Dancing on a cliff edge: a personal elegy for the Alchemist Theatre

The Alchemist Bar– trippy!

by Jeff Grygny

On December 23 2018, this message appeared in the inboxes of the Alchemist Theatre’s mailing list:

“It is with mixed emotions that we share with you that tonight’s closing night of Alchemist Theatre’s “The Bartender: Another Round” has been The Alchemist Theatre’s final closing night.
 Twelve years of theatre supported by “average folks” taking a chance on live theatre and entertainment.
Twelve years of hard working actors, crew members, family and support staff pouring their hearts and hard work into this space.
Thank you to EVERYONE who was a part of this experiment and experience.”

“We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.”

-Arthur O’Shaughnessy

“The Alchemist Theatre, like all theatres, are 90% simply setting up a lightening rod and working on keeping it standing through countless thunderstorms.
The energy comes from elsewhere.
You can’t advertise for it.
You can’t audition for it.
Sometimes, that lightening rod simply attracts the right mix of energy.
Erica and I simply worked at keeping that lighting rod tied to the top of the building with chewing gum and bailing wire for 12 years.
YOU were all were the lightening.
YOU were all the energy.
As we close this venue, we ask you all to keep up the spark.
Keep up the energy.”

“Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.”

Shel Silverstein

“Thank you all so much for being part of our ANYTHING.
-Erica Case & Aaron Kopec”

The King of Pop by Aaron Kopec

The Alchemist Theater was like your old high school friend: smart, weird, talented, unpretentious, familiar, rough, opinionated, and always up for a good time. It was (hard to put it in the past tense) my favorite theater space; cozy and with the best damn decor in Milwaukee, thanks to proprietor Aaron Kopec’s esoteric tastes and master design skills. The bar was dressed up like a Golden Age Hollywood set combining Casablanca, The Bride of Frankenstein, and the Batcave, featuring a bust of Shakespeare that flips back to reveal the panic button. The stairway down to the dark chilly bathrooms was gloriously covered in murals of Dantean angels, demons, and scenes from the New York punk scene that Kopec found so compelling—probably because it appealed to his uncompromising DIY spirit—that he wrote a whole cycle of verse-dramas about it.

Then there were the shows produced by the Alchemist. Of course their interactive Halloween spectaculars were much admired and virtually miraculous, considering the tiny budgets that must have been involved. Kopec created entire worlds through which the audience could wander. In Faust: An Evening at the Mephisto Theater, you could walk down a turn-of-the -century cobblestone street, sit in a movie theater while a scene unfolded against F. W. Murnau’s silent classic, visit an opium den, or stumble into an odd metaphysical dimension where Mephistopheles was having a family spat with her daddy. Closing Night provided immersive environments with light and sound cleverly triggered by motion sensors in a mileau of deepening Lovecraftian horror. Kopec’s hyper-detailed sets always gave the audience plenty to look at, often with sly visual jokes and easter eggs.

Fortuna the Time-Bender vs the Schoolgirls of Doom by Jason Powell
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
I don’t remember the name of this show but it was a hoot

Open to anyone with the ability to pay modest rent, it was “amateur” and “community” theater in the best senses of both words. You could go to the Alchemist for shows by rising talents, novices with a vision, and anything in between: from Jason Powell’s early forays into comic book musicals to a cross-dressed futuristic Romeo and Juliet (the men wore kilts) to trashy amusements like Cannibal! the Musical and sci-fi spoofs like Invader? I Hardly Knew Her.  

The Alchemist embraced genres as the bubbling commons of our cultural subconscious they are. But you could also find the lefty punks of Insurgent Theater, memorably producing Ben Turk’s Marxist screed Paint the Town and Peter Wood’s experiments in Beckettian formalism.

Systems by Peter Wood

Nor did the Alchemists shy away from high-brow fare when the fancy struck them. Director Leda Hoffman’s King Lear remains the most lucid production of the fabulously difficult play that I can remember ever seeing. With Kopec’s set design, Ionesco’s The Chairs became a dystopian spectacle, and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter a postmodern fairy tale.

King Lear
The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco
The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter

Their production of Whose Afraid of Viginia Woolf was as good as anything I’ve seen on any stage in this city. Mamet’s gritty realism was always a favorite—you could see the venerable James Pickering perform in Life in the Theater, and not one but two versions of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. And then there was that time when the theater got in trouble with the cranky Mamet for producing Oleanna with the title character played as “gender fluid.” (Mamet’s lawyers won that battle and the show was canceled—boo, David Mamet!) As a playwright, Kopec is Milwaukee’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock; his offbeat and darkly comic horror plays on Jack the Ripper, H. H . Holmes, and Dracula were memorable for their pulpy dips into the psychology of darkness, while his period drama Help Wanted explored office politics and sadomasochism.

Help Wanted by Aaron Kopec

His punk era dramas, set in what we might as well call the last real counterculture America has had, slithered with 80s New York’s seedy glamor. Sometimes the drama would overpower the story to flood directly into street poetry, musing on life, love, and the disparity between authenticity and commerce. As the co-proprietor of a struggling off-the-map theater with no wealthy donors or corporate sponsorship, but only the support of its public, that last theme must have been particularly poignant. To run a theater so boldly and committedly, on the thinnest of financial edges, for twelve years, earns Kopec and Case serious credit for both brains, chutzpah, and something that’s as much praised as it is hard to find— authenticity. The Alchemists really did find the philosopher’s stone: they routinely turned junk into gold.

But nothing lasts forever, especially funky storefront theaters. The writing was on the proverbial wall. Kopec’s creative output has dwindled for the past couple of years; a major issue with the theater’s infrastructure and personal setbacks were further blows, and so the decision was made.

Kinnickinnic Avenue just got two shades less dark and three degrees less cool. Farewell, amigos. You will be missed.

Give me one last chance
And I’m gonna make you sing
Give me half a chance
To ride on the waves that you bring

You’re honey child to a swarm of bees
Gonna blow right through you like a breeze
Give me one last dance
We’ll slide down the surface of things

You’re the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You’re the real thing
Even better than the real thing


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