In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

The elaborate set design for "Bonny Anne Bonny" was made possible by a unique collaboration. (PHOTO: Traveling Lemur Productions)

Theatre Red partnership with WLC produces a road map for success

For a small, young theater company, the struggles of getting a production up and running are almost immeasurable.

The list of things you need runs long: a play, a cast, a set, lighting, costumes, props, crew and, often most difficult of all, a place to do the whole thing. It's a daunting task, running a small theater company, and not for the faint of heart.

The effort required to get a play from paper to the stage struck me this week when I saw "Bonny Anne Bonny," a collaboration between the professionals at Theatre Red and the students and faculty at Wisconsin Lutheran College's theater department.

I walked out of the theater with my mind spinning over the incredible quality of the production from a company that had staged some of my favorite plays over the last couple of year – even though production values were never extravagant, by necessity more than choice.

Theatre Red had been adventurous but also limited to what's called black boxes in the theater world. They are usually simple and small spaces with a relatively small number of seats.

The first thing I noticed when walking into the Raabe Theatre, however, was how large it was – about 200 seats – and how amazing the set was on the thrust stage.

Designed by Chris Kurtz, this set was, as I found out through the play, designed to be three different ships, two houses, a tavern, a town and a brig. It looked like something that might have been designed by the huge budget designers at The Rep.

By the time the play, a world premiere by Milwaukee's own Liz Shipe, was over, I could hardly grasp what I had seen. To put this in some perspective, Theatre Red has produced two of the best plays I've seen in recent years: "Seeds of Banquo" and "Bachelorette." Both very different, but both produced in small spaces with minimal sets.

This was a different league altogether.

"I was rehearsing for Optimist Theatre at the Raabe in the summer of 2015 and fell in love with the space," said Marcee Doherty-Elst, who along with her husband Christopher Elst, is the producing director of Theatre Red. "We were looking for a large space for 'Bonny Anne Bonny,' a play that we commissioned Liz to write for us almost two years ago. Christopher wanted a female pirate adventure play so we could allow some women in the city some fun fighting onstage and we commissioned Liz to write that for us.

"Knowing we wanted to build a ship onstage, we knew we needed a larger space than we have normally rented.

"Conversations with WLC really got rolling after Simon Provan (an assistant professor in the theater department) came to see 'The Seeds of Banquo.' We met with Wisconsin Lutheran College and pitched our idea for a rental in the summer of 2016. As they learned about the show and our focus on women, they asked us if we might consider a collaboration instead, as the majority of the students in their theater program are women and they have been looking for ways to breathe new life and interest into their program. They thought having a professional theater company bring their show to the WLC stage and run it in a professional way could be a great way to further their goals and a great fit for us."

WLC had a budget for the first play of its annual three-play season and Theatre Red had a budget. Neither one was overwhelming or unlimited, but with faculty and student expertise and labor combined with the Theatre Red expertise and labor, they cobbled together this amazing production.

Jay Sierzyn, the chair of the theater department, was positively glowing in pride when I saw him in the theater.

"It's a wonderful experience for our students," he said. "To be able to work with real professionals on a professional production is an amazing opportunity."

This collaboration featured so many aspects that are unique for a small theater company.

Christopher Eltz is a certified teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors (one of only two in Wisconsin) and he held two one-week sessions for cast members and students, one for stage combat and one for sword fighting. Then they rented the Red Witch, a tall ship out of Kenosha, to cruise and learn what it feels like to sail the seas. They held aerial workshops so people would know how to climb ladders and slide down and swing on ropes.

Among its missions, Theatre Red wants to provide more opportunities for women and to create a climate for continued growth of theater artists. This production would seem to have met both of those criteria.

"I think we got a beautiful space with a big stage and the resources of a college from a set building perspective. They have a team of students who work in the shop and the costume shop as part of their on campus employment, so this was a great benefit to us," Doherty-Elst said. "We handled most of the other production aspects on our own, as we normally do. WLC students got a chance to work on a professional show and learn some great new skills with this world premiere play – hopefully they got an experience they will always remember fondly."

For Sierzyn, the whole experience opened new worlds for students, faculty and audiences.

"The students in all of our shops gained significant experience in both working together and a professional communication process that often does not occur in our more internal operations," he said. "This also reflects the overall experience gained by our student actors as well. Many of our student shop workers also volunteered to serve as run crew stagehands and board operators – exhibiting even more their dedication to the project.

"Furthermore, the six current students in the cast gained experience working with a guest director – which is not uncommon for our program – but also, perhaps more significantly, experienced a professional rehearsal process, making contacts with and learning from the non-student, majority of the cast. As many of these wonderful artists are relatively young and many themselves recently fresh out of school, they were able to share personal knowledge and approach with the students."

I think anyone who sees this play will regard this collaboration fondly and let it be a big hint to other small companies that struggle to stage their plays. Colleges and universities have students who would benefit from working with the pros and resources that will enable any play to enhance its production values.

Theatre Red proved found that by collaborating, it never had to ask what it was they couldn't do, but rather focus on what the strengths of both organizations would enable them to do. And what happened in this production was truly a blueprint to raising the already high level of theater in Milwaukee.

"Bonny Anne Bonny" runs through Nov. 12 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.


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