This guest post was written by Marc Isaacs, a professional actor and acting coach, as well as a parent of a Milwaukee Children's Choir student. Marc has led educational programs and seminars for students on a variety of acting-related themes. Marc has volunteered to write guest posts occasionally, sharing a parent's perspective on happenings at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.
As anyone who has moved to a new town knows, first come the obligations, followed by the opportunities. Where to live, shop for groceries, and send the kids to school are part of that first list but it's the opportunities yet to be discovered that lead to truly memorable experiences. Let me share with you how the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center has become one of those opportunities for our family shortly after arriving in the area from Texas.
In Houston, fine arts was among our priorities. Thanks to my brilliant ex-wife Bonnie, our daughter Aidan spent four years at a fine arts magnet school which focuses on helping each child "develop their individual talents in the arts and to understand the relationships between academics and the arts." Our girl excelled, participated in the school choir in fourth grade, and we were grateful. Then a job opportunity for Bonnie in Milwaukee came suddenly over the summer and she chose Shorewood as the place to call home.
The abrupt change of scenery meant scrambling to find new arts resources in Milwaukee, and we were fortunate to hear about Milwaukee Children's Choir from a PTO leader in the Shorewood school district. Bonnie arranged an audition for Aidan with the artistic director of the Milwaukee Children's Choir, and I took her to it. When my daughter and I met Marco Melendez, a gracious and joyful man, we were delighted to hear he's from Texas. We were even more delighted when Mr. Melendez offered Aiden a spot in the Girlschoir.
A few weeks have passed since then and a visit to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center has become our Tuesday ritual as my daughter rehearses under the direction of Sarah Zietlow. As a parent, I am impressed by MYAC's attention to creating a safe and secure environment for the kids. Bonnie and I weren't able to just take her to rehearsal without stopping at the front desk to get a sticker identifying us as parents. (Following a parents' meeting, we now have badges to wear during every visit.) I also enjoy knowing an open space for students and parents to sit, relax, work, and connect is always available when we're there.
Beyond the elementary school community--which we are still getting to know slowly--I have a strong sense the community we are now a part of at MYAC will be enriching and rewarding to all of us and lead us to many new opportunities, valuable connections, and heartwarming friendships in the coming months. The time spent there has already given us a glimpse of other arts opportunities we may explore in the future, whether as participants or as audience members. I'm eager to get acquainted with the work of First Stage and African American Children's Theatre, and I'm sure we'll make time to see more than a few shows in the upcoming year.
Finally, I welcome the families at MYAC to introduce themselves to us anytime. We love meeting new people, especially ones who can lend a helping hand as we adapt to life in Wisconsin. We're just beginning to explore the arts, culture, and entertainment opportunities here in Milwaukee, and would love to hear your recommendations.
The Milwaukee Youth Arts Center is seeking self-motivated, energetic, and detail oriented individuals with great customer service to fill immediate openings for part-time Front Desk Staff positions.
Duties and Responsibilities:
To Apply: Please email resume, references, and cover letter to email@example.com.
This year, First Stage hosted the American Alliance for Theatre and Education's national conference in Milwaukee. Conference attendees spent four days exploring this year's theme, "Tapping the power of creative minds." This included several fun outings to local Milwaukee stomping grounds including the Milwaukee Art Museum, Harley-Davidson Museum, and Lakefront Brewery.
The conference schedule included master classes led by First Stage's very own Jeff Frank and Jenn Adams. Attendees were also able to visit the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on Saturday for a performance by First Stage's Company Class of Argonautika in Youth Arts Hall.
Additionally, AATE's annual meeting and party were held here at MYAC Saturday evening. This was an overall celebratory night, and great way to share news of the collaborative effort that makes MYAC a reality. As conference attendees arrived at MYAC, we had a Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra jazz combo and several food trucks outside to greet them.
Our parking lot and picnic area were absolutely alive with music and festivity!
To add an educational component to the fun atmosphere, First Stage students were leading our AATE guests on tours throughout the building.
A light cocktail reception followed AATE's annual meeting and keynote address. We were so happy to participate in this national conversation about arts education, and to help share success stories from our neck of the woods with a wider audience of fellow educators and artists.
Check out our Twitter and Facebook profiles for additional photos.
To continue celebrating our 10th anniversary year, I sat down with a First Stage student to talk about her experience at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Kate Futoransky has been involved with First Stage from third grade all the way through her senior year of high school.
Originally I’m from Illinois, but I moved up here in third grade. I live in Hartland and I go to Oconomowoc high school.
In the fall I’ll be starting college in the Twin Cities. I originally thought I’d pursue theater, but now I’m thinking Computer Science.
I started with First Stage in 3rd grade, I went to the summer camp in Oconomowoc, and then I went to Sharon Lynne Wilson Center to intern sometimes—so I never really came to MYAC until I was in high school and I auditioned for the Young Company and got in.
Then I started coming to MYAC and thought, “this place is so cool!” So I’d spend the school year at MYAC, and then spend the summer at Sharon Lynne Wilson and at Oconomowoc.
Last year, because it was going to be my last year at company class, I decided to do company class at MYAC over the summer. It was so great, because I got all the experiences of First Stage at the various locations.
I was in Young Company from freshman to senior year, so four years together.
My freshman year Young Company was relatively smaller than it is now, and I was in every show that the Young Company put on that year which I thought was an amazing experience. Especially as a freshman coming in. Of course all the characters I played were little background characters, but I made the most of it. It was super fun and it drove my passion for theater absolutely. I just kept wanting to come back.
I was at MYAC once a week for Young Company, that was a given. If I was in a show—I was here almost every single day. Sometimes I’d be here every day except for two because my character wasn’t needed in a scene, but when you’re in a show here, you’re here every day. But that’s not a bad thing!
I was also in a Main Stage production. Unfortunately I was only able to do one of those, just because I didn’t have time for it otherwise. I did To the Promised Land and it was really cool seeing the difference between a Company Class show, a Young Company show, and a Main Stage show. I loved it.
One of my favorite memories is that for company class last year we rehearsed in the basement of MYAC, which was a whole different experience. It was actually really cool because we had the whole basement to ourselves, basically us and our cast. It was very echo-y, so even if we were whispering you could still hear it. The lighting was kind of yellowy and dingy, but I feel like it bonded us more. We’d go down the stairs to this huge place that’s kind of dark, a little creepy. It was a lot of fun.
Another favorite memory is from when I was teching for Peter and the Wolf, I was doing sound for it. In Peter and the Wolf, there’s a lot of different languages, and there’s sign language. So the whole cast learned the alphabet in sign language. And when I was in sixth grade my teacher taught us the alphabet, so I already kind of knew it.
There were a couple characters who had microphones on and at the beginning of the show they’d be on stage, and they wouldn’t be interacting with the audience or anything. But the audience would be able to see them. Because I was working sound I had the headphones on and I was able to hear what they were saying, because their mics were on but not live. The audience couldn’t hear them. I remember having one-way conversations with an actor, he would talk to me through the mic, and if he turned to look at the booth, he could see me, so I’d be responding in sign language. That’s something that I’ll remember for a really long time. That was in Youth Arts Hall, up in the booth.
First Stage has definitely changed me as a person. I’ll think about myself when I was younger and just cringe a little bit--what would I be without First Stage? I think First Stage helped me to learn what I loved. In the future I won’t be doing much of theater, but I’m going to appreciate it so much. Even just little things, I’ll be watching TV and think, “Oh, that was an interesting acting choice.” Just weird things like that. I know I’m going to want to be involved in theater somehow, I’m going to see shows as much as I can, I’ll always have a love and appreciation for it. I think that’s great that First Stage taught that.
Also for me, First Stage not only teaches you theater, it teaches life skill through stage skills. I think it builds confidence and makes you realize who you are as a person. It doesn’t force you to be anyone in particular, it helps you figure that out for yourself.
I think it’s great that at MYAC we have a place that we can call home. First Stage is so loving, you walk in and if you haven’t been here in a while, everyone comes and gives you a hug. I think when people think of First Stage, they automatically think of MYAC. Just because that’s where everything is. The Young Company’s at MYAC, all of the summer Academy at MYAC, the classes here. Everyone at First Stage knows the names of all of the studio rooms. I think that MYAC is home for First Stage, if that makes sense.
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.
Since so many wonderfully talented students visit the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center each day, we wanted to profile just a few of this artistic bunch. Our first student spotlight features Julia Simpson, a Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra student from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
How many years have you been playing oboe? Violin?
I have played oboe for six years and violin for ten.
How many years have you been in MYSO?
I've been in MYSO for 7 years.
How has MYSO played a part in your musical career up to this point?
MYSO has given me so many amazing performance opportunities from side-by-sides with MSO musicians, concerto competitions, chamber ensembles, our upcoming tour to Vienna and Budapest, master classes, and (my favorite part of MYSO) Chamber Orchestra. But most importantly, MYSO has showed me how much fun it is to play! Without MYSO, I wouldn't love playing my instruments as much as I do.
My favorite part of playing an instrument is all of the amazing opportunities I have been able to take part in and all of the fantastic people I have met along the way! Though learning and performing the music is always exciting, the experiences around it all has been such an amazing adventure for me.
How often do you come to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center?
I am at the Youth Arts Center about 3 days a week. I play in MYSO's Senior Symphony on Monday, the Chamber Orchestra on Wednesday, and rehearse with my Davidson Chamber Ensemble quintet, "Off Topic," on the weekends. When concert times are approaching, I can be there anywhere from 4 to 6 days a week!
What's your experience at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center been like?
My experience at MYAC has always been wonderful. The rehearsal rooms are state-of-the-art and the lobby is as equally great for relaxing and talking to friends during breaks. Seeing the arts at work, all in one building, has always been such an inspiring experience for me. MYAC is like a second home to me!
What's your favorite memory related to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center?
In February, my school band, the Oconomowoc High School Wind Symphony, used Youth Arts Hall to make recordings to send to the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. Everyone was in awe at how amazing the building was, and I realized how lucky I am to get to play in there every week! It was also fun to give everyone tours of the building.
Has the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center impacted you in any way?
Having such a high quality facility to rehearse in has helped my playing immensely. Using Youth Arts Hall and the other rooms, I have been able to prepare myself to play in venues like the Marcus Center, Shattuck Auditorium, and the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center. MYAC has also provided the space for me to connect with the MYSO program. The friendships and memories I have made at MYAC will stay with me forever!
To kick off our tenth anniversary year, we hosted a special lunch for First Stage, MYSO, and Milwaukee Youth Arts Center staff, our board of directors, as well as past staff members.
This lunch served as a reunion of sorts, bringing together the people who were involved with the planning and founding of MYAC. As I handed out nametags to incoming attendees, I heard multiple squeals of excitement as staff members old and new greeted each other in the hallway.
Our hearty lunch was prepared by none other than our own General Manager, Brad Bingheim. In addition to managing the entire building and its program scheduling, he also makes a delicious pulled pork sandwich.
After the 75 of us gathered and enjoyed our meal, a few special speakers addressed the crowd.
First up was Board President, Adam Wiensch, who thanked everyone for their efforts to create MYAC, but also for their efforts to maintain it and fulfill its mission of reaching youth through the arts.
Next was Rob Goodman, Founder of First Stage, and someone who was instrumental in founding MYAC. Rob was given five minutes to speak, and if you know Rob, you know that he could easily fill much more than five minutes. Rob shared some stories of what First Stage and MYSO looked like before MYAC.
He talked about offices that were like “rabbit dens” because they were so full of files and instruments, and offices in the basement of the Marcus Center, a place which he joked wasn’t fit for human habitation. Rob talked of 300 students on a waiting list for First Stage programs, and MYSO students overflowing into the hallways during rehearsals.
After the allotted five minutes, Rob’s cellphone alarm went off, which he proceeded to ignore. He shared a few more stories with the soft chiming of his alarm in the background.
Fran Richman, former Executive Director of MYSO, then took stage, where she guided us through MYAC’s history, from the original planning all the way through the grand opening. She remembered visiting about 45 alternative building sites that were “horribly inappropriate,” and then the “collective gasp” when the team stepped into the former Schlitz warehouse that is now MYAC.
Next up, Betsy Corry, Managing Director of First Stage, spoke of her experience working and planning for MYAC before she left First Stage to work at COA Youth & Family Services. And then her return, when she came back to First Stage after the move to MYAC.
Betsy remembered, “I felt like I had finally come home.” She spoke of the moving experience of being in the building, seeing it filled with kids, and seeing MYAC in action after dreaming and working towards it for so long. At that moment, she realized that “We really did it.”
Linda Edelstein, Executive Director of MYSO, shared her gratitude and thanks to all of the staff who made MYAC a reality, as she sees how much staff and, more importantly, students, benefit from their hard work.
After our planned speakers, the crowd urged Jeff Frank, Artistic Director of First Stage, and Carter Simmons, Artistic Director of MYSO to the stage to share their thoughts. Jeff and Carter spoke to their artistic collaboration, and the joy of sharing space and working with each other and their respective organization.
Jeff, Carter, and the other speakers closed by thanking Brad, as the dedicated staff member who ensures this all works on a day to day basis. After Carter and Jeff finished, many staff members lingered in the hall, visiting with others and taking group pictures.
If the day wasn't already joyous enough, while we were putting away the leftover food, we got news that a fellow MYAC staff member, Matt Whitmore, had just welcomed a new baby girl with his wife.
It really was a special day for MYAC’s staff family, old and new.
Below is the second half of my interview with First Stage founder, and co-founder of the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, Rob Goodman. First Stage is a theater education organization that focuses on teaching life skills through stage skills, and the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center is the collaborative home to several arts education organizations, including First Stage and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.
I spoke with Rob at length about his experience founding and building the Youth Arts Center, as we reach our 10th anniversary in 2015.
Kaye Herranen: Did you always see the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center (MYAC) as something that would grow beyond First Stage and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO)?
Rob Goodman: From the very beginning, it was set up that it would be a community building. A community use center if you will. We wanted it to be used by as many other youth-serving agencies as possible. Since we use the arts to teach, to teach life skills. We wanted other organizations that do something similar.
So African American Children’s Theater, Danceworks were a natural fit. The Children’s Choir came on I think a year later. And then Festival City Symphony, they’re one of our original partners, and they do some youth programming.
But lots of other youth organizations use the building for one day events, retreats, etc.
KH: Prior to starting work on MYAC, did First Stage and MYSO have a history of working together? Or was that the first time they worked together?
RG: No, we had like zero history. We’re actually extraordinarily different organizations. From a mission perspective, especially back then. Less now than then.
KH: Was it a challenging transition to then focusing on such a deep collaboration with another organization?
RG: No. I’ll tell you why. It’s because the collaboration works extremely well. Especially in the early planning stage, because we realized that our schedules were significantly different. So when they needed large halls, we didn’t. And when we needed all 14 spaces, they didn’t do any summer programming back then.
We needed 14 spaces to do the summer theater academy, and that’s why there are actually 14 program rooms in the building.
That allowed both companies to continue to be who they are as an organization, their mission and vision. But we can still collaborate on the space and build it, create it, and have it for community use without interfering with each other. It was pretty wonderful.
KH: What was the original dream or vision for MYAC? And then do you think that’s been realized, in the ten years that it’s been open?
RG: The original vision has been overwhelmingly over realized. That’s probably too many superlatives.
We spent three years planning, so we had a major strategic plan. I said, look, we’re planning for success. And so you got to be ready, because we’re going to grow astronomically. Nobody believed me. And that’s exactly what happened.
We set up these five year goals, in terms of enrollment, growth, all kinds of things. Every year we exceeded our goals by 10 to 40 percent. The growth was huge, it was a very exciting time, trust me. [Rob laughs]
KH: It sounds like you guys were pretty busy.
RG: Oh very very busy. We were adding staff left and right. And it was okay because the need was there. The children were all coming, families were coming, the theater was growing. It was all pretty wonderful.
So I would say it’s been over-realized.
And then things happen along the way. You start out with a vision—this is your vision, right—all of a sudden you realize wait a minute, we could do this and it still fits in the mission. So we actually ended up doing a lot more without sacrificing our core values or sacrificing our core mission.
It was highly successful.
KH: Do you have a favorite memory or story related to MYAC?
RG: One of my favorite stories was during the construction phase, there was a lady who would walk by the building almost every day. We finally asked her, “Who are you, what are you doing?” And she said “I have grandkids, I’m waiting for this place to get finished so they can go here.” And she lived a few blocks away, and as soon as it opened, we got her grandkids involved and it was just wonderful.
That’s a wonderful success, that kind of neighborhood involvement. The fact that the Golda Meir school children would come over every day, and use the classrooms here, use our studios for different activities and stuff like that. That was fabulous.
I think that in the construction phase itself, once we had a site—I mean it’s hard to raise money just on a dream. We didn’t have an actual picture, we had some drawings, but drawings of what? Once we had the site selected we were able bring people into the building.
I had my production stage manager at that time, whose name was Brad Bingheim, I said Brad “You know how you tape up the floor for rehearsal? Could you take the ground plan and tape out the floor of the entire building?” And he said, “Well, you’re crazy.” I persisted, so he got one of the rolling paint things that you use on the floor, like for street lines or something. And he actually did, spent a long time painting lines all over.
So then when we had open houses and people over. We had kids lead the groups of people around the building. They would take them over to a certain space, like Mainstage Hall. They would say, “This is Mainstage Hall and this is what’s going to happen here” and they would talk about the activity that would happen in this room. All that kind of stuff.
We had a lot of different young people who did that. One of the parents was an African American inner city mother and she stayed and she helped all day too. After we were all done with things I went over and shook her hand and said “Thank you, thank you for helping out” and she wouldn’t let go of my hand, and she started crying and she said “No, no, thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. My daughter’s involvement in this has really changed her life. Now she has new friends, she goes to birthday parties in Shorewood and Brookfield. Friends come to our house.” She said her whole life had changed.
So I thought, that’s one—now think of the hundreds and hundreds more that that could happen for. And today First Stage has 330 scholarships. Back then we had like 65.
The lack of space is what generated the idea anyway. And then when we had more planning time, the idea grew bigger. Initially it was just about First Stage and MYSO getting space. But then we realized, oh wait a minute, this can be a whole resource for the community. We can have program partners, daytime use, all kinds of things. So that’s all worked out really well.
KH: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how MYAC is really a second home for the kids who are involved.
RG: It is, it is a home. That’s very important. It’s a home.
We had Jeremy who was a student with us for 12 years, from grade one, all the way through senior in high school. I used to drive him home after classes or rehearsals or whatever. And I used to say, “Where do you live this week?” he had 6 different addresses in high school alone. And in grade school I couldn't even count them. But he always had First Stage, he always had MYAC as his home.
One of the unique things about MYAC, and I've said this before, is we bring kids from every aspect of our community's life, all different geographic areas, socioeconomic areas, genders, classes, races and ethnicities, we bring them all together and we get them involved in a common activity that they love. So we work them very hard in rigorous, highly disciplined programs, and they just thrive on it. And the fact that we can provide adult mentors, and do that well, is really important to the success of MYAC.
I’m collecting stories to get various perspectives on the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center for our 10th anniversary coming up in 2015. Then throughout all next year I’ll release stories in little batches, featured in our newsletter, social media, on this blog. I’ll be talking to students, former students, staff, and board members.
I recently sat down with founder of First Stage, and co-founder of the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center (MYAC), Rob Goodman.
Here's the first half of our conversation, the second half to follow soon.
Kaye Herranen: Can I briefly have some general background, where are you from, where’d you go to school?
Rob Goodman: All that stuff? Brief? I’m 68 years old, there’s no such thing as brief. I went to high school in Minnesota. I attended five different colleges and universities to get a BA degree over ten years--including a stop for the Vietnam War and an Arctic expedition, two kids, and a marriage.
Then I went to graduate school in Chapel Hill for my MFA degree in directing. I moved from Chapel Hill to Milwaukee after working professionally at Playmaker’s Theater. I worked for eight years at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, which brought me to Milwaukee.
I came to Milwaukee sight unseen, I’d never been here before. I worked at the Rep, and that was great, it was a wonderful job and experience. Then they moved across the street after building the Milwaukee Center, and the PAC board asked if I would stay in the Todd Wehr Theater and found a new theater for young people and families.
And having never read children’s theater, or produced it or anything, I took the plunge anyway, and I did it.
KH: So that became First Stage?
RG: And that’s when I founded First Stage, right. And it turned out to be the second best decision I’d ever made in my life.
KH: What was the first?
RG: Marry. 45 years ago.
KH: Wow. That’s impressive. So when you founded First Stage, was it something that you were always planning on doing?
RG: I always wanted to have my own theater. I never ever anticipated it would be a professional theater for young people and families, a children’s theater. That never ever crossed my mind.
KH: I’ve heard of the “elevator story” when you and Fran started talking about building MYAC. Was there actually a moment in an elevator when you figured it out?
RG: There was, there was definitely a conversation. From First Stage’s perspective, we had grown rapidly. From every year since we started there was a steep incline in growth, in number of plays, number of workshops in schools, and in the theater academy.
We ended up so out of space. We had 200-300 children on a waiting list in the summer-time just to get into theater academy. We’ve never turned a child away because of financial need. You know we didn’t have a scholarship fund back then, but it was really because of space. So we were pretty desperate. Our offices were in a horrible space. They were in the basement of the Marcus Center, which was really not built for human habitation.
KH: Yeah, I talked to Deb Moody and she said her office was an old dressing room.
RG: And so one day I was riding the elevator to the 4th floor, and Fran was in the elevator with me. She was griping about this and that, and I was grumbling about space. And we just kind of looked at each other and said, “You’re out of space?” “Yeah!” “You’re out of space?” “Yeah!” “Let’s Talk.”
So that generated a conversation. We met together, we interviewed three or four different architects. MYSO was a little further on in their planning than we were, than First Stage was, at that time. Our board quickly got up to speed, helped select Uihlein Wilson as the architects. We jumped into planning big time!
KH: Were you looking to stay in a particular area of Milwaukee for the building?
RG: So our site selection person, who was from Grunau company, a general contractor, took us to about maybe 30, 35 different buildings. Plus a number of green sites that we would just build from scratch. None of them really fit. They didn’t really fit what we wanted for the future, they didn’t really fit us.
Towards the end of the process he said, “Well I have maybe one more spot, but I know you’re not going to like that one, so why bother.” And of course, we said well let’s go look at it. It was on the corner of third and Walnut, and we walked into the building and said, “This is absolutely perfect.”
It was a white box, totally open space, had one wall, and 52,000 square feet. That was really important for the architects, they could put everything else in. The really critical thing for First Stage was, it was really on the edge of, you might say, the city. More towards the inner city. It’s an emerging neighborhood, the Haymarket area. Not quite Brewer’s Hill where we are, but it’s just across the street. It was part of Schlitz park originally, the building.
KH: Yeah, I think it was a parking garage?
RG: Well actually it wasn’t a parking garage. Originally it was where they worked on the beer trucks. So they’d drive them in, and there were big cranes where they could pull the engines out and do all that kind of stuff. But it was part of the neighborhood.
Part of the long range plan for First Stage was to increase our scholarships. Space in the Academy, we needed space. But we also wanted to increase our outreach to the city of Milwaukee children. And being in this neighborhood, of course makes us so much more accessible and easy. Also though, if you looked at the area at that point in time, it was lined with like 5 or 6 public schools. So there was an educational hub here, it was near the city so it was accessible.
There was just all kinds of positive value to the location.