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.