Local Companies Are Innovating Amid Pandemic

Renaissance, Next Act and Milwaukee Rep all are finding creative ways to do theater.

By - Nov 16th, 2020 05:26 pm
Michael Unger. Photo courtesy Michael Unger.

Michael Unger. Photo courtesy Michael Unger.

As ever more Milwaukee theater companies are getting involved in original full-blown online productions, the Skylight Music Theatre’s Being Earnest, which helped break the online dam in October, has been extended to December 31.

Being Earnest received positive reviews and was intended to shutter in early December. But then the pandemic led the Skylight to cancel its in-person holiday production of Little Shop of Horrors, which intended to pick up patrons where Being Earnest left off. But the holders of the Little Shop copyright would not give permission for an online version (there is a still active film version).

Undeterred, the Skylight is creating other online productions, with announcements scheduled soon. “We not only need to keep our people working, but see this as more than a holding action, a recognition of new opportunities,” said Michael Unger, the Skylight artistic director whose Being Earnest received so much favorable attention. “We are asking the live theater audience to share an allegiance with us” as circumstances have forced a new way of creativity.

Local theater companies, several of which have used federal Payroll Protection Program money to keep going, are stepping up to the challenge during the pandemic, just as the governor and many local officials call for “a stay at home and think quarantine” effort by the general public.

Ironically the nature of online production makes local theater available anywhere in the world to anyone with Internet access and in competition with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon that are in effect placing full scale movies before public eyes. Said Unger with amusement: “Who would have thought our competition would now be Hamilton!”

The pressure has grown to create a hybrid form that survives in a quite different marketplace.

Marti Gobel. Photo by Timothy Moder.

Marti Gobel. Photo by Timothy Moder.

“I’m trying to duck the notion that we are now in the business of making movies,” said Marti Gobel in an interview. A well known Milwaukee actress, director and teacher who has relocated to San Diego while holding on to her roots here, she is directing one of the three plays being presented under the title Belonging behind a paywall by the Renaissance Theaterworks, starting in November. Gobel says she is blessed in that both actors in Poof! are sharing living space in Chicago while she directs them from San Diego and Milwaukee. Technical experts ship props and costumes to the necessary locales.

Jamil Mangan,  an accomplished actor and director stationed in Newark and New York City, is working with two Milwaukee based actors on another Renaissance entry in Belonging, where the directors have been given artistic independence and share the same technical support.

Looking at the wider universe – how museums are now creating virtual experiences, how websites are inventing their own skits, how theater writers are melding live impact with the possibilities of digital creation – Mangan is convinced that “some form of all this is in all our futures.” Theater experts, he added, are also learning what the pandemic has cost the world – “that sense of shared experience, of audiences breathing together.” This is something that we cannot lose, all the artists involved say even as they are forced to use new muscles and skills.

Many theaters robbed of their live audiences have been engaged in holding patterns – online staged readings, songs and skits performed by cast regulars and guest artists, most offered free online with indifferent traffic results outside intense fund-raisers.

Now the fresh online offerings all require signups on the Internet and payment. Some are limited in time frames, requiring reservations in advance. This is somewhat different than streaming services online and how they charge patrons. Nor can local theater companies line up the A-list of celebrity actors and singers available to the large services.

Yet in addition to specialty interests, they are competing in a vast universe. As Gobel points out, it offers some new opportunities. She expects family in California to visit Next Act’s new online production – where she is also involved, but as an actress — since her kin had complained it was hard to see her in her many Milwaukee outings. Director Mangan first met both Milwaukee-based actors in his portion of the Renaissance production on their visits to New York. The world is indeed closing in on Milwaukee.

Next Act Theatre is offering a full-blown online excursion in The Christians, a formidable play by Lucas Hnath, a much honored young playwright behind such New York sensations as A Doll’s House Part 2, which won a Tony for actress Laurie Metcalf in 2017. The Christians is fashioned as a sermon in a megachurch that gives way to intellectual debates and personal confrontations and splits among the central players.

An online program will be available Nov. 20 at and patrons who buy a ticket will be mailed a password and instructions for a production scheduled to run Nov. 23 to December 13. The theater is delaying its in-person season until 2021 at its free-standing home, 255 S. Water St.

Renaissance Theaterworks – which intends to move actual productions from the Broadway Theater Center to the Next Act building in 2021—had been holding open online fund raisers, but now it is immediately getting into the virtual production paywall business. The title Belonging describes a complete slate of short theater pieces by some of the most intriguing and largely unseen in Milwaukee playwrights of color, all now making a mark around the nation.

It is a production in collaboration with the Outer Loop Theater Experience, a new collective with many Chicago names.

Belonging, December 4 to 20th but with specific times, brings together All of the Everything by Alayna Jacqueline, Poof! by Lynn Nottage and The Winged Man by Jose Rivera.

Jacqueline, a Minneapolis-based writer, has been performed frequently by regional theaters. Nottage, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, has had New York productions of Intimate Apparel and Sweat. Almost a decade ago, Renaissance performed her Crumbs From the Table of Joy.

Rivera, the lone male playwright in a program that emphasizes “Theater by Women for Everyone,” has made his mark as an award winning playwright and the first Puerto Rican nominated as an Oscar screenwriter.

The cooperation with Outer Loop bring a likelihood that national attention will instantly be paid to this “Milwaukee” online version Dec. 4-20, with details forthcoming about how to access.

The Milwaukee Rep has actively publicized its repurposed 2021 season. It has dug into its vault for a never seen 2016 multi-camera version of its Pabst Theater A Christmas Carol.

But it is also doing a new holiday show online with a paywall – a one-actor with soundscape presentation of Dickens called Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol.

Described as a high definition multi-camera version, it was written and previously performed in many locations. On the West Coast it was done by its author, Tom Mula, a veteran actor who wondered why Marley couldn’t earn the same redemption that Scrooge did and concocted this vision.

For the Rep virtual production December 10 to 24 directed by Milwaukee Rep artistic director Mark Clements, the company is bringing in a longtime favorite, Lee E. Ernst, who has performed frequently with the American Players Theater and the Milwaukee Rep. He is regarded as an illuminating example of the professional acting training program that ran at the UW-Milwaukee 1976 to 1988 before picking up lock, stock, barrel and better funding to the University of Delaware, where it remains and thrives.

To watch Being Earnest online, patrons purchase a ticket for a specific date through December 31 and have 48 hours from their selected date to view the show online. Tickets are $25, with a suggested donation of $10 per additional viewer to support the theatre. Skylight subscribers can purchase tickets for just $10.

Theater is entering a brave new perhaps temporary world, where artists are determined to create lasting pieces of art without knowing the end game. Its participants are becoming aware that live theater offers some things that can’t be replicated online – the reaction of an audience, the emotional give and take of the moment that now has to be re-imagined online without the laugh tracks that so bailed out TV sitcoms.

How does online emulate those moments? How does it add elements that appeal to both a specialty audience and yet are available around the world? It’s a journey we all are involved in.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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