actors for "The Ballad of Emmett Till." It proved to be an extremely successful show, critically praised and highly attended, and would not have been possible without the financial support provided by UPAF." 

"Emmett Till" is a perfect example of Renaissance fulfilling its mission on all levels. The play was written by Ifa Bayeza, a Chicago playwright who is one of the brightest young playwrights in the country, and directed by Milwaukee’s Marti Gobel, one of the best actors in the city. But it also was a breakout role for actor Marques Causey, who became a rising star in Milwaukee theater with his performance of the title character.

In addition to its regular season, Renaissance also hosts the annual Br!NK Festival, which awards further development opportunities for a playwright. The award is presented to Midwestern female playwrights to develop and advance their work. The festival is a platform to tell more female stories, raise awareness and garner support for gender parity.

New plays are difficult to get produced, especially for women. Renaissance Theaterworks created Br!NK to launch new work and bring it to the forefront. The Br!NK Festival is unlike a traditional theatrical evening. Staged readings are all about the playwright's work. At Br!NK, audience members are encouraged to stick around after the show and give feedback to the playwrights. You'll meet the actors and directors and hang out with a community of people passionate about creating and enjoying art.

It’s an invaluable experience for any playwright in the process of getting her work to the stage and a critical part of RTW's mission to create more opportunities for women in the Milwaukee theater landscape.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

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 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.