“Dying is easy,” a famous actor reportedly uttered with his last breath—”comedy is hard.” In the fresh, winsome production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Voices Found Repertory, actor Ben Yela manages both: his buffoon character Bottom performs a tour-de-force of serial deaths that, in its sheer excess of over-the-top commitment, reduced the audience to a crowd of helplessly laughing idiots. This was a comic maraschino cherry on the top of a fluffy dessert of a show, with layers of sincerity and silliness, decorated with imaginative squiggles, and very, very funny.
It’s an excellent way to celebrate what for many will be the first live indoor theater in a long time, with the specter of plague still hovering just a thin patch of fabric away. The audience were all masked, though the performers were not, but vaccination status is checked informally at the door, so the risk seems low enough for the present (pouring a libation to the theater gods now).
Voices Found has been bringing their youthful, kids-put-on-a-show vibe to works of classic theater for several years now, and their shows keep getting stronger and stronger. Director Sarah Zapiain clearly isn’t concerned about doing SHAKESPEARE; she wants to put on a show that’s fun and as accessible to as many people as possible, while still honoring and loving the source. She’s coached her players to bring Gen Z sensibility to the 500 year old script. And it works beautifully. Shakespeare’s lover’s quandaries fit perfectly with the relationship dramas of the TikTok era. The actors tease twenty-first century humor out of the sixteenth-century text and make it look easy. Zapiain skillfully varies the pace, with moments of calm sincerity and quiet hilarity along with utter mayhem. And if the clowning occasionally overpowers the emotional truth— well, anything for a laugh these days, right? But mostly the comedy comes out of characters. situations, and an ingeniously deployed French horn.
The leading players are all strong performers. As Hermia and Helena, Haley Ebinal and Maya Danks carry the first half of the show, each with her distinct blend of charm and silliness; Philip Steenbekkers plays the diffident swain Demetrius with an anything-goes gameness. Grace DeWolff presents a credibly laddish Lysander with a teenager’s bluff facade. On the fairies’ side, Kyle Connors brings a goofball innocence to the role of Puck, while in the dual roles of Theseus and Oberon, Brandon Haut has something of the manners of a put-upon but competent upper manager. And in a production that breezes past the play’s darker aspects, Amber Weissert’s Titania and Hippolyta seem to be concealing more than they show us. Jessica Trznadel’s simple, honest grief for her pretend lover Pyramus is as wonderful in its way as all of Bottom’s grandstanding.
The living-room like Inspiration Studios space doesn’t allow for much in the way of stagecraft; Puck creates the Athenian forest simply by flipping some black curtains to reveal hanging vines. But the production never feels impoverished. The Elizabethan songs are replaced by aptly-chosen classic hits. Accompanied by a couple of acoustic guitars and the indispensable ukulele, they sing of jealousy (“Jesse’s Girl” and “Jolene”), love (Time after Time”), and magic (“Dancing in the Moonlight.”) It’s like a Karaoke party, where camaraderie wins out over professional polish. Nothing could be more appropriate for this light, loose show. It’s a wonderful tonic for pandemic fatigue, and a good omen for times to come. Leave a bowl of milk on the porch tonight for the fairies—just in case.
A stubborn monarch, a wronged queen, a lost princess, and a cunning rogue: these are among the dramatis personae of A Winter’s Tale, (which, curiously, debuts in midsummer) by the Summit Players Theatre, who tour all over the Wisconsin park system in the summertime. For many of us this was the first live theater in many a moon, and, to judge by the giddy enthusiasm of both the actors of last week’s performance at Havenwoods State park, and the audience, sitting in lawn chairs under the trees, this show is like a tasty appetizer: it whets a ravenous hunger.
While A Winter’s Tale is often considered one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic and lyrical plays, the Summit ensemble, under the direction of Maureen Kilmurry, aims for family fun. They play this 75 minute edited version as what it really is: a fairy tale. In uniforms of jeans and tennis shoes, they’re all smiles as they whip costume pieces on and off to become lords or peasants as needed. The acting is broadly cartoonish, and the plentiful sight gags are well thought out with accessibility in mind: placards invite us to make sound effects like “bird song” and “commotion.” A couple of sheep puppets sing a ditty to the accompaniment of a ukulele (which seems the perfect instrument for this shoebox production). And the most infamous of all stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” is accomplished with a pair of furry mittens (the stuffed black bear in the Havenwoods nature center lobby likely never dreamed it would be in such literary company.)
This doesn’t in any way imply disrespect for the play; it works really well as a fractured fairy tale. The players invest their line-drawing characters with just enough emotional truth to summon the magic of story. True, the first act doesn’t seem much like a promising family show, with a king suspecting his pregnant wife of adultery, throwing her in prison, where she gives birth, and later collapses at her trial, apparently dead, then orders the infant princess to be exposed in the wild in a distant country. But we forget that fairy tales are often cruel in the beginning. And the plot soon turns to whimsy. True, someone does get eaten—bears will be bears—but he does get a decent burial at the hands of the shepherds who find and raise the abandoned baby. And between Texas-accented peasants, a pair of frustrated lovers, an elaborate sheep-shearing party, and the (finally) repentant king, everything comes through hilarity to a surprisingly touching resolution.
All the young players comport themselves with infectious charm. Michael Nicholas and Caroline Norton display dramatic and comic chemistry as fathers and sons, both royal and rustic. Maura Atwood brings winsome grace to her dual roles as the queen and the rogue, and the charismatic Kaylene Howard transcends the silliness when she speaks truth to power as a counselor scolding the king for his stupidity.
In some ways, A Winter’s Tale is strangely resonant to the difficult year we’ve just been through. We can easily see traits of a recent pigheaded leader in King Leontes. And in Hermione, [Spoiler Alert] returning to her life at last after a long seclusion, we can not only recognize ourselves, but celebrate the return of theater into our lives. Let’s hope it lasts!
Summit Players Theatre presents
A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
returning to Havenwoods State Forest on August 9 at 7:00
This year, while live theater languished under lockdown, a group of local theater artists have been busy drafting a revolution.
The Not In Our House Committee of the Milwaukee Theatre Alliance has released the first draft of their ambitious “Milwaukee Theatre Standards” (MTS). Modeled after the Chicago Theatre Standards, which were drawn up in the aftermath of an expose of abusive practices in a respected small Chicago theater company. The MTS offers detailed procedures for reporting and following up on incidents of abuse in the theater community.
But the Milwaukee committee wanted to address a host of other issues, from fair distribution of income to child care and EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion,) in response to BIPOC Artists (Black, Indigenous, People of Color, pronounced like “buy pock”), Artists with Disabilities, and LGBTQ Artists calling for more representation in Milwaukee theater. The resulting fifty page document (often referred to as “the document”) is a complete revisioning of how theater is done, with formerly-excluded groups at center stage. (You can find the full document here. )
In preparation for a launch of the document in June, Milwaukee Theatre Alliance founder Jaimelyn Gray and committee member and artist/educator Ro Spice-Kopischke graciously met on a brisk afternoon to talk about the Standards.
Who is the “Not in our house task force”?
RO SPICE-KOPISCHKE- We are a group of local folks who are involved in the theater and arts who are committed to reforming and improving and making the Milwaukee arts scene a safer, more just, and more equitable space. I like to use the word revolutionize [laughs] We’re hoping to make some rather aggressive changes.
JAIMELYN GRAY- I had moved back up to Milwaukee from Chicago right at the tail end of 2017. Not In Our House was a big deal in Chicago at that time. The investigation in the Chicago Reader of Profiles Theatre was just six months previous, and also there was this big explosion of the Me Too movement. So when we had the first MTA meeting in 2019 I had put it on the agenda. Then really, after the murder of George Floyd, I think it was Katie Cummings that said, well, you know, why don’t we just do it, and incorporate not only Me Too but all sorts of injustice that occurs everyday, that also includes the BIPOC community, and make sure that we’re starting the document off on the best foot that Milwaukee can, specifically for Milwaukee needs.
Let’s take the document one theme at a time. Briefly, how do the standards address sexual harassment?
JG- We’re trying to create environments where people can feel safe to report incidents and find paths— whether it be anonymous, or creating roles within theatre companies themselves, or within the Milwaukee Theatre Alliance—where people can feel they have a safe and welcoming environment to report abuse and really any sort of violence: sexual, mental, or emotional types of abuse.
RSK- I think that was the section we dove least into because it had been so comprehensively worked through by Chicago several years ago. And we were like, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
How does the document address workplace safety issues?
JG- I think a lot of us think of mental health first, as opposed to the past where we were thinking about you know, having glow tape backstage and things like that. Things like changing the work hour structure. Normally during tech week, right when we’re about to open the show, you’ll get a Saturday or Sunday where you’re gonna work for 12 hours. And it makes for a very long week, and so we want to change some of these structures to help re-establish healthier environments and healthier artists. Almost everybody on the NIOH committee is on the non-union, non-equity level, and a lot of these protections aren’t there for non-equity companies.
RSK- We wanted to make sure that no matter where the artist works in Milwaukee, they know they’re going to be safe, and that there is a shared understanding across the community of what that looks like. I think that idea can be applied to the whole document.
JG– Some of those safety measures also extend into things that were not previously [included]. There’s just a great scope, we’re talking about handicapped or disability accessibility, the LGBTQ community and. . .
RSK- Neutral spaces.
JG- Neutral spaces and things like that.
RSK- Just to provide spaces that are welcoming to all. We really intend to make it a “welcome to all” environment.
Now lets talk about how you address equity, diversity and inclusion based on race, gender, and disability.
RSK- This was probably the part of the document we spent the most time on, that the committee created from scratch. There was a little bit of the EDI stuff in the original document, but following the summer of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd and the BIPOC community coming out and speaking truth about so many things that are happening on so many levels of our society that as white people we can’t understand, we knew that this had to be a really crucial aspect of this document: how to make theater spaces more equitable and more accepting and a place that is accessible to everyone regardless of whatever identity they might be bringing with them.
JG- Katie Cummings is the artistic director of Pink Umbrella Theatre Company, which is a company in Milwaukee specifically designed to make a home for disabled artists, be it mental, physical, emotional—any sort of disability— to give those artists a space to perform and opportunities, so she was an excellent resource as far as the needs of that community. Ro is an excellent resource for the LGBTQ community. We had Marvin Hannah from Bronzeville, Kanita Hickman from Imagine, so we had representatives—and I don’t want to step too far and speak where I shouldn’t—but to make sure we had voices on this panel that could legitimately speak. . . like, I’m excellent at talking about the female experience in theatre over the past 20 years or so, and I can talk about my daughter, because she’s a special needs person, but other than that, I can’t speak to what they can, so it was important to have those voices there.
RSK- And one thing we said multiple times, was we could have had a hundred people on this committee and we still wouldn’t have had a full picture, Not every voice would have been represented.
JG– We did the best we could with those that were available at the time.
RSK-And with the knowledge that we didn’t have all the knowledge. That’s why we used resources like the letter to the Shepherd Express and We See You White American Theater to help us full in any of those gaps, and that’s why the listening sessions are really important because it allows the community to come in and help fill in those gaps as well. And it’s been a really great, like so many light bulb moments of “Oh of course, how could we not see this before?” So the standards are essentially a set of best practices…
RSK- These processes are not just a series of steps that you can check off and, congratulations, you’ve done diversity. It’s going to be an ongoing process that is going to take a lot of work and a lot of energy on behalf of the theater community, but all of that is worth it. But essentially, it’s guidelines on how to build a season that is diverse, on building a company that is diverse, onstage and off, both in performance talent and admin talent and technical talent. Best practices for audition notices, and for casting, and how to reach communities that have historically not been reached here in Milwaukee, because these people exist, these actors are out there, they’re just not getting the work. So it’s like, OK, now we have to rethink how we get to these people. So the standards lay out a completely new framework for thinking about how we create theater, in a way that is intentional and equitable and just and still gives us all that creative and artistic freedom, just in a way that is allowing everyone to have that freedom, not just the privileged people who happen to be in power at that moment.
JG– I think, too, its important to note that it’s not a complete “how to” manual
RSK-Exactly. Its giving recommendations and resources, so, like, EDI is a massive topic. At the back end of the document it goes into all these resources that were aggregated from all of the people that were involved in the process at the time. Because each company is different, you know, and what everybody needs as resources to EDI is going to be completely different. All we can do is start the discussion, provide recommendations, provide resources, and from there each company is going to have to find paths that work within their structures, and what structures need to be broken down.
Could you briefly describe a technique for rehearsals from the Chicago Theater Standards called “ouch/oops”?
RSK- Absolutely. “Ouch/oops” is a framework for communicating. So something happens in a rehearsal room or whatever space you’re in that hurts you in some way, you can say “ouch.” And it signifies to everyone in the room: something has happened that is harmful in some way. And it gives you a space to stop and process that and the person who did the ouch to acknowledge the harm that they’ve potentially done, and to foster this open communication within the theatre space. So, like Jaimelyn was saying earlier, that people do feel comfortable talking about things that happen and don’t push them to the side or hide them away until the place becomes so toxic and everything explodes out. And the “oops” is to acknowledge when you’ve messed up because we all will, you know, every single one of us will continue to mess up as we learn and grow. We’re always works in progress. So the “oops” is a tool to acknowledge, “Oh, I’m catching myself, I’m fixing myself, I acknowledge that what I said is not what I should have said. or has a different impact. It allows us to have communication in a way that’s not super daunting because it’s just these two simple little words to help spark those conversations.
Great, thank you. There’s a section that calls for “Mandatory ongoing racial bias training” for pretty much everybody who works in the theater, including having them sign statements so that they could be held accountable. Could you explain a little about how you see that working?
JG– Well, I want to reiterate that the Milwaukee Theatre Standards is a voluntary document. We’re not going to sit there and say you can’t be a member of the Theatre Alliance if you don’t abide by the standards and whatnot. Again, these are recommendations that all these people, experiences, and resources have brought together to create systems like that. What we all recognize as white people is that there is a whole bunch of bias that is embedded in us that we have to work on. And it’s going to take a long time, all of this stuff is going to take a long time. But it’s about recognition and holding yourselves accountable. Each company will have to figure out the system that works best for them. But it’s about planting the seeds of communication and accountability and talking about them to make them a reality that will benefit every theatre company in Milwaukee.
RSK- We’ve worked really hard to provide actionable items. Because what we’ve heard from the BIPOC community and other historically excluded groups is companies say “Oh yes we stand with you absolutely, we support you, we’re going to make a change.” And there isn’t. It’s easy to write a statement that yes, we stand for these things, but there’s not a ton of accountability there. Actionable steps that have timelines and are measurable create spaces that aren’t just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk as well.
In the preamble of the MTS it says that this is a living, breathing document” In what ways?
JG– There’s always room to add and take out because we are —hopefully—a changing society. As far as I’ve seen, Milwaukee hasn’t seen the likes of Profiles Theatre and I hope we never do. But we don’t know that for sure. This is a tool to open up the community so that people don’t feel like there’s going to be retaliation if they say something. In a small community like Milwaukee a lot of people feel like if you say one wrong thing, you’re not gonna work ever again. There’s so much anxiety and it puts so much pressure on people that people feel that they should not talk and so we’re trying to eliminate that and again create healthier artists to create better art. It’s an ongoing process and so we’re going to keep unearthing areas in our society and in ourselves that need work, so having a document that can grow along with us is really important. Because we’re never going to be done doing this work, so this document should never be done doing its work.
Now I’d like to ask a couple of dumb questions OK?
RSK- Absolutely. No question is a dumb question.
JG– There is no judgment here.
There are many levels of Milwaukee theater from the Rep to a little bunch of people who want to put on a show. What level of theater are these standards aimed at?
JG– All of them.
RSK- Every one.
JG– All of them. The bigger theaters have a lot of systems available to them, but we put in there a fair pay system. We came up with a ratio based on other things that we were looking at in other similar movements, a five to one ratio where the top paid person should not make more than five times the lowest person on staff. That’s something that the Rep, or any of the large theaters in Milwaukee could take a look at, if that’s something that could provide a more equitable pay environment. I don’t have to worry about that, because I don’t get paid. [laughs] But the Constructivists are a new organization and I do hope to build that organization to be, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. When that time comes, that five-to-one thing is a value of mine that I would want to invest in the people that work for me. And this is like the big idea of the Milwaukee Theatre Alliance: I said this at the first meeting and I really mean it: I want us all to get paid. I want it to be a societal value that artists are workers too, that we are job creators and that there should be in my opinion institutions in the United States, in Wisconsin government, in Milwaukee that provide pay for artists. One of the things that Covid showed us, is what happens when the artists aren’t there. Mental health issues just exploded when people were isolated and couldn’t go see a show in a small theatre in the back closet of a restaurant or whatever [laughs]. This is real to me. It’s real. These standards might work for some people now, but someday I hope it works for everybody, whether it’s five-to-one out of a thousand dollars or five-to-one out of 2.5 million dollars.
But just down to the basics of, like we said, gender bathrooms, that’s for everybody. That’s an everybody thing you know?
There’s fifty pages of detailed procedures and processes. How can small struggling companies with no money at all handle these standards?
JG- It’s not about handling stuff. There’s some stuff in there that doesn’t work for people right now, you’d have to determine what that is.
RSK- And to speak to the accessibility of the document, this is something we’ve all acknowledged–it’s a beast. We didn’t want to cut corners and leave anything out, so we just kind of accepted that it was going to be huge. One of our future goals is to make the document easier to use, and more accessible and more…
RSK- Yes, absolutely, edible.
Now I’d like to ask some questions that are a little more challenging, if that’s OK.
JG– [jokingly] What??
RSK- OK, yeah that’s fine.
Milwaukee theater is already pretty liberal, and it’s a small world. Do we really need formal standards?
RSK- The theater is often touted as this space that’s, “Oh everyone is welcome here, and we’re super-inclusive, and it isn’t true, you know. We’re better than we have been in the past, but we are nowhere near where we should be, and there are voices in the community that can speak directly to that. It might seem like we’re blowing this out of proportion. But if just one person feels safer, more comfortable and more respected and like a part of this community, then it’s worth it for me.
JG– If it wasn’t needed there wouldn’t be as many people involved.
RSK- And we wouldn’t have a fifty page document [laughs]
So you’ve heard stories that illustrate the needs for these kinds of standards?
RSK- Absolutely. And I’m not going to speak to anything that’s not my personal experience. But we have heard very serious very big long-term harmful things, and we have heard the day to day microaggressions that occur for marginalized people.
RSK- And both of those need to be addressed. Protecting people from sexual harassment and protecting people from being the only fill-in-the-blank in the room and feeling like they have to speak for everyone of that identity, or feeling like they can’t speak because it will reflect on their identity. Or feeling like nobody else in the room gets it and they can’t be their true selves. And if we can’t be our true selves in the theatre, where the hell can we be our true selves? [laughs].
JG- Amen [laughs]
Challenging question number two:
Do these standards basically mean that all plays we do have to be about race and gender issues now? Could this have a chilling effect on artistic freedom?
JG- It does actually say in the document: be careful that you’re not over-policing people so that people also feel in the opposite way, that they’re feeling silenced and that the artistic environment can’t flourish. So it’s not saying that you can’t do something, it’s just saying that do you have the resources to make it happen in the… right way? In the best way possible, in the most dignified, empathetic way that it should be done.
RSK- Diversity fosters creativity, and a wider idea of what the world can be like. I personally find diversity to revitalize things. Yes, we need more directors of color, we need more writers of color, we need more trans writers and directors. We need to bring the stories that haven’t been told to the forefront. God bless William Shakespeare, I love him. I have a Shakespeare tattoo. But there’s only so many ways you can do Hamlet—if you’re thinking in a certain way. So it’s not just about telling stories about race and gender, it’s about telling the stories that we’ve always told in ways that are new and exciting and invite everyone into the story. When we bring diverse mindsets into the theatre it lets us view the work in diverse ways. It opens us up to so much more that wasn’t there before. I’m very passionate about representation [laughs].
Are you ready for another challenging question?
RSK- Bring it on.
Equality involves give and take. For people who are not from traditionally excluded groups, that is, straight people, white people, and men, is there anything that can be done to keep them from feeling like the bad guys?
RSK- That requires a lot of personal work, right? That’s on those individuals.
RSK- And it’s something that we have to do for all of us who hold privilege in any way. We have to look at that privilege and understand it and how it impacts others, and we have to do it in a way that is helpful. And it’s gonna be uncomfortable. A lot of us in positions of privilege are going to have to get used to stepping back and making space instead of taking space, And that’s hard work. It’s really, really hard. But it’s also really, really important. It’s not a pie; if someone is getting more, you’re not getting less. And it might have to be like that a little bit for a while, because there are only so many seats at the boardroom table and so many shows that can be done in a season. In that sense there are finite resources. But it’s not that just because somebody else is allowed into this space, doesn’t mean that you’re not. That is going to be difficult for folks who haven’t had an opportunity to examine their privilege before. But as hard and challenging and uncomfortable as it is to do, it’s worth it.
Emma Goldman famously said “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.” Is there room in all this for fun?
RSK- A thousand percent yes.
JG– God, I hope so.
RSK- [laughs] I personally find this work super invigorating, it fills my cup, as the saying is. Like I was saying before, it lets us imagine a world that is better and brighter and safer and equitable and just. I’ve had a blast working on this document, as difficult, as heavy as some of the topics are, as bleak as it sometimes looks like, “Oh boy it’s up to us to make this a better world?” It’s theater, right? What are we doing if we’re not having fun?
JG– I think, too, hard work has to be done before you can have the fun, right? And there’s a lot of people who haven’t been having fun. [laughs] So how can we change that environment, in a lot of ways bring the fun back? A lot of us have been getting burned out, trying to make American theatre happen. Because the systems that have been set up. . .
RSK- are broken.
JG- It’s excessive hard work. So how can we make it just old-fashioned hard work, that will pay off? And how can we have fun doing it?
Last Question: what can the performing arts do to create understanding and appreciation of difference, rather than division?
RSK- I feel that a lot of that anxiety about difference comes from anxiety from the unknown, and when you don’t understand those differences, that triggers fear. The performing arts are uniquely suited to help assuage that anxiety, especially when we can get people in who can tell stories from their lived experiences. So when we get trans playwrights, Black playwrights, and Native playwrights, and actors, directors, producers, costumers, technicians, musicians, who can really truly express what it’s like to have that experience, and present it authentically, that fills those gaps in knowledge and it makes those differences less unknown and less scary. That’s why representation matters so much to me. “Nothing about us without us.” Because if you’re not there, the story isn’t accurate and it can’t close those gaps in knowledge in meaningful ways.
JG– My mind is exploding. My predominant thought is that we as humans crave stability, right? We like routine and being put in a box, you know? Theater, when it’s doing it’s best work, is breaking people out of that box. It’s just like that classic Greek thing, catharsis? Bringing people to the theater and telling stories from the wealth of experience of all of mankind. Not that white men’s stories aren’t very helpful, or Shakespeare isn’t like a god and whatever. . .
RSK- They’re telling valuable stories, its just they’re not the only stories.
JG– They’re not the only stories. I’m telling you, let’s get the women playwrights in there let’s get the BIPOC community. I know it’s going to be hard for men to sit down for just a second; it’s just a minute! White men have had control with the monies and whatnot for… a bit. All we’re saying is, there’s more out there, there’s more stories to tell, and that’s what makes humanity interesting, is the full breadth of humankind. And if we can introduce people to that, people won’t be afraid. We just have to figure out how to be honest in our community and say what we mean, and do what we say. And create utopia yeah? We’re just trying to…
RSK- Change the world
JG– I know, but right now we’re just trying to do better.
This interview has been heavily edited for brevity and clarity.
It was a curious scene for a snowless week before Christmas in Wisconsin: some two dozen people, masked, distanced, and bundled up for warmth, stood spread out in a wooded glade in Havenwoods State Park, with their eyes closed. “Notice all your senses,” coached dancer Jenni Reinke. “Notice the sounds around you, the feeling of the air, the feelings of your body. Now open your eyes, and look as if you were looking for the first time. Notice what you’re seeing.”
The event was a “Winter Mindfulness Walk” organized by Reinke, a Lead Artist with ArtWorks for Milwaukee’s Environmental Arts Program. In collaboration with partners from Northwest Side Community Development Corporation, Century City Triangle Neighborhood Association, and Friends of Lincoln Park, Reinke is leading nine teen interns in engaging the community through environmentally themed placemaking activities and public art projects.
Reinke is well-qualified to lead this kind of adventure: she is a dancer with Wild Space Dance Company, which makes site-specific work both indoors and outdoors; she performed in Daniel Burkholder’s “Scenic Route,” a recital that played in all four seasons at Riverside Park. She is a lecturer of yoga and meditation in the Sport & Recreation Department at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and teaches inter-generational multidisciplinary art-making with Danceworks. Last spring, she led a movement program for The Performance Ecology Project, which explores how to deepen the relationship between humans and the natural world. Reinke’s goal today was twofold: to “get people into their bodies through gentle experiences that invite internal and external sensory awareness,” and to create connections through collaborative activities.
Havenwoods, the only State Forest in the City of Milwaukee, has a long and checkered past. The site went from wetland to farms, to a farm staffed by prisoners, to a military prison, to an Ajax missile base, and finally, thanks to a Federal restoration project in the 70s, back to wetlands. Its paths lead through dense woods and open prairie, skirting marshes and ponds. On this day, the land seemed to be dreaming under its thick blanket of buff-colored grass, presenting monochrome scenes in subtle shades of gray and brown like Chinese ink brush paintings. Only a stray string of geese and a few birds stirred in the bones of the land, its vitality slumbering deep in the secret places of winter.
It speaks of our curious times, and our great pandemic hunger for space and community, that so many folks responded to Reinke’s invitation, even on a chilly overcast Saturday afternoon. Along with ArtWorks interns, board and staff, there were people from Northwest Side CDC, Friends of Lincoln Park, Nearby Nature, Sierra Club Great Waters Group, Villard Avenue Business Improvement District, plus nearby residents, plus a few friends and neighbors, all happy to get out of the house and under the soft open sky.
We began by saying hello to the forest with a bow inspired by Japanese custom, led by Jeff Grygny of the Performance Ecology Project. Then, crossing the threshold of the woods, we were invited into silence to help us be present to the moment (though at several points people were invited to share a few words about their experience). Brown leaves crunched underfoot like dry paper; pale light filtered through a spidery canopy of naked branches; the network of some sleeping giant’s nervous system. Facing a space of rough grey columns of varied widths and angles, Reinke encouraged us to discover the ever-shifting corridors and doorways created when we move through and between them. Finding a particular tree, she invited us to touch the corrugated bark, then to explore the trees as our dance partners, sharing our weight with them, leaning, pulling, embracing, feeling the confident solidity of their deep-rooted bodies with our own flesh and bone.
The air was brisk, but completely still; not even the skeletons of prairie flowers stirred in any breeze as Reinke led us into different environments at a gentle, contemplative pace. Some people remained in silence, others chatted companionably as we moved from place to place. A meadow of swirling matted grass offered a maze of winding paths to explore. An expansive field gave the opportunity to feel tiny under the spacious sky. In a giant shallow bowl of tall grass, spiny prairie plants, and feathery shrubs, all circled by a ring of forest, the city was totally out of sight. Here, Reinke led a group improvisation inspired by the flocking of birds, following the leader in a succession of spontaneous movements. Finally, returning to our starting point, we offered gestures of thanks and farewell, first to the land, and then to the group.
It was very moving to witness these gracious nonverbal thanks, and then to hear what people had to say about their experience in a brief talkback. One man reported that, though he had worked with trees all his life, he had never experienced them in this way before. A woman voiced her delight in playing with fallen leaves as she had when she was a child. “Every tree has it’s own energy,” observed a teen with bright chartreuse hair. Many people expressed gratitude for being able to connect with nature in this way. And some made meaning out of their experience. “My attention went to the tree that’s broken,” one woman said. “Even though it’s broken, it’s still strong.”
As the group happily dispersed to the parking lot, I felt gratitude for everyone’s gracious and patient participation, and for Reinke’s initiative in bringing us out on this unlikely day to experience the warmth of community, both with the land and among each other. Taking the time to interact with nature in a contemplative, sensory, and playful way not only grants us the well-known physical and mental health benefits of immersion in nature; it enacts a relationship that goes beyond environmental slogans: it creates connections that are at the same time embodied, emotional and ecological. Performing these kinds of practices, we can fulfill founding ecologist Aldo Leopold’s injunction to recognize the land, not as property, but as “a community to which we belong.”
Have you noticed how the pandemic has really limited the opportunities to see live theater around town? I sure have! And while many resourceful companies have moved mountains to make their creativity and talent accessible online, I’m one of those Luddites who regard watching theater on your computer with the same enthusiasm as looking at pictures of food.
But hey, pictures of food can be very beautiful, and—because theater is a supremely generous medium—we can still get nourishment from the efforts of our brave and resourceful actors, singers, and musicians, even if it doesn’t come with the sweat, body heat, and atmospheric vibrations of performance in the flesh. Skylight Music Theater is offering two diversions designed to float us away from the troubles of our times. And since , with any luck, not one, but two noxious plagues will be visible in the world’s rear view mirror in the foreseeable future, a little socially-distanced indulgence is certainly appropriate.
Being Earnest sets the story of Oscar Wilde’s classic Edwardian farce in the swinging sixties of mods, Carnaby Street fashion, and the British Invasion (with nary a thought of Brexit!). Recorded from their homes by a doughty troupe of talented young singer/actors, the production uses clever video magic to bring the players into virtual interaction.
Skylight Sings: A Holiday Special takes us to the grand but friendly confines of the Cabot Theater, where a sumptuous smorgasbord of local talent delivers an eclectic menu of holiday songs— along with some that may have never been thought of as holiday songs. Kevin James Sievert performs “Love is an Open Door” from Disney’s Frozen; the wonderful Samantha Sostarich sings “A Hard Candy Christmas” from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the list goes on and on, including such local favorites as Raven Dockery, Kelly Doherty, Ray Jivoff, and the fabulous belter Liz Norton. Ryan Cappleman dances with his dog, Dolly. There’s a Hanukah song, and a Kwanzaa song, too. There is also apparently a man in a bunny suit smoking a cigar. Why? Watch to find out!
For those of us addicted to live performance, this has been a season of withdrawal. No matter how lovingly produced virtual theater might be, the flat screen just can’t equal the warm, breathing in-person event. So it was that, driven by a certain thirst, we recently had an entirely new experience: watching a dance concert through a car windshield (I recommend the shotgun seat for the most unobstructed view).
Long accustomed to on-site performance, Debra Loewen’s Wild Space Dance Company has been one of the few groups in town to brave the outdoors and organize dances in parking lots The third of such offerings, “Under the Freeway,” played last week for several performances. The very circumstances of the event dictated their own form and drama, and even created a role for the audience: we herded our cars into specific configurations under the on-ramp to the Hoan bridge, marshaled by baton-wielding dancers, like an alien ritual in which two-legged masked beings command giant metal and glass wheeled creatures.
Illuminated by the bright eye-beams of docile vehicles, two groups of dancers, some thirty yards apart from each other, performed 20-minute routines under the soaring concrete columns, accompanied by soundtracks that had been downloaded and played on personal phones. No two cars could witness exactly the same show. Then the cars were deftly shepherded to change positions, and we saw the same choreography from the opposite side.
The company’s signature movement style is abstract and body-based, introducing motifs and variations that seem to have been been born out of the dancer’s personal impulses. As the dances develop, we appreciate space, form, tension, contrast, and coordinated movement. From behind your glass shield, you can see one group performing quite close, even occasionally peering at you, and at the same time see the other group as tiny figures in the distance. What is hidden on the first viewing is revealed in the second, and vice versa; your experience accumulates richness as the evening progresses.
The scores are eclectic collages of modern, classical, and tango fragments, snatches of spoken word, musique concrete and passages of silence. At one point a voice quotes avant-garde chance composer John Cage: “Looking closely helps.” Indeed, this style gives the viewer great freedom (and responsibility) for their focus. Whatever theme or narrative there is, the viewer must construct herself. It seemed that the southern performance group had a cool, alienated mood, while the northern side seemed warmer and more communal—aided, no doubt, by the energetic Alisha Jihn, who dances like a burning torch. At the end, as we feebly applauded inside our machines, then followed the leader out of the lot and back into the streets, the performance felt like a perfect microcosm of the strange situation our world is in: brave souls cavorting in bright white light while traffic rolls a hundred feet above, and we huddle in our mobile shells, cut off from community, but sheltering its warmth like a candle being carried across a huge dark room.
The artists of Wild Space are keeping the flame lit, until such a night comes when we can once again gather around the fire, unmasked.
Parking Lot Performance #3 “Under the Freeway”
by Wild Space Dance Company
Debra Loewen, Artistic Director
Dancers: Ben Follensbee, Alisha Jihn, Molly Kiefer, Jackie Kostichka, Nekea Leon, Molly Mingey, Emily Olson, Jenni Reinke, Yeng Vang-Strath
It was in the first post-pandemic print issue of the Shepherd Express—an issue that was limited and soon gone—that local director Dale Gutzman announced the closing of Off the Wall Theater, the little storefront theater that could, playing precariously on Wells Street (across from that other theater) for fifteen, maybe twenty years. This is a small but significant tremor in the tectonic plates of Milwaukee theater, and, as Arthur Miller wrote in a different context, “attention should be paid.”
While wandering in a city, the title character of Herman Hesse’s counterculture classic Steppenwolf, stumbles on an obscure door marked:
Magic Theater Not For Everybody
Off the Wall theater was Milwaukee’s magic theater for almost two decades. Under Gutzman’s idiosyncratic direction, a slowly-rotating cast of regulars created entire universes of worlds: Renaissance Italy, Greek myth, Nazi Germany; contemporary Broadway to weird dimensions outside history—in a space the size of a neighborhood tavern. Gutzman’s directorial style was not to everyone’s tastes; he could be autocratic and manipulative in the service of his vision—but man, could he put on a show. His productions at their best united music, stage pictures, and text to create stylistic unities of great integrity. There a few directors with equal mastery of the language and potential of theater.
An actor friend of mine once criticized, in rather rude terms, my high praise for Gutzman’s productions, to which I could only respond that I found them more interesting than most other plays. Having known Gutzman since he was a high school drama teacher creating such improbable shows as a version of Dracula set in Dostoevsky’s medieval Russia, or original musicals based on Flash Gordon and L’Enfants du Paradis, he has always seemed like one of those tortured geniuses long fashionable in artistic circles, from Byron to Grotowski, but who, for better or worse, have been largely superseded by professionalism and modern social mores. He is of a time when art and danger were more closely associated than they are now.
Was it toxic? Maybe. But it was also gloriously bombastic, bigger than life, and wickedly theatrical in ways that seem to have vanished along with the toxicity (though recently he had pivoted to a more understated acting style). Maybe there is something of Plato’s pharmakon in the old-school theatricality that Gutzman embodied: both poison and medicine. However that may be, it’s hard to imagine anything like Off The Wall Theatre happening again.
In lieu of a detailed retrospective, I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than the best poem on theater I’ve ever read: Delmore Schwartz’s tribute to Shakespeare. It’s a good song to go out on. The theater is dead: long live theater!
Gold Morning, Sweet Prince by Delmore Schwartz
What the sad and passionate gay player of Avon avowed With vivid exactness, eloquent variety, is immense As the sea is. The sea which neither the humble nor the proud Can dam, control, or master. No matter what our sense Of existence or whence we come or where we hope and seek He knew us all before we were, he knew the strong, the weak, The silly, the reticent, the pious, the powerful, the experience Of fortune, sudden fame, extremes reversed, inevitable loss Whether on land or sea. He knew mortality’s immortality And essential uncertainty, as he knew the land and sea. He knew the reality of nobility. He saw the cowering, towering power of treachery. He hated the flakes and butterflies of lechery, And he believed, at times, in truth, hope, loyalty, and charity. See: he saw what was and what is and what has yet to come to be: A gentle monarch murdered in helpless sleep. A girl by Regent Hypocrisy seduced. A child by Archduke Ambition stabbed and killed. A loving loyal wife by a husband loyal and brave, Falsely suspected, by a handkerchief accused, Stabbed by his love, his innocence, his trust In the glib cleverness of a self-hating knave.
Look: Ophelia lolls and babbles in the river named Forever, Never Never Never Never Never. Cordelia is out of breath and Lear Has learned at last that flattery is clever That words are free, sentiment inexpensive, vows And declarations worthless and priceless: at last he knows How true love is sometimes speechless, always sincere. He knows – and knows too late – that love was very near and dear.
Are all hearts and all girls betrayed? Is love never beyond lust, disgust, and distrust? See: it is clear: Duncan is in his grave, While Desdemona weeps beneath the willow tree, Having been granted little time to weep, pray, or rave: Is this the truth, the truth which is one, eternal and whole? Surely the noble, the innocent, the gifted, and the brave Sometimes – surely, at times – prevail. Yet if one living soul Is caught by cruelty and killed by trust Whence is our consolation above or before the grave?
Ripeness is all: the rest is silence. Love Is all; we are such stuff as love has made us And our little life, green, ripe, or rotten, is what it is Because of love accepted, rejected, refused and jilted, faded, raided, neglected, or betrayed. Some are defeated, some are mistreated, some are fulfilled, some come to flower and succeed In knowing the patience of energy from the dark root to the rounding fruit. And if this were not true, if love were not kind and cruel, Generous and unjust, heartless and irresistible, painful to the savant and gentle to the fool, Fecund and various, wasteful and precarious, lavish, savage, greedy and tender, begetting the lion and the lamb, The peacock, the spaniel, the tiger, the lizard, the chicken hawk and the dove, All would be nothing much, all would be trivial, nothing would be enough, love would not be love. For, as there is no game and no victory when no one loses So, there is no choice but the choice of love, unless one chooses Never to love, seeking immunity, discovering nothingness.
This is the only sanctuary, this is the one asylum unless We hide in a dark ark, and deny, refuse to believe in hope’s consciousness, Deny hope’s reality, until hope descends, in the unknown, hidden and ultimate love, Crying forever with all the others who are damned and hopeless that love is not love.
Gold morning, sweet prince, black night has always descended and has always ended, Gold morning, prince of Avon, sovereign and king Of reality, hope, and speech, may all the angels sing With all the sweetness and all the truth with which you sang of anything and everything.
I’m breathing . . . Are you breathing too? . . . It’s nice, isn’t it?
Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons
(A meditation in a time of no theater) by Jeff Grygny
Actors, singers, dancers and musicians all need a particularly intimate knowledge of their breath. Like a lot of theater people, I learned how to breathe in acting class. Nobody had ever talked about breathing in any of my prior education, but here I was, in Acting 101, lying on the floor while the instructor was saying “Let your breath come from your diaphragm; feel your stomach rising and falling with your breath. That’s how infants breathe, not the chest breathing we learn later on.”
I’ve been breathing successfully ever since, and belly breathing has served me well. It’s a fine way to calm the tension brought on by the incessantly worrying brain. Neuroscience tells us that our forebrain’s executive functions are always making up stories about potential dangers or opportunities, but that these stories can lead our bodies to generate stress hormones that can alter our heart rate and shut down vital functions like our immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease. A few minutes of good breaths from your belly can help bring you back to a less stressful body and mind. It could possibly save your life, as medical science has learned that breathing exercises can actually help you survive a Covid 19 attack, and even keep you from needing artificial ventilation (which is by all accounts no fun at all).
As I went on in life to study Buddhist meditation, and later a cornucopia of wonderful somatic practices, I learned many variations of good old abdominal breathing. (I recall a Zen monk telling me “We don’t communicate with words, we communicate with our hara.” That’s Japanese for “belly”.) But recently, while I was relaxing by the banks of a wide shimmering river, I found myself breathing in a way I’d never noticed before. It’s simple and even more relaxing than vanilla abdominal breathing (for me at least), so I thought I’d pass it along, in these days while the world is going through its virus-induced metamorphosis. It goes like this:
Breathe in just a bit deeper than normal; enjoy the stream of air cooling your nasal passages, swirling in your sinus cavities. As the air goes down into your lungs, your relaxed belly rises, your lungs effortlessly inflate, then deflate, in and out, belly rising and falling. Let the inhalation go all the way down to touch a spot deep at the bottom of your belly, somewhere around or below the level of your navel. Once you hit that spot, you can relax your breathing to its natural level, until it’s just the wind moving through your body, gentle and unforced, touching your core like a tender kiss. That’s it. Nice, isn’t it?
Breath has always been connected with spirit, all over the world. In Hebrew, the breath that God breathed into Adam is ruah, the wind. The Greek anima is the wind that literally ani-mates all living things. Yogas prana and the ki of tai chi and martial arts, similarly express wind, breath, and mind all together. Especially in uncertain times, it’s good to take care of your body—that inescapable animal that is not quite “me” but also most intimately “me.” Our breath joins us to the greater world; like the wind, the songs of birds, and the luminous moon and stars, it can inspire (literally “in-breathe”) us to witness a universe far vaster than the tiny circle of space-time we’re currently passing through. Today’s troubles will also pass. Be well!
Be thou, Spirit fierce, My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth! And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Have you ever longed for a place where you could be your real self, free of society’s rules and definitions of who you’re supposed to be? Welcome to The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s amazing, frighteningly smart play (whose three-week run was sadly cut short by the pangolin plague). And while we might have all kinds of fantasies of freedom from rules, Haley digs into what exactly that might mean—in the process uncovering a whole worm’s nest of squirming quandaries involving our bodies, our identities, and our technology.
If there is a single word for this play, it has two
syllables: the first is “mind” and the second rhymes with “luck.” Haley has
written for the techno-creepy TV series Dark
Mirror, and it’s evident, both in the story’s subject matter and in the
efficient movement of character and narrative that consistently shows, but
doesn’t tell, its themes. There are so many ideas here, you might have had the
repeated sensation of your brain ballooning into space with each gobsmacking
realization, right up to the surprisingly poignant final scene.
Director Jaimelyn Gray conducts a skilled cast in a tight, disciplined chamber piece, exquisitely paced and rich with contradictory emotions laid out for our delectation. Mr. Sims (nod to the online role-play game clearly intended), is the “host” of a very exclusive corner of ‘The Nether,” a sensory-immersive virtual world where you can appear as any avatar you can imagine. This place is a tidy reproduction of a Victorian manor, its “clients” strictly regulated to conform to the dress and manners of the time. It’s charming—but why are there so many children, and why are they so friendly and complaisant? And what is that bloody axe doing in the bedroom?
The plot unfolds like a procedural, shuttling between the Nether and an interrogation room of the Nether’s regulatory division. As an agent investigating Sims, Maya Danks is like a charged coiled wire; a dangerous and powerful foil for Sims, as played with righteous authority by Robert W.C. Kennedy. Their intellectual thrust-and-riposte provides much of the play’s electricity. Within the Nether, where Sims goes by the handle “Papa,” we meet one of his girls, a complicated entity called Iris, in a fearless, subtle performance by Rebekah Farr.
This chilling scenario plays out so many problems surrounding digital media, it could be the basis for a college course on the ethics of technology: game addiction, catfishing, porn, escapism, alienation, the dilemmas of regulating online behavior. Beyond that, what is identity anyway, if it can become unmoored from flesh? Reality in this indeterminate future world does not seem to be a very nice place; characters fleetingly express their nostalgia for trees, and there’s reference to the practice of “fading:” hooking up your body to life support and vanishing entirely into virtual reality.
The Nether poses hard problems, but ultimately, like all good dystopian fiction, it asks us to think about the world we’re headed to. Is reality so unappealing that so many people are desperate to get away from it?
The anthropologist Victor Turner observed that many societies attribute magical powers to their outcasts. We can see this in the sadhus of India, the holy hermits of Medieval Europe, or the mystique that often surrounds Native Americans. It seems to be a very human tendency to paradoxically assign supernatural status to the very people whom the mainstream rejects.
You can see this phenomenon clearly in The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s play based on the true story of John Merrick, currently in a low-key but potent production by Voices Found Repertory. This plucky band of enterprising theater majors has been toiling away in the basement of the old Plankington Building for several years now, burnishing their skills on Shakespeare and the like, and in the process becoming one of the city’s most vibrant companies, punching way above their weight class. This production, along with their last show Henry V, is easily as good as anything you can see at the Rep—and without the institutional bloat. It’s a clear, skillfully wrought production of a well-made script, and it’s compelling from start to finish.
Director Brandon Haut creates an almost documentary quality with crisp, understated, but authentic-feeling performances from all the players. The presence of a few seasoned actors brings a further sense of realism to the story, which, while taken from the journal of one Doctor Frederick Treves (who worked at a London hospital in the late Nineteenth Century), plays like an incredible work of fiction.
Treves first encounters Merrick as a carnival exhibit. Intrigued by the man’s extraordinary medical condition, he pays to examine him. The black and white photographs of the actual Merrick that are projected during the play show a hideously distorted body; a massive, irregular head with only one helpless eye to suggest that there might be a human consciousness beneath the mottled, stinking flesh. Zach Ursem rises to this challenging role, not with prosthetic makeup, but with disciplined physicality: he shows Merrick’s abject pathos, but also, once he is taken in by Treves and treated kindly, his gentle inquisitiveness and even flashes of humor. It’s an un-showy, sincere performance that honors both the historical person and the actor who plays him.
As Treves, Thorin Ketelsen perfectly displays the propriety of an educated Victorian man: enlightened, rational, and unreflectively privileged. His decency weighs against the paternalistic conditions he sets for Merrick’s care. To provide social contact—on the premise that only a woman who can conceal her true feelings could interact with the man—he hires a celebrated actress, who, as played wonderfully by Haley Ebinal, proves quite capable of seeing past appearances, becoming Merrick’s truest friend. She engages her social network, and soon Merrick is a celebrity: the great and fashionable parade through his room, leaving expensive gifts for the privilege of speaking with the strange prodigy of nature.
But this change in fortune begins to raise unsettling questions in Treves’ mind. Merrick is a “surd,” defined as “an incongruity, an inconsistency, a conflict with a context that appears as lawful, orderly experience.” Difference creates order, but a surd destabilizes it. Treves begins to doubt the decency of his actions, his faith, and the validity of the entire Victorian society. In an amazing nightmare scene, he appears himself as a subject to be studied and discussed, in a world where Merrick is the norm.
We can certainly read The Elephant Man as a critique of privilege in one of it’s most extreme historical forms. But there is something else: you might leave the play feeling a strange elation, a refreshment of the mind and senses, like the catharsis of encountering a great mystery. Does this play let us experience the blessing of the uncanny that in the past informed the Hindu ascetics and the Christian saints? Or have we simply joined the train of thrill-seekers paying to gawk at the freak? This play raises the possibility that they may be variations of the same thing.
If our culture held a sacred place for its outsiders, would we have such difficulties with intolerance and hatred? Is such a thing even possible in a democratic order? Who can say?