In Arts & Entertainment

Theater RED most recently put on a staged reading of "A Chorus Line." (PHOTO: Traveling Lemur Productions)

Tiny stages, big talent: 8 smaller theater groups to support

The Milwaukee Rep. The Marcus Center (or PAC if you haven't moved on from that name). When you think of theater in Milwaukee, you almost certainly think of those two iconic live entertainment locales, shining the spotlight on big blockbuster names and big talent.

But those grand giants only tell part of the story about Milwaukee's theater scene; to get the full picture, you need to venture to the small, local independent companies, scraping by with limited resources, limited seating and limited funds – but an unlimited amount of talent, artistic vision and love for live performance. And they most certainly deserve some time in the spotlight as well. So here are eight smaller companies in the city – from long-time indie icons to newcomers bursting out from the curtain with confidence – that should share your mental stage when it comes to picking a performance for your next night of theater.

1. Off the Wall Theatre

Dale Gutzman's Off the Wall Theatre is probably the biggest name among Milwaukee's small companies. At almost two decades of existence, he long-tenured small stage has put on some of the strangest and most exciting shows in the city. Even its location has a notably symbolic reputation, modestly sitting and surviving in the imposing shadow of the Milwaukee Rep across the street.

Having a big reputation, however, doesn't make your theater any bigger – literally, in Off the Wall's case, housing shows in a tiny, intimate chamber room that holds maybe 30 people for each show. But what it lacks in big spaces and big budgets, Off the Wall routinely makes up for in big ideas and big ambition. Small, bravely independent companies don't get much smaller and bravely indie than this one.

Coming up next: "A Midsummer's Night Dream," starting Oct. 18

2. All In Productions

All In is one of the younger guns in the Milwaukee theater scene, debuting in December of 2014 with "The Last Five Years." But even with just a handful of productions under its belt, the infant company – started by Alex Scheurell and Robby McGhee – has made its voice heard in the city, putting on small but smart and sharp shows like its premiere two-person musical romance, the raucous rowdiness of "Wild Party" and its season starter for 2017, the tough but tender rock musical "Next to Normal."

Coming up next: "Next to Normal," starting Sept. 7

3. Theatre Gigante

The size of Theatre Gigante may not match its name, but the artistic ambition most certainly does. Starting as the Milwaukee Dance Theatre, the company's changed its name, but it still develops breathtakingly unique and unexpected amalgams of movement, music and traditional theater, from a stripped-down almost Kabuki-esque take on Shakespeare's classic "Othello" to bringing in an upcoming performance of "7(x1) Samurai," a one-mime physical theater rendition of "Seven Samurai." That math shouldn't work, but if there's one thing Milwaukee audiences should know over the course of 30 years of Theatre Gigante, it's that the group's disparate, impossible and oddball elements always add up.

Coming up next: "I Am My Own Wife," starting Sept. 28

4. Soulstice Theatre

Earlier this year, Cream City theater lovers lamented the potential demise of the beloved Soulstice Theatre. But luckily, rumors of Soulstice's demise were greatly exaggerated. Yes, the company downsized, moving out of its St. Francis home, but in the process, Soulstice became more mobile for its means and returned to the stage just this month with a regional premiere play reading of "Reproducing Georgia" by Karen Hartman, featuring the presence of Wisconsin's own Georgia O'Keeffe. It's unsure what's on the horizon for the group, but considering the past work, you'll want to be there whenever and wherever it happens.

Coming up next: TBA

5. The Underground Collaborative

OK, The Underground Collaborative isn't an actual theater company, but the space – a creative blank slate open and available for Milwaukee artists and art event planners, quietly located in Grand Avenue Mall (like most things in Grand Avenue Mall) – gathers up some of the most interesting, unpredictable and forward-thinking work in the city. You can see anything from a two-man comedy battle to an evening of steampunk art and theater to the Women's Film Festival and more. The Rep and the Marcus Center are where you see what's big now; The Underground Collaborative is where you see what might be big next.

Coming up next: The Milwaukee Women's Film Festival, starting Sept. 8

6. Alchemist Theatre

A modest Bay View staple, the cozy Alchemist Theatre – located at 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. – has discovered the right chemistry for a great night of live entertainment: booze and bold production choices, filling its tight 64-seat hub with thoughtful theater and comfortable, conversation-encouraging quarters. It's truly a place not just for a show, but for a night of theater.

Coming up next: "Pepper's Ghost," starting Oct. 6

7. Theater RED

If you call yourself "Theater RED," complete with that famously aggressive and bold color in fittingly all-caps font, you better make work that stands out. Thankfully, over the course of the young company's few but fabulous shows, it's lived up to its eye-catching name with a series of unrehearsed Shakespeare shows to, most recently, a two-show collaboration with Milwaukee Opera Theatre on an aged-up staged reading of "A Chorus Line," bringing vibrant new perspectives to a modern Broadway chestnut. With a keen feel for local writers and unique turns on typical stories, Theater RED deserves to catch your eye – no caps lock needed.

Coming up next: TBA

8. Quasimondo

Listen, with "It" coming out next weekend, clowns and mimes could use some good news. The professions already have a hard enough time as is without creepy face-painted freaks walking around terrifying people and menacing children – whether on screen or in real life. Luckily, Milwaukee's own Quasimondo gives the modern jester a good name. The company recently celebrated five years of impressive, one-of-a-kind performances in Milwaukee, wrapping up half a decade in action with award-winning collaborations, spooky specials and thought-provoking physical theater. Clowns: They're not just for terror anymore!

Coming up next: TBA

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