Brian Jacobson

Year-one theater companies talk about their future

By - Sep 9th, 2009 07:36 pm



Youngblood’s production of Savage in Limbo, earlier in the summer of 2009

It seemed like a quixotic, fanciful ideal when Milwaukee’s Youngblood, Uprooted and Madison’s Forward theatre companies announced they were going to create their own ensembles and opportunities. During a time of recession — and therefore, less attendance at cultural events — the performing arts scene is often reorganizing itself by cutting seasons short, tightening purse strings and generally being more inventive. But each of the new companies had a particular vision and niche they wanted to fill, and they rolled up their sleeves to accomplish that.

There are others in the Wisconsin performing arts arena that started off this year: Vanity Theatre Company, made up of three stage vets who wanted to produce their own work and new work from others, staged a reading of co-founder Erik Ebarp’s Giant Days back in June. They have a five-play season list slated, but dates and venues are unknown as of yet. Quasi Productions, made up of several local actors who lamented the loss of Milwaukee Shakespeare, put on a truly scrappy version of Henry V at Marquette back in late May — but have gone silent since then. Goats and Monkeys, who formed around the same time and for similar reasons as Quasi, put on play readings of Othello in a Fifth Ward space and plan more soon.

The difference between the first three and last three may just be buzz and strength in numbers; both Youngblood and Uprooted boast strong outreach and staging plans, while Forward has a strong financial picture and a space to use (the Overture Center for the Arts, previously home to the defunct Madison Rep). The latter three groups have a passion and direct purpose, but they haven’t played the social media/Internet promotion game as well as the first three have done to get tickets sold.

All of the mentioned companies should take a good look at Pink Banana Theatre, now entering a sixth season but still considered very new and underground. Pink Banana understands the difficulty of finding an available venue, staying original and relevant, creating outreach and opportunity to those new to theater and holding the books together. The company holds a stock of players who oftentimes spend work days in the performing arts world, but put passionate efforts during free time into their own season. Most importantly, Pink Banana is busy organizing the paperwork for a non-profit 501(c) status.

Better yet, all of the new groups should take a look at some of the beloved-yet-failed production companies and venues like Bialystock and Bloom, Theater X, Darling Hall and others. Sometimes, a small band of thespians and players can be fortunate enough to end up with a large-scale organization such as Skylight Opera or the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Other times, wrestling for artistic and financial control after success blossoms has lead to magnificent collapses.

For most of these new groups, however, it’s too early to worry about that. For now, they are concerned with the quality of product and message. TCD checks in with the buzzworthy three to see what’s next:

youngbloodFounding Artistic Director Michael Cotey had a good summer. The critical response and attendance numbers to the three shows the group produced in a one-month period was “overwhelmingly positive.” While the group stayed sort of unknown at the start with David’s Redhaired Death staged at UWM Studio Theater this summer, by the time it mounted Savage in Limbo at the small side bar in the cavernous Landmark Lanes and the new work God Bridge at the Kenilworth Studio some days later, Youngblood was selling out the small venues and adding dates.

“The experience was fufilling … it certainly energized us to keep going,” says Cotey.

It was enough to hold together a small ensemble and make some concrete future plans. At the moment, the group is getting ready to participate locally on a national play project called The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (An Epilogue) . It will be held at UWM in conjunction with the original Tectonic Theater Project and over 100 theatre groups worldwide with a new script that examines life after the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Youngblood’s company meets regularly now to discuss plans extending into next summer. What started off as a “one-time thing” now has to meet “the seriousness of intention.” Company members broke even on the shows, and now are moving towards a non-profit field but want to remain financially flexible. They have original works from local playwrights in mind, but Cotey also states that they want to “try plays others wouldn’t, ones never seen in Milwaukee before or not produced in awhile.”

uprootedWhen the director of its inaugural show Beauty’s Daughter, Dennis L. Johnson addressed the audience in the Broadway Center Theater’s studio and announced future play plans, the audience burbled with delight. Among those ideas are George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum and a full-stage reading of Streetcar Named Desire. Uprooted‘s members acknowledge that part of the delight in choosing projects is to have non-traditional casting in known plays.

“We don’t want to be pigeonholed as ‘black theatre,'” says co-founder and actor Travis A. Knight.

While the four founding company members are African-American, and that’s how they were billed at first, Knight asserts that the advantage of being a nomadic troupe is that it “can build up a rep of pieces, and then travel with them.”

The summer actually remained too busy for the professional acting members to do anything, as they were acting in productions elsewhere. Knight was in three plays at American Players Theatre. Marti L. Gobel was at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Tiffany Cox was in a summer series at Tibbits Opera in Michigan. Dennis L. Johnson still has a busy plate for fall, as the assistant director and director to three Milwaukee plays.

Future events will be taken out to the community, starting with Cool Water and Tenth Street Theatre. Future collaborations include working with the Royal Mexican Players and many experiments and explorations with multi-ethnic casts.


forwardlogoPeople who know Wisconsin’s motto get one-half of the inspiration behind this new company based in the state’s capital. It came during a brainstorming session among actors and stage vets who found themselves in a synergistic conversation about what to do after the Madison Repertory Theatre crashed and burned early this year. They wanted to move things forward, to take a passion for professional live theatre and build a pragmatic business model around it. On that end, they constructed a three-tiered system of administration, board of directors and an artists advisory committee so that no one person could make a power grab.

“We found ourselves so in sync about wanting to create a structure that would allow a diverse range of artistic voices and have a healthy balance between the artistic and financial needs of the company,” says Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward’s artistic director. “When we hit upon the idea of how to structure this, we were kind of so enthused that we haven’t looked back since.”

At the moment, they are feeling out the community they already call home and exploring the three-sided thrust stage of the Overture. The scaled season starts with a radio dramatization of All About Eve, which will be broadcast at a later date through Wisconsin Public Radio. In December and March, they’ll get daring. First up will be Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, followed by 2009 playwright award-winner David Schanker’s mortgage broker hostage drama Kiritsis. It should be a good introductory season for Forward that seems to have a mission to return to an artistic vision while becoming a non-profit entity.

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