I’m the Finance Director at First Stage, where I supervise two talented people who do payroll, data entry, and a lot of month-end work. I also do forecasting, fiscal budgeting, more of the high-level analysis, grant budgeting, managing of relationships with and reporting to the Board.
When I started in 2000, I was actually the part-time Staff Accountant.
It’s strange that I even found my way to First Stage and to MYAC. I’m from a very small town north of Madison called Rio. No stop lights. Cable TV doesn’t reach half of the population, because they live in the country and outside of the village limits. Rio has its limits when providing cultural experiences. So the extent of my artistic knowledge before First Stage came from being in high school plays there. And they were horrible (sorry, Mrs. Easley, if you’re reading this, but my guess is you probably already knew). Nobody had any talent; it was just an exercise for said Mrs. Easley to try to get us to express ourselves. After high school, I enrolled for college at Whitewater but didn’t know what I was going to do career-wise. I came out of there with a very dependable, very undramatic accounting degree and with no inkling of theater on my mind.
I went to work for Ernst and Young LLP (E&Y) here in Milwaukee. I was an auditor for five years. Over time, most of the people I worked with fell out of auditing, just because it’s a tough job with long hours and a lot of travel. But at five years you really have to make a decision. Stay or go, stay or go. I knew I had to go, but I didn’t know what my next step would be. All I really knew was that I wasn’t very good at auditing. And as supportive and as educational as E&Y was, I didn’t belong there anymore.
As luck would have it, one of the board members for First Stage at the time was Dave Moskol, a tax partner at E&Y. He put out an email office-wide, asking if we knew of anyone who might be interested in a part-time accounting job at a local children’s theater. I’m sure he had our friends or college acquaintances in mind. He probably never thought anyone from E&Y itself would be interested. But for me, that email was like someone had rang a bell. I wanted that job. So what if it was part-time? I would figure it out.
So I came to First Stage, basically trying to escape audit, and because children’s theater sounded like a lot of fun. Within that first year, the MYAC campaign started, and I was promoted to full-time when the need for a MYAC accountant became obvious. By 2002, I was spending half my time doing data entry for First Stage and the other doing the accounting for the capital campaign and construction.
Fran Richman’s and the other MYSO offices were literally crammed into what is now a conference room at the Marcus Center. You walked in there, and it was a tunnel of cubicles and boxes and musical instruments. You’d just kind of yell, “Fran!” to see if she was in.
The First Stage offices were a little more robust, but we lived in the basement of the Marcus Center. Despite being subterranean, I loved my office. It was a tiny converted fitting room, and if I ever forgot my keys, I could use a credit card to jimmy the lock on my super-secret second door and squeeze between the desk and the filing cabinet to get in. It was a sweet space. Best of all was that my office was directly under the stage for the Todd Wehr Theater. I could hear the shows going on above us. And if you wanted to see a First Stage show, you just walked up a back staircase and into the theater.
MYSO had no space. First Stage had no space. We both wanted to do more programming, but there was no way (or no “where”) we could do it. Apparently that’s about the time Fran and Rob Goodman had their “elevator” conversation and resulting revelation. One day in the Marcus Center elevator, both Fran and Rob were commiserating on their shared issues. One of them must have said, “Boy, it’d be really nice if we had more space, wouldn’t it?” As the legend goes, that’s when the collaboration started. And as luck would have it (for me), that’s about when I started with First Stage as well.
After MYAC’s Opening:
One of my best memories of MYAC is actually the night of the opening gala. The staff and the Board members seemed giddy when they arrived. And the staff was especially thrilled to be there, as it was an unexpected treat. We had thought the party would be just for donors, the community, and Board members. But a week or two before the event, it was opened up to staff. We might as well have been invited to the Tony’s, we were that excited.
And both that night and in the following weeks at work, it was amazing to see how shiny and colorful MYAC was, a huge change from the columns of boxes in the MYSO offices and the darkness of the First Stage basement.
What I also remember after that is, of course, the first stain in the carpet. It seemed that maybe a student had squeezed a juice box too hard in the Commons. Crisis! But then a few months later, a staff member spilled a coffee outside of the conference room. Sigh. It’s like getting a new car; you’re always afraid of that first ding.
And now the place looks well-loved and well-worn after ten years of use. It probably needs new carpeting; it could use new paint here and there; and what’s up with those bathroom stall door latches? Ten years of kids, that’s what.Thousands of kids.
After all this time, the first thing that I associate with MYAC is either opportunity or home. MYAC is home to a lot of kids. This is a safe haven for them; they really enjoy coming here. And for someone like me who’s been here this long, this place is my second home and an exciting place to be.
Because of MYAC, First Stage and MYSO now have more: more space and more opportunity to do more programming and more outreach. But it’s not just the wonderful space that has allowed us to grow.The campaign itself awakened a new community of donors to what MYSO and First Stage do. As a result, First Stage’s Theater Academy is awarding $110,000 more in scholarships than it did in 2004. When I started with First Stage and before the MYAC campaign started to take off, First Stage’s operating budget was about $2 million. But now… it’s heading towards $5 million.
MYAC really gave First Stage a second life. It’s not that First Stage was dwindling before MYAC. It wasn’t. But the arrival of MYAC was like a coming of age for First Stage and has allowed us to thrive.
Are you a student, parent, or teacher at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center? Would you like to write a guest blog post?