Wednesday, November 15, 2017

MCT Board Member Profile: Debbie Patel

by Max Seigle

Debbie (on right) joined the MCT board shortly
after her husband Jamshed (left) ended his tenure.

I was born in Minneapolis, and went to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. After college I moved to Washington D.C. to attend law school at George Washington University, and then a job at the law firm of Foley & Lardner brought me to Milwaukee. I practiced law there for several years, after which I practiced law part-time on my own, and shifted careers to arts management, with leadership roles at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. 


I started attending plays with my husband Jamshed, who was on the MCT board for nine years. And when I worked at the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, our office was in the office right next door. 


By the time Jamshed’s board term was up I was quite engaged with MCT. I felt the quality of the plays kept getting better every season and appreciated the company’s mission. I joined the board in 2011 and love live theatre even more now. 

Each season, my husband and I sponsor a production in the Studio Theatre. It is usually a show that is more cutting-edge, adventurous and not as well known. I don’t want to just see the classics. I want to see some new things that are well done. We ask friends to the show on a Saturday; some attend the matinee, and some attend the evening show, and we all come together in between for a dinner Jamshed and I host in the Skylight Bar & Bistro upstairs. One of the best parts of that experience is having our artistic director, Michael Wright, come and speak with our guests about the show. It’s kind of like our own private “Talk Theatre.”

MCT does a regular “Talk Theatre” program before some of the Wednesday matinee shows of the season. I started going to those shows with a group from the Woman’s Club of Milwaukee and we enjoy hearing from Michael Wright and some of the show’s artists.


MASTER CLASS during the 2014-2015 season was a favorite because I’m a singer.

MCT put on an incredible adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS back in April. More recently, I thought DEATHTRAP was well-done and loved seeing FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE after recommending the show to staff.


James Ridge in UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL (2012-2013 season) was incredible. I’m also a big fan of Marcella Kearns and her performance in MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS (2007-2008 season) was a showstopper. She was also great in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY in the current season.


Well, Marcella with her banana in MOONLIGHT was special! But generally, for me, it’s the quality of the performances that are special. The shows keep getting better every year, and our reach into the community gets ever deeper. I especially love the work that we do with local high school students in the Young Playwrights Festival every year and our partnerships with First Stage. It’s wonderful to see how we are encouraging the creative talents of our younger generations and giving them a chance to find their own voice. 


I am officially retired now, and like most retired people, I’m finding myself busier than ever. I’m what I would call a “professional volunteer.”

Before retirement, I practiced law in Milwaukee, until switching to arts management. I was the first Executive Director of the Milwaukee Children’s Choir and spent about eight years in that position. MCC’s founder and artistic director, Emily Crocker, helped so many young people learn how to use their “original instrument,” and assisting in that effort was very gratifying. I spent almost a year running the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as an interim Executive Director. And now I sit on arts boards! 


I love to sing! I’ve been belting tunes since I was three, sang through high school, took a break during college, and then sang at a piano bar during my law school years. I am currently a member of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. I love being part of a community of singers, performing exquisite repertoire, and having the best seat in the house – on stage – with the incredible Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

I am also an avid genealogist. I am the Registrar for the Milwaukee chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and I write a family history blog. I encourage everyone to explore their family tree, you may be surprised what you find there. And while you explore, you get to reexamine history in a very personal way and discover things about yourself that you didn’t know before. 


My new favorite place is Tre Rivali, the restaurant in the Journeyman Hotel in the Third Ward. I think the food is delicious. I’ve never had a bad meal there. They have a great artisan cheese plate and the Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert is out of this world!


I love to visit Madison. We go there regularly to visit my daughter. With my interest in genealogy, I also like to visit the Wisconsin Historical Society’s library on the UW campus. In the summertime, my husband and I like to visit Spring Green and see shows at the American Players Theatre. We also try to get to the Shaw Festival in Ontario each summer, and combine it with a visit to Jamshed’s Canadian relatives.

I have lots of fond memories taking my daughter camping in Two Rivers. It’s special for me because I grew up camping with my parents. To date, I’ve camped in every state in the country except Alaska and Hawaii. (I probably should add that I slept through Rhode Island.)


As I mentioned earlier, I sing with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. I am also on the board of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I just finished nine years of service on the board of Chorus America, the North American advocacy, research, and leadership development organization that advances the choral music field.

My passion for genealogy drew me to the Milwaukee Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the joy of hunting for dead people led to my joining a few other lineage societies. I am also an active member of the Woman’s Club of Wisconsin and enjoy the programs and camaraderie I find there.


I think I can narrow it down to three main points. First, MCT produces really fine quality work. The shows never disappoint and the people we invite uniformly praise the acting and recognize that it’s good theater. Second, MCT is “locally grown” using Milwaukee talent on and off the stage. And finally, MCT has deep roots in the community with more than 40 years in the local theatre scene.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Buffalo and Milwaukee: Same City, Different Lake

by Marcella Kearns

Spending a long autumn weekend in Buffalo, New York, I was looking forward to vanishing into a city I’d known as a college student — checking out old stomping grounds, covering new ground as Buffalo has been reinventing itself, and, most importantly, catching up with dear friends. Getting away from Milwaukee for a few to refresh myself after a few packed months. Saturday morning’s agenda with my hosts: farmer’s market, stroll, coffee shop.

Who knew "Smallwaukee" stretched
all the way to Buffalo?
Of course the manager at Tipico Coffee was from Bay View.

While good friends Alex and Jess did the WSJ crossword puzzle and sipped a cup of coffee roasted by Ruby Coffee Roasters (which happens to be based half an hour from Stevens Point), I found myself seeing double.

When I first moved to Milwaukee a few years after graduating from college, I joked to someone that Buffalo and Milwaukee were actually the same city — just on the other side of a different lake. My words had come back to haunt me. This getaway was turning into a step through a mirror.

While Sadie from Bay View served me coffee, I started the list. Feast on it, Milwaukee. We’ve got a twin sister only a hop away.

Best Bars

In 2016, Esquire published their choice of the 18 best bars in America. Founding Fathers Pub in Buffalo made the list, primarily for its incredible devotion to presidential history. (Closing the bar back in the '90s, sometimes we’d land a free shot if we could answer five questions about Grover Cleveland or Theodore Roosevelt.)

Though the Safe House wasn’t on that list, both that local quirky bar-to-which-you-take-out-of-towners and Founding Fathers made BuzzFeed’s 2015 “19 Bars in America You Should Drink At Before You Die” as #18 and #19, respectively. Additionally, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee did take Esquire’s #1 spot in 2013.

Speaking of the Presidents…

Look, we're famous!
President William McKinley was shot in Buffalo at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in to the nation’s highest executive office right up the street when McKinley passed. In 1912, while campaigning under the Bull Moose platform, Roosevelt was shot inMilwaukee. Fortunately, his eyeglass case and the thickness of a copy of his speech folded in his pocket impeded the trajectory of the bullet and spared him.


Buffalo's "Majik Man"
Milwaukee’s favorite team, the Green Bay Packers, have won four Super Bowls. While I was in college in the '90s, the Buffalo Bills went to the Superbowl four times in a row. (Okay, so they lost four times in a row. This one’s a stretch. But their fans rival Packers fans any day!)

More? Buffalo native Donald “Majik Man” Majkowski was starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers when he was injured in a game against the Bengals in 1992. Coach Mike Holmgren replaced him with a young Brett Favre, and the rest is history.

The Wright Connection

The Martin House Complex, one of seven Frank Lloyd
Wright masterworks in the Buffalo area.
Milwaukee may boast C. Michael Wright as one of its most prominent artists, but he is Buffalo born and raised!

Oh, yeah, there’s that other Wright as well… Buffalonian Darwin D. Martin invited Frank Lloyd Wright to bring his vision to Buffalo after Martin visited Oak Park, Illinois and saw Wright’s work there. Now, the Martin House Complex serves as a tour highlight of Wright’s work in Buffalo —while Milwaukee boasts the American System-Built Homes. (And has anyone seen the recently installed highway signs for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail on I-94?)


In 2001, Milwaukee’s Coo Coo Cal topped Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles Charts with “My Projects.” This was Milwaukee’s first splash on the national scene in one of contemporary music’s hottest and richest genres. Buffalo, however, has the latest big news on that front: Conway and Westside Gunn of the duo Hall N’ Nash made Buffalo music history this year as the first local rappers to sign with a major label — Eminem’s Shady Records.

Both regions can claim plenty of names, however, in a wealth of other genres. To name just a few, Buffalo can claim Brian McKnight, the Goo Goo Dolls, Ani DiFranco, and Spyro Gyra. The Violent Femmes, Al Jarreau, Woody Herman, and the BoDeans hail from our region.

Urban Park System

Buffalo's Olmsted parks were originally designed around
one large parkand two smaller ones closer to
population centers, linked by "park ways."
Frederick Law Olmsted and partner architect Calvert Vaux created the first urban park system in Buffalo in 1868 after his success with Central Park in New York City. The Olmsted Park System in Buffalo would come to span 850 acres, 6 parks, 7 parkways, 8 circles, and 4 pocket parks and took about 30 years to complete.

Olmsted brought his concept to Milwaukee in 1893. Our own Riverside, Lake and Washington Parks were his designs (along with the idea of a shore drive which would eventually become Lincoln Memorial Drive).

The Great Lake Effect

It's sort of scary how perfect that parallel is.
Milwaukee is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, the third-largest of the Great Lakes, while Buffalo’s on the shores of the fourth, Lake Erie.

Erie does a number on Buffalo’s weather patterns, though. Their lake effect snow accounts for an average annual snowfall double that of Milwaukee’s.

Segregation and Potential
This one’s nothing to boast of, but it’s a commonality. 24/7 Wall St.’s most recent calculation of the most segregated cities in the United States (July 2017) confirmed, sadly, what we already likely knew. Both the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis area as well as the Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls region fell within the top 16 (with Milwaukee at #11 and Buffalo at #7). While Buffalo fell within a statistic that includes only four cities — a city in which 80% of white people live within predominantly white neighborhoods — Wisconsin and Milwaukee specifically, as late as 2016, held the regrettable distinction of being the “worst state for black Americans” based on education and income potential.

Yet… Travel + Leisure’s 2017 list of America’s Friendliest Cities featured both Buffalo, which earned the #1 spot, and Milwaukee, which came in at #10. I wondered if this reader-contributed ranking could be read with hope: there’s a lot of work to do towards inclusion, equality, and civil rights—but, at least self-perceived, there are people in both towns with the right potential to achieve better conditions for all. Perhaps.

Actors’ Origin Stories
Buffalo Bob hosted Howdy Doody from 1947 to 1960,
not even letting a heart attack get in his way
(he just recorded in his basement until he could
go back to work at NBC Studios).

The following list is by no means comprehensive, but both cities can boast being birthplaces of a host of well-known and well-loved actors. Bob Smith (also known as Buffalo Bob Smith), host of The Howdy Doody Show, was born in Buffalo. So was voice actor Don Messick (Scooby-Doo), Jeffrey Jones, Katharine Cornell, and David Boreanaz.

On the flip side, Gene Wilder, Jane Kaczmarek, and NFL defensive lineman-turned-actor John Matuszak (Sloth in The Goonies) all hail from our region, along with Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien, who were classmates at Marquette University High School before they went on to major roles on the silver screen.

Smaller Bites

Speaking of the Jesuits
Marquette University, a Jesuit institution sitting just outside the heart of the downtown, has its parallel in Canisius College in Buffalo, which sits right on Main Street and the city’s subway line.

Buffalo (42.8864° N) and Milwaukee (43.0389° N) sit less than one degree apart. (Check out the map!)

From Milwaukee’s Basilica of St. Josaphat to Buffalo’s Our Lady of Victory, you can bet both cities are ready for the Pope to visit and hold mass.

I could go on. In fact, sitting at Tipico Coffee that day, I did. I even pestered Sadie from Bay View for the reason why she moved to Buffalo from Milwaukee three years ago.

“I came for adventure” was her reply. Adventure indeed — arguably one that’s merely through a looking glass.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET, by Tom Dudzick, is a spirited comedy that centers on the Nowaks of Buffalo, NY, who have been the self-appointed caretakers of a shrine honoring the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to their family patriarch - but this Christmas, daughter Ruth wants the real story. This perfectly timed holiday tale is about believing in the bonds that tie a family together.

So who are the Nowaks anyway? Let's find out! Take a look at our four featured actors, and their characters, who will be appearing on the stage at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. See you at the show!


Raeleen is very happy to be spending the holidays working with one of her favorite theatre companies! MCT audiences may remember her as A Lady of Letters in TALKING HEADS, Mrs. Potts in PICNIC, and Martha in OCTOBER BEFORE I WAS BORN. She has also served as a dialect coach for several productions at MCT, most recently, FRANKIE & JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE. And she teaches the subjects Acting, Voice & Speech, and Dialects over at UW-Milwaukee's Peck School of the Arts! Happy Holidays!

As Clara, the matriarch of the Nowak family, Raeleen will be playing a confident woman proud of her family's legend and instantly defensive should it be called into question. What could never be in question is her love for her three children, even when she thinks they're wrong. Maybe especially when she thinks they're wrong.


Greta Wohlrabe feels incredibly blessed to be making her MCT debut. Locally she's appeared at the Milwaukee Rep in productions of VENUS IN FUR (co-pro with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park), CLYBOURNE PARK (co-pro with Arizona Theatre Company), THE MOUSETRAP, CABARET and A CHRISTMAS CAROL. She's also appeared in Spring Green at American Players Theatre, in TWELFTH NIGHT, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, THE CRITIC, THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, THE TEMPEST and SKYLIGHT, in which she was named the Best Performance in a Play for 2012 by the Wall Street Journal. Greta has a MFA in Acting from Purdue University and a BA from Wheaton College in Massachusetts and is an alumna of the Eugene O'Neill National Theatre Institute.

As Beverly, the eldest child in the Nowak clan, Greta will be playing a confident, competitive woman with a passion for bowling. She is stubborn when it comes to the family legend, but she loves her family and is a fierce protector of its traditions.


Kat is delighted to return to MCT, where audiences may recognize her from the 2013 Young Playwrights Festival. Kat hails from Milwaukee and holds a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Minnesota. She is an aspiring Renaissance woman who acts, directs, builds, composes, sings, plays, teaches, writes, organizes, dreams, schemes, and creates. Kat is grateful to Michael and the rest of the MCT family for the opportunity to play alongside this wonderful cast.

As Ruth, the middle child, Kat will be playing a strong-willed, aspiring writer and actress seeking out the real truth behind the family legend. After all, she's writing a one-woman play about it, brought on by a deathbed confession that changes everything.


Josh Krause is delighted to return to Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, where he was last seen as Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS. He recently completed the 2017 Apprentice Program at American Players Theatre, where he appeared in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, CYRANO DE BERGERAC and A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. Josh received his Master of Fine Arts in Acting from Indiana University and is a teaching artist for the Milwaukee Rep and Sunset Playhouse.

As Jimmy, the baby of the Nowak family, Josh will be playing the easy-going brother and son who is always ready with his toolbox when there are things that need fixing. But there's more to Jimmy than his toolbox and the family legend. He's a blue-collar worker with a secret of his own.

Monday, October 2, 2017


compiled by Orianna Valentine & Kaylie Bowen

Ever since Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE opened, critics have been raving about this Terrence McNally romance! Read these selections from their reviews, and don't forget to come see the play for yourself! Purchase tickets before October 15 by calling 414.291.7800 or visiting our online box office.

Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

Marcella Kearns as Frankie and Todd Denning as Johnny
Photos by Paul Ruffolo.
Lonely hearts grope for connection in magical 'Frankie and Johnny'

"One of the best and surely the bravest of the many excellent performances I’ve seen (Kearns) give, during the 12 years I’ve been watching her on stage."

"Kearns captures the consequent despair and self-loathing, of a woman who can’t love another because she hates herself. But she’s most heartbreaking in hiding from Johnny and even herself how badly she wants to believe in the fairy tale he’s spinning, as he begs her to let him stay."

"Denning – also excellent – suggests a man who isn’t quite sure he believes his own story."

"Don’t miss your chance to watch two actors at the top of their game, as characters searching for the courage we all need to seize the day and grab hold of each other."

Paul Kosidowski, Milwaukee Magazine 
The real thing: The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's "Frankie and Johnny" explores the fugue of romance 

"Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's new production of Terrance McNally's 1987 play features standout performances by Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning"

"Director Mary MacDonald Kerr orchestrates the give and take of the evolving relationship with a sure hand, balancing the humor and the painful self-revelations, allowing both actors to display McNally’s ample wit and charm. And in Kearns and Denning, she has two brave actors who are willing to bare all — both physically and emotionally."

Gwen Rice, OnMilwaukee
Chamber's "Frankie and Johnny" finds sensitive souls under the sheets

"Kearns's eyes, meanwhile, get wider and wider with every new line of crazy conversation that Johnny launches into, envisioning a happily-ever-after that she's given up on long ago. Her shoulders tense. Her arms cross. She puts on layers of clothes to protect herself. And then, in a moment that approaches true connection, her body melts into his, and her armor falls away. It's a beautiful scene, allowing the entire theater to exhale."

"Fortunately, Kearns and Denning are up for complicated. As Frankie, Kearns displays dozens of shades of shock, hurt, fear, disdain, vulnerability, anger and annoyance simply in her transparent face. Watching her is a masterclass in subtle changes of expression that communicate more clearly than paragraphs."

Russ Bickerstaff, Shepherd Express
A one night stand and something more

"Scenic designer Brandon Kirkham brings a very distinct ’87 look to the stage for the production. From the boom box and a few cassette cases on the far shelf to the missing kids on a milk carton, this show feels quite vividly like a couple of hours between two people getting an encore 30 years later."

"This sort of thing can be maddeningly tricky to bring into a theater: that feeling that two people are alone onstage baring their souls to each other. Under the direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr, Kearns and Denning are so convincing that it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole audience watching them."

Julie McHale, Waukesha Freeman

"Both Kearns and Denning are master actors."

"See it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who has ever tried or failed or succeeded in understanding and loving another human being."

Dave Begel on Theater

"This may be the most personal play to be staged in Milwaukee all season."

"I have seen both of them many times over their careers but this may be the finest and (most) dignified work by both Ms. Kearns and Mr. Denning."

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Frank Note on Fairy Tales

by Marcella Kearns

Heinrich Lefler illustration, 1905
When I first started studying up on FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, I found a remark by playwright Terrence McNally labeling this piece “a romantic fairy tale.”


Romantic fairy tales and I have a fraught relationship. I love some. I hate some.

The ones I hate have that button on the end. You know it: “And everything was pretty spectacular always after that.” You’ve heard the famous three-word phrase. I won’t write it here. Nope. On a similar note, most romantic movies and plays? Romance novels, romantic comedies? Same thing for me. Yawn.

The stories I don’t mind—okay, the ones I love—take into account that life knocks us about pretty well, but sometimes there are concessions, sometimes pleasures, sometimes a little redemption, and maybe, sometimes, a bit of real happiness. Take “Rapunzel.” Rapunzel gets pregnant by that prince who visits her in her tower, and the fairy who’s raised her there gives her the boot, and she ends up birthing twins and living in misery in a hovel. Then that prince goes to visit her again but winds up meeting the fairy instead and throws himself from the tower in despair.

He loses his eyesight and wanders homeless, until years later when he stumbles upon the hovel where Rapunzel and the kids are.  She recognizes him and cries over him, and he gets his eyesight back. That’s the end (I kid you not—that’s from the Grimms’ earliest collected version of that tale). A little fun followed by a lot of misery, and I’ll grant, a tiny miracle, perhaps—but no indication in the story that all the suffering up until the reunion was just erased. In fact, I like to think those characters’ separate trials are given some acknowledgment and dignity by that simple ending.

Walter Crane illustration, 1874
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve witnessed Disney-level real life romances unfold. I’ve fallen in love at first sight myself.  I appreciate that depth of experience. But that doesn’t mean everything’s a snap then, or ever after for those characters or real people. I'm much more inclined to turn my eye towards a story that has some evidence of a relationship still at work after its inception.

“Romantic fairy tale” notwithstanding, McNally has drawn portraits of people who would in no way end up a theme park couple, and I appreciate that. First, I see this play as an anthem of sorts to the anonymous masses or the rarely celebrated—the ones who fail, who don’t get asked to prom, who aren’t spectacularly beautiful, who make mistakes and end up with battle scars, the ones whom we pass on the street or sit near on the bus or tip at the restaurant without remembering their names.

Second, this play never forgets the fact that there’s work at being together after coming together. It’s not just (okay, I’ll say it now) Happily Ever After. What happens when you run people with a lot of mileage up against a chance they might not have thought they had?

Mary MacDonald Kerr, who’s directing FRANKIE AND JOHNNY at MCT, phrased it best. At first rehearsal, in front of an intimate collective of production team, staff, board, and MCT friends, she offered up the question: “Fairy tales and romantic comedies bring us to sex. So then what? What is choosing, what comes after?”

We only see Frankie and Johnny for a short while, but this play’s infused with the work of after. Of choice. Of mileage and what to do with it. That’s the kind of fairy tale I can get behind.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally, runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at 414.291.7800, in person at 158 N. Broadway or our online box office. Visit for more details.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Notes from FRANKIE AND JOHNNY'S "First Day of School"

by Marcella Kearns

Happy back-to-school season, friends! We’ve recently had our own “first day of school,” so to speak, at MCT: first rehearsal for FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE on August 28. In this bittersweet comic romance, I'll be performing the role of Frankie alongside Todd Denning (Johnny), with Mary MacDonald Kerr directing.

I’m a perpetual student, so I took some notes for you in the hall. Enjoy these assorted thoughts:

*First thing that strikes me is the intimacy of the room. There’s a cozy gathering of friends and fans of MCT whose tradition it is to listen to the first reading of the play aloud. Several of them vanish after the first act. They want to let the second half come as a surprise or, if they know the play, they might like to wait until they get to see the final product onstage in the theatre. The second half of the read-through feels even more intimate. Intimate’s a big word on this one.

*Some of those friends brought snacks. Snacks and coffee: welcome comforts on the first day.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City. 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 15 1/2 × 23 3/16" (39.4 × 58.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker. © 2016 Nan Goldin
"Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City," an example
of Nan Goldin's work in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
*Amy Horst’s costume inspiration pierces me: Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She showed me pictures before today, and I’ve seen some floating around the MCT office. It’s been driving me crazy why they looked so familiar. Of course it’s during her design presentation to everyone gathered that it clicks. I caught Goldin’s work at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago when it was on exhibition with other photography. I remember what I felt watching it. Discomfort. Openness. Nakedness. Weariness. Loneliness. Nah—desolation. Intimacy. There’s that word again.

*This is such a song for the rarely celebrated.

*Brandon Kirkham, our scenic designer, says Frankie’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen is “gritty.” My most recent contact with Hell’s Kitchen was a date with a Manhattan (the drink, to be clear) and back-to-back episodes of Daredevil on Netflix. Same setting, a particular pocket of New York City. Just some decades apart, at least as the Marvel juggernaut has framed it now on film and television. What does the script say about the population of New York City again? I grin to think of a few superheroes running around out there somewhere. Most everybody else is slogging along. Frankie? A slogger.

*Johnny keeps a dictionary in his locker at work. I suddenly want to look up the word “intimacy” for how the dictionary frames that word we use all the time. How do you know when you feel true intimacy? How can one ever know?—all you can do is assure another you feel it. But do they? What’s true assurance? All we really have is our own construct of another based on collected evidence. All we really have is their word that our construct of ourselves is somehow discernible and pleasing to them. Gosh, that’s a rabbit hole. I’m remembering that photography.

*On a break, I find myself trying to remember the productions on which Todd and I have worked together as actors before. Turns out three out of the four were Shakespeare. The first? THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. I laugh out loud: MERRY WIVES is actually mentioned in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY.

*Our assistant stage manager’s name is Jena. Jena’s got a giant job ahead of her. I don’t envy her, and I am grateful already for the help I know she’s going to give along with Judy, our stage manager. Funny. I instinctively trust her in part because her name’s Jena, not just because of the position she holds—because my college roommate’s name was Jenna, and she was fantastic. Associations, connections, coincidences bubbling up… Johnny’s big into that kind of thing. I’ve got a few of my own happening here.

More notes to come, friends. In the meantime, a lovely September to you. I have to head to the rehearsal hall.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally, runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at 414.291.7800, in person at 158 N. Broadway or our online box office. Visit for more details.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Violence by Design: An Interview with Fight Director Christopher Elst

by Marcella Kearns

A few summers ago, I saw a sequence of torture and murder onstage that horrified me in all the right ways—simply, it looked real. Fully immersed in the tension of the moment, I forgot for a moment where I was. In hindsight, however, I realized I hadn’t for an instant worried about the actors both perpetrating and undergoing the crime not ten feet from me in real time. Why?

Christopher Elst.

Elst, fight director for MCT’s production of DEATHTRAP, has a gift for making an audience squirm with the kind of intricate physical storytelling that follows when conflict between characters escalates beyond words alone. Since seeing his work for the first time those summers ago, I’ve been insatiably curious about his process and his own story. Recently, even as he wrapped Theater RED’s latest production (Elst and spouse Marcee Doherty-Elst are the company’s producing directors), he graciously granted a request for an interview.

Marcella Kearns: What originally drew you to undertaking the study of violence design (stage combat)? What continues to captivate you about this aspect of the theatre?

Christopher Elst: I started in high school when I heard about the “fencing” program for the high school Madrigal Dinner in Kenosha. I had always had an eye for swords and martial arts and thought this might be a way to start learning more. I was “captain” of the team in my senior year, but it was really more of an acting troupe than anything. I began to assist the teachers in my first year out of high school, and then began teaching it myself shortly thereafter. I joined the SAFD (Society of American Fight Directors), at the urging of Jamie Cheatham, in 2006 and have pursued stage combat as a profession ever since.

MK: Tell us about your personal process in building physical fights onstage. How do you approach a script and your work in the rehearsal hall?

CE: Theatrical violence incorporates the most important aspects of theatrical performance: objectives and commitment at the very highest stakes, physical communication and cooperation between actors, and a dual awareness at both the character and actor levels. For me, stage combat informs all of my work as an actor.

I consider stage combat to be a modern martial art, focused on storytelling, rather than defense, in the same way that many Eastern disciplines teach that violence and destruction are set aside in favor of aesthetic creation. A master becomes an artist, as the understanding of violence reminds one of their human nature—the earth, the id, the beast, etc.—but channeling that directionless passion are the creative and rational drives. As artists in the theatre, the consummation of all arts, we have the ability and responsibility to bring this violence as realistically to bear as we are able in order to confront and discuss, and perhaps to change, the way in which we accept and cope with our natural tendency toward violence.

To that end, it is essential that we as fight directors give our actors the tools required to tell these stories. By necessity, we begin to help with precautions against harm; beyond the obvious preservation of the body, if the actor must hesitate because of a safety concern, then we have hindered the story by whatever fraction that hesitation costs. Contrarily, when we instill in actors the knowledge and practice to free them of the constraint of fear, we not only allow that particular scene to come alive, but we bring the actors to a greater state of awareness and commitment, which can only serve them in all aspects of performance.

The responsibility is colossal for fight directors, as with any teachers, to keep this always in mind. We must understand fear, violence, and all of the darkest parts of our humanity in order to create compelling art, but we must be in command of those forces, and teach others to be in command of them, if that art is to be of value.

Elst directed the fight scenes in Theater RED's swashbuckling BONNY ANNE BONNY.
(L, Zach Thomas Woods; R, Alicia Rice. Photo: Traveling Lemur Productions)

MK: What have you found is the most challenging part of staging fights with actors who have very little experience with combat? What’s challenging, on the other hand, about working with actors who are very experienced?

CE: Classical acting training once mandated that all actors be trained in stage combat, but it’s rare to run across someone with more than cursory knowledge today, which is surprising when one considers all of the popular media that features violence. Working with an actor unfamiliar mostly poses challenges in getting the appropriate commitment level; they are usually either too timid or too eager. I am fond of saying, “Keep your method acting out of my stage combat, please.”

Contrarily, with actors accustomed to the work, including me, the trick is to remind them of the dangers the characters face and not to be too complacent in the responses. Also, veteran stage combatants can cling to bad habits, or make a character seem facile with a weapon, when the character should not be. Being too comfortable with stage violence can be detrimental to the story, even if safety is more assured.

MK: There are several weapons revealed as part of the setting of DEATHTRAP. If you had your pick, which of those would be most exciting to you to use in a fight and why?

CE: I have to say, I was drawn to the work by swords, and I’m still fascinated by them, even with my facility in their use. There’s a reason other weapons just never found their way as strongly into the canon of theatrical violence, and indeed, history. There have always been swords. Their elegance and effectiveness are unsurpassed.

MK: Along the same lines, what do you enjoy most about DEATHTRAP, both as an artist working on the team and as one who gets to see it from the house?

CE: Long before I considered the theatre as an occupation, I had seen the film version of DEATHTRAP. I love the blend of dark humor and true thrills, and I hope to bring the actors to a place where they can startle even me with this production.

MK: If it’s possible to answer this without spoilers: what do you foresee may be the most challenging thing for you to accomplish (and/or the actors to execute… no pun intended…) on DEATHTRAP?

CE: Theatrical violence is no different than a magic trick. The challenge here is that we never know which effect is meant to be real and which is a character fooling another character and the audience. We want to create that duplicity without belying the truth of each moment. That will take some real focus, and I think we have a great team to make it happen.

MK: Do you have any “dream plays” to choreograph?

CE: I think I’d like to have a chance at THE THREE MUSKETEERS or something in that vein. BONNY ANNE BONNY (with Theater RED) was the closest I’ve come, and we did a bang-up job if I say so myself, but those old swashbuckling epics were the beacon to me in my youth, and I’d like to see what I can do when realism is no limit.

Elst’s innovation seems to have no limit. Join us at MCT for DEATHTRAP — with him in charge of the fights, we can guarantee the thrills.

DEATHTRAP opens August 10 and runs through August 27. Tickets can be purchased at 414.291.7800 or online.