It could have begun as a challenge towards the end of a long night of drinking. How many Beatles songs can you make fit into a Shakespeare play? That’s the premise of the delightful new production of As You Like It at the Milwaukee Rep. Brimming with invention and good cheer, and overflowing with affection for its sources, the show seems designed to get us through the gloomy Wisconsin winter and boost our spirits in difficult times.
It’s not such a crazy idea to mix the Beatles and the Bard. The famed director Peter Brook taught that Shakespeare’s language consists of narrative that moves the story, and poetry which should be considered as music. But the poetry that moved Elizabethan audiences often doesn’t speak to us—so why not substitute music that does? A recent local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Voices Found Repertory brought in pop songs to fine effect. And since As You Like It is all about love, why not wed it with the other most successful artists ever to spring from England’s green and pleasant land, whose favorite word is “love”? We can thank the Canadian director Daryl Cloran for this brilliant yet somehow inevitable idea. The show opened to roaring success in Vancouver, and recently played in Chicago, whence the Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clemens was able to snag some of the performers, along with Cloran to direct the current production. And lucky us: we get to enjoy it!
Cloran skims off the play’s antiquities to reveals a wise and witty screwball comedy as quirky as anything by Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. He directs with a genius for details, filling every moment with little gestures and comic flourishes in the tale of fair Rosalind and her sturdy swain Orlando on their bumpy road to happiness—so many wonderful grace notes, it would be a crime to reveal any of them. Meantime, the evergreen songs of Lennon and McCartney bring the character’s heightened feelings in rock n’ roll beats. People who know the play well will be amazed by the aptness and cleverness of Cloran’s translations; everyone else will just laugh, cheer, and perhaps let their heartstrings tug a little tear of joy now and then.
Set in the exotic land of British Columbia, in the distant long ago of the 1960s, the play opens with an elaborate preamble set in the woolly world of pro wresting (which makes sense, as it is indeed a wrestling match that sets Rosalind and Orlando on their paths). Members of the extremely game band play costumed contestants in a series of pratfalls and clownish clinches. The entertainment value of this will vary with how much you find pro wrestling amusing—but it gives the excuse to drop lots of Beatles references, and sets up the greedy, exploitative world that our characters will soon be propelled out of and into the romantic Forest of Arden.
Each player in the warm, multitalented cast creates a very relatable human being; they move like modern people and when they talk, they sound like people talking, so the comedy flows naturally from a real place. As the girl-buddy duo of Rosalind and Celia, Savannah L. Jackson and Lizzy Brooks share effortless rapport and sister power. Brooks’ facial expressions speak comic volumes; Jackson shows the joys and torments of infatuation, while bringing brio to her musical solos. The incredibly light-footed Justin Gregory Lopez is a powerful yet tender Orlando, while Don Noble as the Duke-in exile channels The Dude in sandals and long gray hair; his hippie inflections seem a bit spot-on, until you realize that he’s actually making some very wise observations.
The show’s two philosopher-clowns, Adam Wesley Brown and Trish Lindstrom, are brilliant contrasts: Brown as the urbanite Touchstone, so out of place in the rustic setting, makes free with adlibs and flawless physical schtick, while Lindstrom, as the melancholy Jaques, tricked out in Andy Warhol drag and Joan Didion’s world-weary clarity, is a miracle of subtle anticomedy. Her renditions of Fool on the Hill and I am the Walrus simply must be seen to be believed.
The onstage musicians all play incidental roles, and while they don’t try to impersonate the Fab Four (except when George Harrison makes a cameo as Hymen, the god of marriage), their general good humored, come-what-may attitude is reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night. Pam Johnson’s illuminated set wonderfully recalls the sixties, creating a wide palette of colorful energies, and Ben Elliott’s music direction wisely doesn’t imitate the Beatles’ stylings, but hits the iconic touches, as when a trombone suddenly appears in “All You Need Is Love.”
This As You Like It is the most entertaining, richest, most heartfelt musical I’ve seen at the Rep. And why not keep this fertile mash-up going? The Rolling Stones’ Macbeth, anyone? How about King Lear with the music of The Doors? In the words of Jaques: “More, more, I prithee, more.”
Milwaukee Repertory Theatre presents
As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Daryl Cloran
Conceived by Daryl Cloran and the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival
The world can seem like a pretty cold place to a struggling artist. It sure feels that way to Kat, a 40-something avant-garde composer who plays “for a hundred hipsters who only come to show how hip they are.” Her money has run out, her baby is crying, and his skeezy absent dad is giggling on the voicemail with a younger women. Kat is the protagonist of the improbably-titled Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the offbeat, inspirational musical currently playing at Skylight Music Theatre. In its unflagging determination to give encouragement through impossible difficulties, the show hits like a shot of adrenaline directly to the heart.
The psychologist Carl Jung taught that archetypal figures appear to us in dreams and visions to assist us on the way to becoming our true selves, a process he called “individuation.” The concept has featured in storytelling from Homer to the Simpsons. This particular iteration fully embraces the digital age: Kat’s visitation by the famed early 20th century adventurer first appears—no kidding!—on her smartphone’s dating app. It’s not the only high tech on tap: A giant screen shows us Kat’s cell phone display, and in her opening number she demonstrates how she uses digital sampling and an electric violin to create intricately layered symphonic compositions, while simultaneously drawing a vivid picture of her life on the edge. Now, maybe there are lots of electric violinists who can sing, act, and perform live sampling—who knows how many young musicians Laurie Anderson has inspired? But it’s hard to imagine anyone better for the role of Kat than Janice Martin, who wears her futuristic instrument like a part of her body and plays it like an extension of her soul. In her opening number, Martin must prove that Kat is a born artist, with no other place in the world than to make music. And this she does, in a tour-de-force display of virtuosity.
Before you can say “mush,” Kat is off on a dreamlike expedition with the Arctic explorer. The versatile Matt Daniels bites into the titular role with the gusto of a starving man relishing his first mouthful of seal blubber—which is to say, he’s bold, dashing, and relentlessly gung-ho in the face of the absolutely horrible mishaps of his two-year voyage to the South Pole, in which his ship is crushed by icebergs, his crew stranded in a polar wasteland, he travels 800 miles in a rowboat, survives a hurricane, scales a freezing glacier, and, after three years, manages to return home with all 22 of his crewmates. The trials of enduring a global pandemic, wearing as they are, seem pale in comparison. Daniels knows he’s playing, not a real human being, but Kat’s idealized masculine side: strong, tender, supportive, and enchanted by every bit of her— even her Pippi Longstocking pigtails. Not like the failson jerks in her life—whom Daniels also plays in satirical caricatures.
Director Jill Anna Ponasik wisely gives us no intermission (did Shackleton get fifteen minutes to have a drink? I think not.) She brings her usual (and much missed) kinetic imagination to the 90 propulsive minutes, as Martin and Daniels act out Shackleton’s harrowing journey with crates and ropes as props, like kids playing make believe, but with an urgency that gives the fantastical events just the right amount of emotional truth. Every song, from electro-pop to sea chanty, pumps us full of never-say-die optimism. It might have seemed seem a bit much, but after our collective experience of the past two years, it feels like just what we needed, and Ponasik and company know it. Much credit also goes to the design team: Scott Davis’ scenery, Jason Fassl’s lighting, and Patrick W. Lord’s video design transform the Cabot stage into both Kat’s Brooklyn loft and a palpable Arctic tundra, with lots of projections of footage that was, incredibly, shot by one of Shackleton’s own crew.
Some say that what makes a hero is the simple ability to persevere when most folks would have given up. So the next time you curse while digging your car out of the snow in minus 10 wind chill, remember Ernest Shackleton, tossed on 20 foot waves in a rowboat in the freezing ocean hundreds of miles from land. He made it; you probably will too! Be safe!
“Skylight Music Theatre has joined other Milwaukee performing arts organizations in requiring proof of vaccination or negative Covid test within 72 hours of performance for all audience members ages 12 and up. In addition, Skylight requires audiences to be masked at all times while indoors, regardless of vaccination status. For up-to-date information, please visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org/health.”
“After a week, marriage and fish both start to stink.” This proverb is attributed to absolutely nobody—but its sentiment would agree with most of the love-strangled characters in Michael Hollinger’s tart comedy Red Herring, now playing in a handsome production by Next Act Theatre. The script is an impressive puzzle box of intermeshing plots and motifs. Folks who enjoy complex mysteries and wry reflections on the married state will be well-entertained by this densely-packed spoof.
Hollinger juggles an odd assortment of objects: set during America’s “Red Scare” era and featuring three couples who are all hiding secrets, the play lampoons 50s gender norms and cold war politics, negotiates multiple intrigues, both personal and global, while also exploring the institution of marriage from several perspectives, from dewy-eyed to embittered, all in a dockside setting of commercial fishery. It’s a boatload of material for any troupe to navigate, but the cast of skilled comic actors pulls it off with confidence and honesty. often playing multiple characters.
The youngest of the three couples, soon to enter into wedlock (with a little prenuptial hanky panky) are the improbably-matched daughter of commie-phobic Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, and an idealistic physicist who is planning to pass the secret of the hydrogen bomb to the Russians. Eva Nimmer and Zach Thomas Woods, in a pitch of lust and high anxiety, sympathetically show us the extremes that people will go for love and principle.
On the other end of the spectrum are Mary MacDonald Kerr and Dylan Bolin as a pair of seasoned cops with heartache in their pasts, gingerly walking the tightrope between the call of duty and the yearning for happiness. Finally, we have a couple who have ridden the merry-go-round of life a few times, played by Kelly Doherty and Bo Johnson, who are both driven by mutual need to ludicrous extremities of deception.
As Detective Maggie Pelletier, MacDonald Kerr is the play’s clear hero, tracking her quarry and her relationship troubles with equal determination, while Nimmer, as the Senator’s daughter, gives a warm portrait of a girl torn between her parents’ hollow values and the man she loves. The two actresses share the play’s funniest moments with Johnson, whose world-weary Russian fisherman brings the comedy of heartbreak to a fulsome peak.
Director David Cecsarini has followed the maxim that humor should come from a real place, not just shallow clowning. He’s crammed the production with so much material—period music, high-definition scenery, and topical film clips— that the show’s comic brew loses some of its froth over its two-and-a half-hour run time (including intermission). Only the hilarious final act achieves full farcical escape velocity. Of course, in the end, love wins the day, as it does in all good comedies of marriage.
With its quirky twists, meaty characters, and a good-looking, talented cast, Red Herring is a tangy, salty dish as nutritious as a plate of Ma Baensch’s pickled best.
Everyone must envy cats at least a little. Their animal grace, insouciant self-centeredness and power of surrendering completely to relaxation makes them plausible role models for humans in these fraught times.
We can’t totally envy Wink, the title character of Jen Silverman’s surreal tragicomedy currently in a well-mounted and heartful production by The Constructivists. The catastrophe that strikes Wink initiates the action of the play, which is so full of surprising turns that to describe them would be to commit unforgivable spoilers. Suffice it to say that the feline plays a catalytic role in the lives of all three non-animal characters. The contrast between human and animal, and the dire consequences of alienating our animal nature, provides the flesh and gristle of the play’s themes. Eerily creepy and wryly humorous, Wink is a perfect show for the Halloween season.
Sofie and Gregor are ordinary modern people of a slightly earlier time: he works in an office, she does housework at home. They are modern in that they have no animal grace, no insouciant selfishness, and no power to surrender completely to relaxation.
At first it seems like the play is going to be a quirky domestic comedy. Director Jaimelyn Gray has coached her actors’ opening scenes towards a cartoonish delivery that mirrors the characters’ strangeness to themselves. In fact, this is not a realistic play at all– rather, it stages a dreamworld that seems to be trying to tell us. . . something, if we could just break the code. As the couple, Rebekah Farr and Ekene Ikegwuani show us two deeply unhappy people, whose secret depth is revealed only in their separate sessions with a therapist, Doctor Frans, played with clueless sincerity by Matthew Scales. His staggeringly bad advice—with repeated emphatic instructions to take their feelings and “Slam them down,” show him as a minor priest in the modern ideology of service to the status quo. When each of them confesses urges to commit unspeakable violence, Frans dismisses them, telling them that their duty is to just go back to their jobs.
As the fourth character, Jaime Jastrab gives us the uncanny essence of a vengeful domestic pet (or maybe its ghost?) and, in later scenes, gives Frans instructions on getting in touch with his animal nature, which are ludicrously basic, yet seem to come as revelations to the feckless expert. These scenes, like “self help from a cat,” make up the warm heart of the play, and are most illuminating as to the playwright’s possible alliegance. But they are soon followed by apocalyptic episodes of Sofie and Gregor’s metamorphoses from modern people into uncanny beings whose intentions come from a place of the mysterious, irrational roots of human nature. Soon the Ikea-furnished living room is littered with the wreckage of civilized life, as the couple descend into primitive and far from socially sanctioned behavior.
This ground has been tread before, in plays as diverse as “The Zoo Story,” and “Equus.” But Silverman skins this cat in a new way. She doesn’t romanticize mental illness, nor does she really even seem to be interested in clinical case studies. If anything, the play is a winking red light warning us of what can happen when we subsume our animal needs to serve what society tells us we should be. Maybe, with his new-found insights, Frans will be able to integrate human and animal natures, and help Sofie and Gregor claw their way back to humanity. Maybe he will join them in their dangerous fantasies. That would be another story.
In the meantime, when we wonder how so many people throughout the world can rebel against expert authority, deny science, become prey to demagogues who appeal to their lowest instincts, why people can commit mass shootings, or what could compel someone don horns and animal skins in a futile coup attempt, we could reflect on this story, and how the modern way of life subtly mutilates us all.
The Constructivists present
by Jen Silverman
Directed by Jaimelyn Gray
Set and Costume Design by Sarah Harris
Set Construction by Les Zarzecki
Lighting Design by Ellie Rabinowitz
playing through November 6
“This production contains adult subject matter. Viewer discretion strongly advised.“
When we look at the many crises that face us today, it can feel like we’re trapped in a tug of war over a very scary chasm. We must change as a culture, and yet we can’t even agree on the direction. To solve this dilemma, ritual is not generally the first thing we turn to. And yet it might be just what we need in this historical moment. I suspect that many people might react to this suggestion as if I had recommended treating cancer by donning a mask and shaking a rattle. But the ritual dimension is a central part of the human social experience, and we neglect it at our peril. The modern world has neglected it for more than three centuries—and look where we are.
Scholars have described rituals as social technologies, developed over literally tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution. Anthropologist Roy Rappaport calls ritual “the social act.” Rituals not only play out a culture’s deepest values and meanings: in a sense, they actually create them. When you perform a ritual, you are acting out the world as it should be. You don’t have to “believe” in it (belief is a relatively recent development in the human adventure). Ritual speaks in the language of gesture and feeling—the language of the body—and is performed as part of group solidarity. Its mere performance creates a social reality.
Rituals embody and facilitate relationships of all kinds. They can be as casual as a fist bump, or as elaborate as the ancient Hindu sacrifices which were thought to preserve the cosmic order. Australian Aborigines and Native Americans insist that their ceremonies are essential for maintaining their relationship with the land. Rituals can revolve around anything that carries meaning, from elemental substances to everyday objects. Some useful rituals are: showing respect, giving gifts (and receiving them), telling stories, singing and dancing, displaying meaningful symbols, and sharing food.
Our modern science-driven world reveres detatched, rational thinking to the point that we have forgotten the power of profound performances. If you doubt that performance can be powerful, just consider the placebo effect: many ailments seem to heal spontaneously, just because the proper symbols and rites were displayed, be they drums and spirit rattles or a clinician’s office and prescription bottles. Ritual is literally a confidence game: it gives us confidence that our values are real and work. Think of all the made-up things that became real, like money or clock time. They’re real because everyone performs them—no belief necessary.
When we seek to end racial injustice, gender injustice, and ecological collapse, we usually turn to institutions: analysing data, formulating policies, passing laws. And if this has not worked, we blame our political enemies. But psychology has revealed that our decision-making processes are as influenced by feeling as much (or more) than by cold calculation. We humans are not disembodied intellects; our actions are based on sympathies and aversions that are powerfully imprinted on our bodies and minds by history and culture.
How could we expect American blacks and whites, queer and straight people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists to understand each other, much less empathize with each other, when they don’t share the same cultural touchstones? How could we expect people to really make sacrifices for the sake of the planet when our everyday way of life continuously asserts that everything in the world is human property? We human beings don’t actually live our lives based on theories or policies: we live based on what we feel is right, normal, and desirable. Rituals create the feeling of what’s socially right, so that people intuitively act in that way. In the language of pop psychology, ritualizing a difficult “cold cognition” task—say, recognizing a stereotype, or thinking about the planet—inscribes that work into easier, spontaneous “hot cognition,” so that it feels normal and becomes “second nature.” So, if we want a different world, why not explore how to enact the meanings and values we want to see?
I’m not suggesting that we can solve racism and climate change by singing the right songs. But if we want the kind of culture that is capable of solving these problems—including adopting the right policies, passing the right laws, and using the right technologies—we might (this is my best suggestion) start to look for the right songs to sing—and how and when and with whom to sing them—to create the meanings and values of the culture we want to live in.
Gentlefolks, I propose that our world needs rituals of encounter that respectfully and gracefully acknowledge both our differences and our shared humanity; as well as ceremonies that play out our deep relationship with the hawks, coyotes, oak trees, bees, and all the rest, as co-creators of this wonderful world. And we can’t just take up the rituals of our ancestors. They are of different times and lifeways, they would not make sense to us. We must discover our own.
The best people for this work are probably performing artists, whose art is inherently social. They have the instinctive feel for what works and doesn’t for an audience; fluent in the aesthetic languages of tone, color, and rhythm, they understand how meanings and feelings are meshed in action. It will require a special kind of artist to create authentic rituals: bold explorers and bricoleurs with great empathy and openness, who can apply emotional intelligence across cultures and identities; people with good will, good humor, and a certain humility that might challenge our assumptions about professional expertise and artistic freedom.
To stake our future on something as intangible as ceremony is absurdly hopeful—but then, the fool always did ride shotgun in the ritual universe. To develop practices that diverse people can accept will take much experimentation, much trial and error, and a good bit of time. But I seriously don’t see a good future without some effort of this kind.
Our new ceremonies might look like art or religion or activism. They might look like games, therapy, internet memes, or magic, or all of the above, or something different altogether. But they will be participatory, immersive, meaningful, courageous, and beautiful, because they will spring from our longing for a better way of life. Let’s explore how to perform a new world into reality.
“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!