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J. T. Backes and Andi Jaspersen starred in "The Shape of Things" at All In Productions. (PHOTO: All In Productions)

Soulstice Theatre closing would eliminate opportunities for young actors

There has been no formal announcement yet, but it appears as if another theater company that provides work for young actors and directors in Milwaukee is about to fold its tent.

Soulstice Theatre, founded over a decade ago in a tiny corner of an out-of-the-way building in St. Francis, has apparently cancelled its 2017 season amid discussions at the board level about whether it can conceivably continue to produce plays.

Efforts to contact Jillian Smith, artistic director and president of the board, were unsuccessful over the holiday weekend. But a number of sources confirmed that Soulstice has cancelled the two plays scheduled for winter and spring in 2017.

Soulstice has grown from an ambitious community theater company to a company that frequently delivered top-flight productions. Last season alone, I saw "The Secret Garden," a warm and tender play by Marsha Norman, and "Sea Marks," a deep look at how we identify ourselves, with Julie Swenson and David Ferrie.

If Soulstice does actually close, that will mark the second year in a row that a valuable theater company that regularly gave opportunities to young actors has shut its doors. Last season, Jim Ferrell's Splinter Group shut down.

Running a small theater company is a perilous way to make a living. In the last tax return I found for Soulstice, it spent around $40,000 on rent and took in about $25,000 in ticket admissions.

But a lot more than the economics are at work here. The saddest part of small companies like Soulstice going out of business is the fact that opportunities for young artists are disappearing in Milwaukee.

That lack of opportunity portends a problematic future for theater in Milwaukee. It creates a difficult for young actors like J.T. Backes, who need work in order to grow and hone their skills.

"I would say that about 10 or 15 percent of the young actors I know are planning to move to Chicago or New York or Minneapolis," he said. "They have to go somewhere where they can work.

"I know that Soulstice is cancelling the schedule and that just means there are fewer places for young actors and directors to get work. There are a lot of creative actors and directors who are my age (25) but it's very difficult for them to get work, to grow. We have wonderful veteran actors in Milwaukee, but what's going to happen when they aren't working anymore. Who takes their place?"

Exactly.

Both Soulstice and Splinter Group gave opportunities to young actors working their way up the ladder of theater life. And some of these youngsters delivered outstanding performance. Backes was in a great production of "The Shape of Things" under All In Productions at Villa Terrace. He also directed an imaginative production of "Ordinary Days," a play about young New Yorkers who were adrift in a world of uncertainty. There was no dialogue in the play, just singing by each of the four actors.

The question facing the Milwaukee theater community is one that needs some attention.

"With All In and First Stage and a few other places, we need places to work," Backes said. "Equity companies need to hire Equity actors which leaves us out of the process.

"It's at a point where a lot of us need to create our own productions, looking for cast, directors and a place to perform. I've pitched shows but don't have anything on the schedule yet. That's kind of what's left for us."

Places like Alchemist Theatre and In Tandem are wonderful theaters that rent space at reasonable rates. But it takes money to put on a production, with no assurance of earning it back at the box office.

The performing arts community has an obligation, in its own self-interest, to help create and expand opportunities for young artists before they all leave Milwaukee and our cupboard is left bare.

In recent years, for example, three of the most talented artists have left Milwaukee: actors Andrew Edwin Voss and Alexandra Bonesho and director Michael Cotey. They may occasionally return for a gig, but they are no longer an intimate part of the theater community in Milwaukee.

I think this whole thing can, and perhaps should, be brought to the United Performing Arts Fund, the immensely successful annual fundraising drive for the performing arts in Milwaukee.

It would be a good idea for UPAF to allocate funding for something like a "New Artist Company" that would have a space and resources to stage productions and create their own art.

I would guess that a contribution of $100,000 would go a long way toward giving young artists a chance to practice their art. I would hope that UPAF would back a company dedicated to kids who are working their way up, and do so without a lot of red tape.

UPAF could create an advisory board with some leaders in this community, like Chad Bauman, the thoughtful managing director at The Rep and Julie Swenson, artistic director at Renaissance.

Let them mobilize other experienced professionals to provide advice and guidance but let the young people operate on an established budget and give them artistic freedom.

This may not happen. "We have a board and by laws when it comes to funding and the criteria for groups to receive any UPAF support," said David Fantle, marketing director for UPAF.

UPAF could become a little more nimble and flexible as an organization and find a way to do this. Sure, it's not in their bylaws or part of their process, but sometimes you have to put all those complexities aside.

UPAF is committed to preserving and developing the performing arts in Milwaukee, and helping shape the future ought to be one of the key responsibilities.


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