New Milwaukee Theatre Companies to Watch
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Amy Hansmann and Robert WC Kennedy in Forge Theater’s “Becky’s New Car.” Photo by Ross Zentner.
While our local performing arts community recently suffered a great loss with Alchemist Theatre, Milwaukee Public Theatre and In Tandem Theatre ending their regular seasons, the circle of Milwaukee theatre continues. We caught up with six companies that have popped up in the last two years to discuss the inspiration behind their launch and goals.
Pink Umbrella Theater Company
After attending the Big Umbrella Festival in New York City, a conference focused on arts and autism intersection, Katie Cummings left a job she loved for a new adventure.
At the festival Cummings learned that most major cities in the United States have theaters dedicated to adults with disabilities. As the former academy director for First Stage, Cummings helped create Next Steps, a program that explores acting, singing, dancing and improvisation for young people with a wide variety of sensory processing disorders.
While Cummings felt a strong sense of pride for how much Next Steps has grown, she struggled with the fact that the students didn’t have an artistic place to go after they aged out of the program. Thus, Pink Umbrella Theater Company was born.
“The dream is to have Pink Umbrella fully run by people who identify with a disability, from backstage and onstage, to front of the house and marketing,” Cummings says. “I want to have a professional theater company right in line with the Rep, First Stage, Chamber and Skylight. I don’t see why we can’t do that.”
While the umbrella part of the name comes from the festival that changed the trajectory of Cummings’ career, a young girl she worked with through First Stage, Emily, inspired the pink.
Pink Umbrella Theatre Company Founder Katie Cummings. Photo via pinkumbrellatheater.org.
“Emily was just love and laughter and full of words,” Cummings says. “She used to skip down the hall to classes and it was just her happy place and where she felt like she could be her true self. She wore hair bows all the time and pink was one of her favorite colors.”
Unfortunately, Emily passed away three years ago, just shy of her 18th birthday, due to a reaction to her seizure medicine. Emily had a strong desire to stay with the First Stage program, and Cummings and the staff had plans to work with her to become a teaching apprentice. Cummings has no doubt that Emily could have eventually went on to be a teacher for First Stage, just in a nontraditional way.
“I know from our work, whether you are a typical or non-typical person with or without disabilities, theatre teaches you how to work as a team,” Cummings says. “I think theatre lends itself to a lot of acceptance in a very natural way and so opening up those doors to people who might feel like the other, for whatever reason, is really important.”
Cummings says the company hopes to open its first season with a play written by local artists with disabilities. She also plans to produce well-established shows with Pink Umbrella.
“Someone once said to me, ‘Othello couldn’t be played by someone in a wheelchair,’” Cummings shares. “I said ‘why not?’ That makes that murder so much more intriguing. To me, if we stop and think about it, why can’t we turn those characters a little bit outside of the normal, typical box? Let’s bring who our actors are into those characters.”
With his company Forge Theater, Jake Brockmann wants to create plays tailored to a more blue-collar audience.
“It’s not necessarily the theater that I see when I am out,” Brockmann says. “I want to make sure that the everyday person, the not necessarily typical theatergoer, has a venue they can go to and see something that reminds them of themselves.”
All of the men in Brockmann’s family, besides him, work in factories, which inspired the name Forge Theater. Forge’s meaning to move forward is also fitting for the young company.
Since Forge Theater’s inaugural season in 2017, the company has produced three shows: Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam, Asuncion by Jesse Eisenberg and Becky’s New Car by Steven Dietz.
Robin Lewis and Alec Lachman in Forge Theater's "Speech & Debate." Photo via forgetheater.com.
Brockmann is also in the process of launching a 10-minute play festival called The Production Line. The playwrights involved in The Production Line will be part of a series of one-act plays judged by audience members. The last playwright standing will then have the opportunity to have a full-length piece produced with Forge Theater.
“I don’t want to be a theater company that tells audiences, ‘this is what you should think,’” Brockmann says. “The idea also comes from my ultimate goal, way down the line, which is to be able to tour plays to the smaller towns throughout Wisconsin I was raised in.”
Brockmann grew up in Merrill, Wisconsin where his mom was the town’s high school theater director/choreographer. His mom put him on stage for the first time when he was just 3 years old. His dad, a local mill worker, helped build and paint the sets that mom designed. Brockmann then went on to pursue a degree in theater at UW Eau Claire. When he isn’t acting, directing or designing, Brockmann works full time as a tour lead at Lakefront Brewery.
Feeling excited and inspired by the thriving arts scene she saw in Milwaukee, Chicago-based actor/producer/director Jaimelyn Gray decided to take a risk and start her own non-equity theatre company in Cream City.
The Constructivists first season consisted of Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph, The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh and To Fall in Love by Jennifer Lane. Next up is The God of Hell by Sam Shepard in Fall 2019 and The Nether by Jennifer Haley in Spring 2020.
“Dark comedy is where I live, so it’s going to be a lot of that,” Gray shares. “There is a lot of work out there that isn’t just for the typical theatergoer. As much as I love my theatre community, I feel that we have more seats at the table, so let’s get butts in those seats.”
Solana Ramírez-García and Rob Schreiner in The Constructivists’ “Gruesome Playground Injuries.” Photo by Christal Wagner Photography.
Like all great ideas, the name The Constructivists popped into Gray’s head while lying in bed.
“I sort of got into this motif of theatre as a public good,” Gray says. “Once I started thinking through that vein, I started getting into the words constructive and that sort of language. The name The Constructivists just sort of sat with me. ‘I was like yep, this is what we are going to go with.’”
Forte Theatre Company
Husband-and-wife Randall and Brenda Dodge launched Forte Theatre Company to help create more performing arts jobs in Milwaukee’s Southwest suburbs.
The artistic couple first met during a production of Pirates of Penzance, where Randall says he was drawn to Brenda “like a moth to a flame.”
After several years living in California, Randall and Brenda decided to move to Wisconsin to raise their children and be closer to Brenda’s family. Forte Theatre Company’s inaugural season of professional shows kicks off with Miracle on 34th Street this December and The Fantasticks in April 2020.
Forte Theatre After School Theatre Classes. Photo courtesy of Forte Theatre Company.
“The people that came in and auditioned for us just blew us away,” Randall says. “We are really excited about the talent that is here and getting to work with them and push them.”
In addition to the professional shows, the Dodges offer Forte Theatre School. The program is modeled off of a company they ran in California called Character Kids. Through Character Kids, they employed actors to go into elementary schools to teach theater. Forte Theatre School is now a part of the Franklin, New Berlin, Oak Creek and Brookfield school districts.
“The wonderfully fulfilling thing about working in theatre education is all the skills the students are not even realizing they are learning,” Brenda explains. “They are learning public speaking skills and empathy, which is something that kids these days struggle with when they are stuck behind desks all day.”
Lemonade Theatre Productions
What started as a group of friends wanting to produce Steel Magnolias has since turned into a brand new theater company, recently closing its inaugural production, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple: Female Version.
Due to competition for the rights of Steel Magnolias for the May time period they wanted, Lemonade Theatre Productions decided to produce The Odd Couple: Female Version instead. The group felt drawn to the production for the predominantly female cast, a main initiative for wanting to stage Steel Magnolias.
As for the company’s name, co-producer Audwin Short explains the process of making lemonade acts as a metaphor for how the group formed.
The cast and crew of Lemonade Theatre Productions' "The Odd Couple: Female Version." Photo courtesy of Lemonade Theatre Productions.
“We were a bunch of lemons, or a bunch of people coming together and putting things together,” Short says. “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. That’s kind of our motto, but we changed it to if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade and add vodka.”
Lemonade Theatre Productions still plans to produce Steel Magnolias near the end of the year, along with another play Short is writing complied of bedtime stories he used to tell his kids.
“One of the many reasons we put the company together was to create art and do some of the work that we always wanted to do for ourselves,” Short explains. “In the case of Michelle White (co-producer of Lemonade Theatre Productions), she wanted to play one of the roles in Steel Magnolias and still does. One of the great things about producing your own shows is you get to be in your own shows.”
Aura Theatre Collective
Producing artistic director Kira Renkas describes William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Aura Theatre Collective’s inaugural production set for Nov. 14 – 24 at the Irish Cultural & Heritage Center, as ahead of its time considering today’s #MeToo movement.
In Measure for Measure, Claudio is arrested and sentenced to death by Lord Angelo, Vienna’s temporary leader, for impregnating his fiancée before marriage. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella, tries to beg Angelo for mercy, he propositions her for sex in exchange for her brother’s freedom.
“Isabella has this monologue where she says ‘no one will believe me if I tell them,’” Renkas notes. “Isn’t that always the case in these situations? ‘No one is going to believe me?’ It’s very resonating personally and objectively because I don’t think I know any women who haven’t encountered some sort of similar situation.”
Aura Theatre Collective Founder and Producing Artistic Director Kira Renkas. Photo courtesy of Aura Theatre Collective.
When Renkas was around 20 years old, a much older stage manager approached her with an “indecent proposal.” Renkas didn’t feel inclined to tell anyone out of fear that people would accuse her of lying or refuse to cast her in future projects.
“I was very interested in the Brett Kavanaugh situation that happened last fall,” Renkas says. “I’m not typically a political person so this isn’t a political statement, but it got me thinking about some of my own experiences in theater as a young actress. I think from time to time we all need to be reminded of what is important.”
For the first few years, Renkas plans to produce one show a year with Aura Theatre Collective. The concept that everyone has a certain aura to them sparked the idea for the name.
“Relationships have an aura and even stories have an aura,” Renkas explains. “I really wanted to find the right word to encapsulate the purpose of my theatre company, which is to tell stories that embellish human emotion and experience."