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.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


compiled by Kaitlyn Martin

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's GREAT EXPECTATIONS opened this past weekend and the reception for this Dickens classic has been great indeed! Be sure to catch up on what others are saying about the show as well as making a trip to see Gale Childs Daly's adaptation of this classic story on our Cabot Theatre stage! We close on April 30!

Mike Fischer,
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Cast of Great Expectations with violinist, Andrew Crowe
 Photo by Paul Ruffolo
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre staging reinforces greatness of Dickens 'Expectations'

"As Pip, Josh Krause is the lone actor who plays just one character, although Pip goes through so many changes during the play – while traveling from orphaned, seven-year-old waif to chastened, 30-something man – that Krause might as well be playing several roles."

"Karen Estrada exhibits the range to play both halves of a fascinating psychological double, embodying the haughty Estella as well as the warm-hearted Biddy."

"The amazingly versatile Deborah Staples is excellent in multiple roles as real or surrogate mothers, including the tragic Miss Havisham and the hilarious Mrs. Joe, in which capacity she lords it over both Pip and her cowed blacksmith husband (Chiké Johnson)."

"In Jason Fassl’s breathtaking lighting design, we see these characters' souls at night, revealed through illuminated faces surrounded by shadow, struggling to find their way to the light."

Top: Josh Krause and Deborah Staples
Bottom: Zach Thomas Woods
Photo: Paul Ruffolo
Dave Begel,
Chamber's masterful "Great Expectations" exceeds every single one

"This production, under the singular direction of Molly Rhode, pays tribute to everything Dickens wrote and more."

"Joining Krause in this cast are five wonderful and well-known Milwaukee actors: Jonathan Gillard Daly (married for 35 years to the playwright), Deborah Staples, Chike Johnson, Karen Estrada and Zack Thomas Woods. Joining them from North Carolina is Andrew Crowe, a composer and actor who played the violin with a haunting grace and evocation that set the mood for so many moments."

"Each actor had moments in the sun, but watching Daly, who is well over six feet tall and north of 60 years old, play a two-year-old sliding down, time after time, on a short little slide made out of wood may well have been the funniest moment of the night. He is an actor of resplendent breadth and depth but has always had a marvelous feel for just the right kind of comedy."

"Madelyn Yee, the uber-creative properties master, designed and built a final scene with seven actors holding books in front of them, with individual white lights shining their faces out into a dark auditorium. It was a haunting example of what a intelligence and taste can do."

Dominique Paul Noth,
Urban Milwaukee

A Dickens of a Staging
T: Andrew Crowe
M: Chike Johnson, Zach Thomas Woods, Jonathan Gillard Daly
B: Deborah Staples, Josh Krause, Karen Estrada
Photo: Paul Ruffolo

"Director Molly Rhode needs only seven performers, visible stage lights and a few pieces of furniture (though we are also being fooled by scenic designer Lisa Schlenker, since the set piece is more complicated than that)."

"Madelyn Yee’s props interact with Jason Orlenko’s costume pieces in a dervish of activity. The actors are props as well – also living furniture, noise makers and page rustlers."

"Playwright/adapter Gale Childs Daly has ripped up the novel and reassembled it with mathematical expertise and Dickensian interpolations. It’s like a fascinating literate solution to the Rubik’s Cube. The cast constantly changes hats and purpose while retaining identifiable characters when needed."

"Krause keeps innocence and noble conviction alive through all the changes in age and the torrents of exposition. He has a bright open appeal in a role that demands both warp speed and quiet listening."

"Chiké Johnson brings formidable voice and characters ranging from the friendly blacksmith to the haughty suitor to the cunning street agent—a lead example of the versatility required of the whole company."

Josh Krause and Chike Johnson | Photo by Paul Ruffolo
Paul Kosidowski, 
Milwaukee Magazine
A Richly Imagined "Great Expectations" at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

"Gale Childs Daly’s adaptation, written in 1993, cannily streamlines the tale in classic story-theater style, creating the world of Victorian London using simple benches and chairs as props and scenery. Rhode takes it a step further, putting the items in Dickens’s study to theatrical use."

"Rhode’s and Childs Daly’s approach puts the actors front and center, and the MCT cast builds the world of the story with energy and charm."

"Deborah Staples brings a deep voice and a deep sense of humanity to Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’s greatest creations. Like many of Dickens’s characters, she’s larger than life. But this Havisham is no mere caricature—Staples inflects each gesture with the character’s broken-hearted history."

"Chiké Johnson brings similar heart and depth to Joe Gargery, the simple blacksmith who is Pip’s most loyal friend. With a simple gesture of perfectly timed emotion, Johnson makes his goodbye to Pip one of the most heart-stopping moments of the evening."

Josh Krause and Deborah Staples
Photo by Paul Ruffolo
Anne Siegel,
Total Theatre
Great Expectations

"Incredibly, this adaptation has but six actors (and one violinist). Daly has the actors change costumes (and characters) in the blink of an eye. Sometimes they slip into new clothing upstage, often within view of the audience. "

"Rhode also can be credited for mining the humor from Pip’s sometimes dismal, precarious situation. The laughter reaches a peak when Pip steps out to see a hilarious rendition of Hamlet (it takes “bad acting” to new heights)."

"One of the must-see performances is actor Deborah Staples as Pip’s hideous older sister (this is a compliment). She smacks the young boy about when she’s not congratulating herself on having raised him. Staples appears a moment later as the sad figure of Miss Havisham, cloaked in a faded wedding gown (just one of costume designer Jason Orlenko’s fabulous outfits)."

John Jahn,
Shepherd Express

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Exceeds "Great Expectations"

Jonathan Gillard Daly, Deborah Staples, Karen Estrada,
Andrew Crowe and Josh Krause
Photo by Paul Ruffolo
"Rhode’s cast of seven takes us rapidly, and convincingly, through different locations and personas. The fine actors change characters with confident assiduity."

"MCT’s current production is likewise something to cherish and celebrate, for it is well acted, amusing, touching, sprightly paced and superbly staged."

"What remarkable effort and effectiveness! Kudos to scenic designer Lisa Schlenker, stage manager Judy Martel, costume designer Jason Orlenko and lighting designer Jason Fassl for making this all come off so well. Their work—plus that of the amazing actors and the wonderful Childs Daly adaptation from which they all clearly drew inspiration—make for a truly enjoyable evening at the theater."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Empathy and Adaptation: A Conversation with Gale Childs Daly

Author Gale Childs Daly, who originally
completed her adaptation of
by Marcella Kearns

At MCT, we’ve got a voracious appetite for great literature. So does Gale Childs Daly. It’s a match! 

Recently I caught up with Gale to talk about her history, the story of her adaptation of the beloved novel GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and Charles Dickens, the author of the novel. [Warning: If you haven’t yet experienced GREAT EXPECTATIONS, spoilers below.]

Marcella Kearns: What is the history of this adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS? It’s had an interesting life so far!
Gale Childs Daly: This adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS started as a 45-minute outreach play. I created it for six actors, because that’s how many actors were in the Outreach Company at PCPA Theatrefest in Santa Maria, California. [MCT Note: Outreach Tours’ mission is to enhance education by taking performances to schools, libraries, etc.] The production was a success, so the theatre asked me to complete it in a two-act version of the whole thing. I got to work on my Christmas break in 1992 and completed it in May of 1993. 

I directed the first production; since then there have been many productions of the play. It was the production that was done at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma that gave GREAT EX new life. A young graduate student there named Jason Gerace loved the piece, and when he left school, he asked the stage manager for a clean copy of the play. Chris Sadler, who had been my stage manager for the first production, had such a thing and gave it to Jason. Jason moved to Chicago to be a director and shopped the play around. Strawdog Theatre Company loved it and slotted Jason to direct it for their holiday show in 2014. The play was a great success there—standing room only, sold-out houses and amazing reviews. Kate Seidel of Dramatic Publishing Company came down to see it and as a result of that production the play was published in 2015. In Chicago, the play was nominated for Best play, Best Adaptation, Best Ensemble, and Best Director by the Jefferson Award Committee.

MK: What inspired you to adapt GREAT EXPECTATIONS in such an innovative way (5 narrators, Pip, and a musician…)?
GCD: When given the task of adapting this Dickens novel, I immediately tapped into a production that I had been part of in 1982. There was a production of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY created by the RSC. A producer grabbed the first American rights (and the only rights at the time) for a production at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. It was done in a beautiful old theatre like the Cabot, only larger and there were 36 actors playing at least a hundred parts. I was privileged to be in that company—as was Jon, my husband.

 So—with that experience under my belt, I heard actors speaking narration, saw them changing character with a simple costume piece, and telling the story in a minimalist way. But, my job was to write a play that successfully tells Pip’s story using only 6 actors (there was no musician in the original piece). Putting the play together was like making a jigsaw puzzle. It was hard work, but great fun.

MK: This adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS weaves in scenes about the theatre—Shakespeare in particular. Why was this element important for you to include?
GCD: The scene of Mr. Wopsle playing Hamlet is one of my favorite scenes. It was great fun creating it and such fun for me to watch it performed. I also love the pantomime (the song that is sung was written by Jon in those far off days. I think he enjoys being part of the production and getting to sing his very own song)! I think it is important to add these scenes because Dickens was an actor and loved Shakespeare, so Mr. Wopsle’s readings of RICHARD III and HAMLET are my salute to the author who created the novel I adapted. 

Also, Shakespeare has been a huge part of my life. As an actress and director I have played many parts—in fact I have worked on twenty-eight of the plays. I taught Shakespeare Studies for fourteen years in California at PCPA, and then I have been the text coach in over twenty Shakespeare plays since moving to the Midwest. I have also continued to teach Shakespeare in the Milwaukee area, and until I retired last year I have had the pleasure of directing quite a few plays myself. So — Shakespeare! Mr. Wopsle and I have something in common, only it is not my intent to build the theatre up and then “crush it”! (However, I have been known to give some performances myself that were “massive and concrete”!)

"Dickens' Dream," painted by Robert William Buss.

MK: Dickens is arguably most well-known to Americans as the author of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. What ideas or themes—social justice, how humans treat one another, etc.—do you find most compelling in that work and GREAT EX? Why is GREAT EX an important story for the present?
GCD: I believe the single characteristic that makes us human is empathy. One of the most prevalent themes in both A CHRISTMAS CAROL and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and in fact, all of Dickens’ work, is the human need for understanding and compassion. Pip and Scrooge both are seeking connectivity—Pip by being a gentleman and Scrooge by opening his heart that has been closed for so many years. Pip learns to love at the end of the play—not only Estella but Joe and Magwitch too. He puts himself in their shoes and at last understands what it means to have empathy. Scrooge finally understands what it means to have the Christmas spirit all the year long. Both lead characters discover that generosity and forgiveness make them good men. They also learn that money means nothing to them though it can be a means for good—as in Scrooge giving to the charity men, or Pip giving his allowance to Herbert to start his own company. There are so many other lessons, morals and themes in the works of Dickens—the fun thing is to read all the books and see how the themes recur and intermesh. Dickens’ characters, though, no matter what role they play in the story, always learn empathy.

MK: Which of the characters in GREAT EX do you find most sympathetic, and why? Do you have a personal favorite (and if so, why)?
GCD: The character I find the most sympathetic (and he’s my favorite character, too) is Magwitch, the convict. I know it might seem odd to have the “villain” of the piece be the most sympathetic character, but I think Magwitch and Pip are much alike. Pip would have been the boy Magwitch was if he had had a chance to be taken care of and loved. Magwitch is a gentle man deep inside — and finally has a chance to help someone besides himself. He learns empathy by loving and taking care of Pip. He and Pip both have that other important human characteristic — a conscience. When we first see him on the Marshes he confesses that he stole the pork pie—protecting Pip. From the very beginning, Dickens lays in that Magwitch is a “good” man. And he is — Pip just doesn’t know it yet.

MK: You come from a history of acting and directing yourself. What drew you to playwriting, and what kind of work do you find most satisfying to pursue?
GCD: I was drawn to playwriting in 1986 when I was pregnant with my son, Samuel. I read a book about a pioneer child named Opal Whiteley. It was called THE STORY OF OPAL and was a copy of her diary that she kept from the age of 5 to the age of 12. I fell in love with Opal and her interesting language and world view. I was reading the diary when I went into labor with Sam. About one year later I felt the need to create something that spoke to the mother in me—and that was Opal’s diary. I started adapting it whenever I got a few minutes, and before I knew it I had a one-act play. I put it on the road with the Outreach Company at PCPA. It has had several productions over the years, most recently at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since then I wrote GREAT EXPECTATIONS and many short plays. My favorite of these short works was an adaptation of THE LAMENT FOR IGNACIO SANCHEZ by Federico Garcia Lorca.

As for satisfying work, I prefer directing to any other theatre activity. I like having a vision and seeing it come to life. I love rehearsing and having tech week. I like to be the boss! I am more of an objective artist than a subjective one, although I was an actor for nearly twenty-five years. I also love writing, but it is much more difficult than directing or acting. Now that I have “retired” I can concentrate on writing and am enjoying my next project—adapting FRANKENSTEIN.

MK: You have other family members in the theatre. What advice would you give (or have you given) to those who are just beginning their career? What expectations should they or could they reasonably have about the future, in your view?

GCD: It’s funny — Jon and I are theatre artists and we have been able to raise a family (two children) on the money we make as actors and or directors/playwrights. It hasn’t been easy, but we accomplished it and our children are on their way. Samuel is 30 and just finished a doctorate in Contemporary African History at Columbia University in NYC. He is beginning his career, and it is about as far from the theatre as you can get! Emily, on the other hand, has wanted to be an actress since she was four years old. She got a B.A. from The University of Evansville in performance art and is currently in her second year of an M.F.A. at the University of California-Irvine. 

Here’s what we told her: You’ve seen how your dad and I live. Sometimes it is paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes we have had to work apart — he out of town, me out of town  to make a living. Sometimes we have to do work we are not thrilled about just to bring in the money. But we have managed to work in the theatre for over 40 years and never take a day job (yet!). We have told Emily how hard it is — she has seen how hard it is and she still wants to do it. So we support her unconditionally. We hope she has a great career—at least one that pays the bills and allows her to have a family if she wants one. She is beautifully talented, and as one friend of ours says — "She didn’t get it licking it off the sidewalk!” Ha, ha!

Monday, March 27, 2017

MCT Board Member Profile: Kathryn Herman

by Max Seigle

I grew up in Milwaukee on the Southwest side and went to Pulaski High School. I left the city in the '50s to study education at Carroll College in Waukesha and have lived there ever since. My husband and I currently live in downtown Waukesha. We love it there. It’s an easy walk to coffee shops and restaurants. We have three children and four grandchildren who all live in the Milwaukee area.


I found out about MCT from a dear friend of mine, Linda Loving. She is a former MCT board member and actress in the community. She always talked about this theatre company and one day mentioned an opportunity to sit on the board. From there, I met with Michael Wright and Kirsten Mulvey and just knew immediately that they were people that I would love to work with. They were so welcoming and enthusiastic. We all felt I could serve the board well as a representative from one of the western counties and as a retired community volunteer. I think the latter is an important voice to have on the board as retirees are part of the mix that we serve.

I have been on the board four years now and really enjoy it. I love coming into the city and being part of the theatre community in the Third Ward. You are surrounded by a lot of fun, creative and highly skilled individuals. I’ve never been so close to the theatre as I am now with MCT and it’s been a wonderful addition to my life.


I loved UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL in 2013. It was a one-man show with James Ridge and he made a tremendous impression on me. He was just amazing in that role and it’s one of those plays that I think of often. I also enjoyed THE TRAIN DRIVER in 2015. It was very powerful and extremely well-done. I loved the fun of BOEING BOEING in 2015 and was a huge fan of the all female company in A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR last year.


James Ridge. As I mentioned earlier, he was outstanding in UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL. He is such a versatile actor. He can be very serious and a bit dark but he’s also a great comic actor.

Also (MCT associate artistic director) Marcella Kearns -- she most recently appeared as Berthe in BOEING BOEING and directed VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE. Her comedic timing is amazing and she also brings a lot of versatility to the stage. I admire her work as a director as well. She is a real gem for MCT!


I really enjoyed my experience on the Adopt-a-Show committee for A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR. As board members, we select different shows to adopt during the season and help the staff with audience development and promotions. We did some fun things with LOVELY SUNDAY, like raffling off a gift certificate to the Milwaukee Public Market. We encouraged the idea of buying a “Picnic at the Park” to go along with the picnic at the park you heard so much about in the show. I was also able to attend the first rehearsal for this production and loved the behind-the-scenes look that these rehearsals offer. You become more intimately involved in the show by hearing first-hand from the actors, the director, the costume designer and the set designer.

I have also been proud to arrange a few groups from my retirement community to see some MCT shows. We rent a big bus and usually pair the experience with a meal. There are many people in the community with a lifetime love of theatre but they can no longer do the drive and miss not being able to go. With the bus, they can get out and enjoy a show easily, so it works out really well. We are going to see GREAT EXPECTATIONS in the spring.


I am retired now but spent my professional years in education. I was a first grade teacher in the Waukesha public schools for 15 years. Teaching reading was my speciality. My first school was Blair Elementary.

I later went on to work in adult education, focusing on adult literacy. I was the first executive director of what is now called the Literacy Council of Greater Waukesha County. I spent those days recruiting volunteers to work with adult learners, training the tutors and doing publicity and fundraising. This was really heartfelt work, meeting students who went through much of their adult life without knowing how to read. I was impressed at how motivated they were to learn. I remember grandmas who wanted to be able to read stories to their grandchildren and women who wanted to read the Bible. It was very fulfilling and exciting to be a part of this educational renewal.


My husband and I love to travel. We’ve seen theatre and opera all over the world. London is my favorite city. The theatre there is not to be missed! We also spend time in Cornwall, a county in the southwestern most part of England. About 15 years ago, we bought a cottage in the town of Penzance and travel back and forth during the year. I love being in the small town and getting to know the neighbors and the shopkeepers. Being so close to the sea, you quickly see how the livelihood is guided by the water and the fishing industry. It’s been a wonderful and enriching life experience for us.

I also enjoy reading modern fiction, and reading and writing poetry. I belong to a book club and an adult poetry appreciation group. I like to write my life stories as well so my children and grandchildren can learn more about my background and where life has taken me.


I like the Skylight Bar & Bistro upstairs in the Broadway Theatre Center. I have eaten there with groups from my retirement community before a show.

I also love Swig nearby, and recently had brunch at the new Journeyman Hotel in the Third Ward. It was very nice, too.


I think I like the City of Milwaukee itself as my favorite spot. The lakefront, the world-class art museum, wonderful restaurants, theatre, music, dance and opera — Milwaukee just has everything. I love being in the city. I think I’m a city girl at heart.


I like the music, food and ambiance of GermanFest. In Waukesha, my husband and I enjoy Friday Night Live. The festival takes over part of the downtown area and there are live bands to enjoy. It’s nice to get something to drink, wander around, listen to the music and meet up with friends. It’s very informal. People bring their dogs, their children and even set up lawn chairs in the streets.


I am proud of the work I do with organizations tied to my Cornish heritage. One is the Cornish Society of Greater Milwaukee. The other is the Cornish American Heritage Society and I am the president of that group. We organize and present educational seminars and conferences that highlight all aspects of Cornish culture. We cover the history, language, literature, genealogy, food and travel ideas. We also stay in close touch with what’s going in Cornwall today.


I think people should know about MCT’s commitment to working with local actors and production crews. Michael Wright is so dedicated to promoting Milwaukee’s theatre community and I appreciate that so much. I also love Michael’s commitment to diversity in the plays and actors he selects. You will find well-produced, thought-provoking life stories on the MCT stage, and characters that you can connect with. It’s a very unique experience and I just think everyone should be enjoying it as much as I am!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review Roundup: THE FEW

by Kaitlyn Martin, marketing and development assistant

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's THE FEW opened this past weekend and positive reviews from critics and audience members alike have been reaching our ears! Be sure to read the press that we've received as well as making a trip to see this Samuel D. Hunter script on our Studio Theatre stage. THE FEW closes on March 19!

Mike Fischer,
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Outstanding Chamber cast delivers 'The Few'

Mary MacDonald Kerr and James Ridge in THE FEW.
Photos by Paul Ruffolo
"Featuring C. Michael Wright’s nuanced direction and an exceptional cast, it’s the best Wisconsin production I’ve seen thus far in 2017."

"QZ can be forgiven for seeming wary and confused, as well as angry, truculent and even a bit vengeful. Kerr gives us all that and something more, from this hurt and disappointed woman: Tender regard and lingering love for the broken man darkening her doorway."

"Bultman’s Matthew can remind one of a puppy: starved for love, eager to please and unbearably open. Physically bigger than either Ridge or Kerr, he can also seem uncoordinated, gangly and much too large [...] Because he’s such a bad fit for the space he fills, Matthew gives this dark play much of its humor; he’s also a reminder to his two elders of their best younger selves."

"Despite a few explosive moments during which all this simmering comes to a boil, there’s nothing overt in Ridge’s work, here; true to the character he plays and the themes coursing through this play, communication and connection are never that easy."

Paul Kosidowski,
Milwaukee Magazine

Life is a Highway...

James Ridge in THE FEW.
"Ridge plays Bryan with great attention to his damaged spirit and his passionate resilience. Watch him listen—early in the play—to a personal ad phone message from “Cindy.” He routinely types her message, then stops dreamily as her rambling story becomes more than ad copy—a familiar tale of a lost and lonely soul."

"MacDonald Kerr plays QZ with the hard edge of a pragmatist—a Mother Courage of the interstate, perhaps—but reveals her heart in the care she shows for Matthew."

"Bultman, who is making his local major theater debut, gives his character touching honesty and vulnerability. Personal ads and all, The Few is Matthew’s refuge from a cruel past, and Bultman is heartbreaking in his tenacity to get the paper out on time."

"It’s all orchestrated by director C. Michael Wright, who helps imbue the characters with intricately wrought humanity. It’s a great play for our troubled times, and MCT’s production offers a welcome dose of compassion and respect for the troubled fellow travelers."

Dave Begel,
On Milwaukee
Chamber Theatre gives 'The Few' solid, sensitive treatment
James Ridge, Mitch Bultman and 
Mary MacDonald Kerr in THE FEW.

"Milwaukee Chamber Theatre offers a wonderful treatment under the bright and sensitive direction of C. Michael Wright and a cast featuring two of the best actors in this state."

"Kerr and Ridge are among the finest actors this state has ever produced, and this production clearly shows why. [...] Kerr can say more with a single discouraged glance at Ridge than you might get in a full page of dialogue. Ridge wears his forlorn life like a shroud, never once stepping outside of what we think he ought to be. They are both brilliant."

"Bultman is new to me and an absolute delight. He's funny and sensitive and angry and not a single one of those traits strikes a false note."

Harry Cherkinian, 
Shepherd Express
Chamber Theatre's "The Few" Explores the Disconnect of High-Tech
Mitch Bultman and James Ridge in THE FEW.

"[The Few] is a beautifully wrought, stark and poignant reminder of the ever-constant need for human contact—this largely due to the excellent cast and seamless direction of C. Michael Wright."

"Ridge is perfectly suited to the gaunt, burned-out drifter and completely inhabits the role."

"In a stunning breakout MCT performance, Bultman is the catalyst (and catapult) for the explosive transformations that follow. His insecurities, kindnesses and fearfulness transform his Matthew into more than what the script provides."

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Many Voices of THE FEW

by Kaitlyn Martin

Samuel D. Hunter's THE FEW is set within the "newsroom" of an unorthodox publication: a newspaper designed for truckers, populated largely by personal ads submitted by travelers just as lonely as our protagonists.

Sound designer and UWM professor
Chris Guse worked with director C. Michael Wright
and voiceover coach/casting director Raeleen
McMillion to find just the right voices
for the play's lonely souls placing personal ads. 
As such, the play's characters are often interrupted by incoming calls from readers, played over the office's answering machine (this is 1999, after all!). These callers, about a dozen in all, each provide a glimpse of the world outside our surroundings, conveyed in only a few lines.

To find just the right voices for those calls, director C. Michael Wright turned again to UW-Milwaukee's theatre department. MCT has previously partnered with the university on three other productions -- LOVE STORIES (2015), THE DETECTIVE'S WIFE (2013) and PICNIC (2009) -- and has a strong working relationship with many of the professors and students who have been a part of the program. For this collaboration, Wright worked with UWM professors Raeleen McMillion and Chris Guse to select and record more than a dozen students, faculty and alumni whose voices will be featured in the production.

Guse, also the sound designer for THE FEW, says the answering machine plays a central role in the drama, letting these voices be heard over the tension between the characters on stage.

"The characters that are on the answering machine are important to the description of the play [and] the description of the location, as well as evoking the emotional state of the characters and reinforcing the themes," says Guse, adding that they echo the emotional state of the small-town Idaho residents.

As the sound designer, Guse's role isn't just limited to lining up each of these voices. He's in charge of every sound cue, from scene change music to the beeping of the answering machine itself.

"Finding out ... the sequence of events that you go through with the simple operation of an answering machine is really much more complicated than it seems," A lot of thought was given to the amount of beeps needed, the starting of the answering machine tape spinning in its track, and the clicking and whirring of all of the moving parts that -- once crucial to hearing the voices of those you have missed -- are now obsolete.

Through the use of music from the late 90s as well as carefully designed soundscapes, Guse looks to reflect the emotional states of the characters onstage as well as invoke a sense of foreshadowing. Cueing the audience as to what is approaching in the story or allowing them to reflect on something they have just seen is all part of the subtlety and emotional sharpness of Guse's design.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The cast of THE FEW gets "personal"

Compiled by Kaitlyn Martin and Matthew Reddin

THE FEW, by acclaimed playwright Samuel D. Hunter, is a tale of three lonely souls seeking renewed faith in humanity. Set in the year 1999, in a disheveled office space in northern Idaho, Hunter's play is a compassionate, gently hued drama about "emotional and spiritual misfits" struggling to find a purpose for their lives. Centered around a newspaper for truckers (also titled The Few), the characters strive to connect others through personal ads while searching for how to connect themselves.

To introduce you to their characters, we asked our three featured actors to put together their own set of personal ads -- the ones their characters might write for themselves -- as a way to go beyond the usual "meet the cast" post. We hope their words here inspire you to check out Sam Hunter's in a few weeks!

Mitch Bultman (Matthew)

Mitch Bultman is from Wauwatosa and is thrilled to be making his Milwaukee Chamber Theatre debut. Mitch was most recently seen in Forward Theater’s production of 4000 MILES directed by Jen Uphoff Gray.
Mitch is currently a resident teaching artist with First Stage Children’s Theater in Milwaukee and has worked locally on stage with First Stage, Bunny Gumbo, and others. He spent a year studying classical text at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London and performed as Henry in HENRY V at the Globe.

Mitch has had the privilege of working with and been directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Tim Carroll, Michael Sexton, William Carden and others. Mitch holds a BFA in theater from Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Mary MacDonald Kerr (QZ)

Mary is thrilled to be acting at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre again. Her last show here was THE DETECTIVE'S WIFE. Other favorite Chamber shows include THE SWEETEST SWING IN BASEBALL, JOE EGG, THREE DAYS OF RAIN, VOICE OF THE TURTLE and BEAST ON THE MOON. Mary has also acted in productions at Renaissance Theatreworks, Milwaukee Rep, First Stage, Milwaukee Shakespeare and Next Act Theatre.

Mary is also a director, whose most recent project was LUNA GALE for Renaissance Theatreworks. Her other directing credits include CRIMES OF THE HEART at MCT, THE GLASS MENAGERIE at In Tandem and GOING TO ST. IVES at Next Act, among others.

James Ridge (Bryan)
James first performed with MCT in the Shaw Festival, where he appeared in TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD and WAITING FOR GODOT. He and director C. Michael Wright have collaborated on the projects UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL and DICKENS IN AMERICA, as well as A NIGHT IN NOVEMBER and STONES IN HIS POCKETS for Next Act Theatre. 

James is a core company member of American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI where he recently completed his 19th season with the repertory company. Past roles at APT include Iago, Teach, Richard III, Puck, Shylock, Petruchio, Tartuffe, Didi, Malvolio, Col. Pickering and Lickcheese.
He now directs the CTM (Madison) production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL in which he played Scrooge for 4 seasons.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

I'm Just Looking For...

by Julie Ferris

There was a time in our recent history when marriage was first and foremost an enterprise that joined families and protected their lineage. Holy unions positioned oneself in society. And, of course, another reason to connect one’s life to another in a legally binding way has always been present: Money.

Yet, for most of us, we may engage in coupledom, partnership and even marriage for another wholly impractical and fantastical set of reasons—love and companionship.

But shifting our cultural standards of how to meet and marry, how to date and how to find that other half, has been slow. For more than 300 years, personal ads have been a tool to connect, and for nearly as many years, they’ve had their critics.

From Lonely to Looking
Noga Arikha’s essay, “Swiping right in the 1700s: The Evolution of Personal Ads” reminds us that the first personal ad published, by one Helen Morrison in 1727, landed its author in an asylum for a month as a result of this shockingly autonomous practice our culture wasn’t ready for. 

Arikha adds that “the values that had sustained the inherited rules of matrimony were changing during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries…ideals associated with romantic love were taking center stage at a time when Romantic reactions to a rationalized, industrializing world emphasized the individual, lonely soul,” (2009).

We were seeking companions because we were just plain lonely.

And despite whatever changes have happened to the technology of personal ads, from phoning in a print order to the profile picture-driven profiles of today’s “must love dogs” online matchmaking services, one thing remains true. Anonymity is the key.

The People Behind the Pen
The requisite intimate qualities and fantasies can be publicly shared and assessed only because they represent a person we have not yet met, who we do not know live and in the flesh. This concept isn’t new to popular culture, either. The Shop Around the Corner, later modernized as You’ve Got Mail, features a lead couple who know one another in person—frustrations and all—and then both rely on a personal ad-style connection where they write letters or chat, not realizing until the end that the poets at the end of the pen, saying all the right things, are indeed the same shopkeeper and businessman who are friendly foes in everyday life.

The safety included in anonymity has carried through all 300 years of personal advertising. From the ability to ignore all responses delivered to your post box to never swiping right, for the tiny sum of a few personal details, you purchase the right to remain safely behind your ad, unexposed in your choice-making. 

Anonymity is the thesis and catharsis of Rupert Holmes’ 1979 hit, often called “The Piña Colada Song” (actually named “Escape”).

A bored, lonely husband sings about his dissatisfaction in his partner and how he searched newspaper personal ads to see what his options were. The woman who wrote about the now famous piña coladas piques his interest and he responds. When the pair finally meet, both are shocked to see the other standing before them.
A form of confession, this sharing of secrets allows the writer to embody a person they hope to be, to showcase those qualities they want cherished and hope the perfect other is one drawn to these quirks. If your confession that you lick the microwave popcorn bag, don’t like ice cream or only read entertainment magazines and nothing more and someone responds, your match is made.

You’re Not Alone
The validation available to you when someone responds to these bold presentations of what’s “wrong” with you by cultural standards provides a kind of love. It provides forgiveness and verifies you can still fit in the social order. Your strange habit that, by all cultural measures is “different,” becomes sanctioned when another hears about it and continues to move forward, treating you as a regular member of society and importantly, telling you you’re not alone.

Pew Market Research says more than one third of those using online dating sites haven’t ever actually gone on a date with someone they met there. One third of personal ad or app users are engaging each other without even meeting because the gesture of having someone respond to self you’ve shared in and of itself is a connection.

300 Years and Going Strong
Today, the industry has exponentially amplified its profitability with online advertising and matchmaking services. There is, of course, an app for that. In fact, of the $2.9 billion dating industry, 70% of this annual profit is derived from online dating sites.

But personal ads were always profitable. Framed often as “classified” and purchased through the sales group of papers and magazines, advertisers paid for the privilege of creating a profile. Originally, publishers would offer a reply program: As readers responded to your ad, the paper would collect the mailed-in responses and deliver them to you, often weekly. Publishers soon began leveraging premium-rate telephone numbers to entice writers to publish their ad for free, but those replying via phone call must pay the premium rate. Newspapers charge by the character — a throwback to old typeset processes — and therefore, abbreviation and acronym became their own economy of love. Researchers note how this industry jargon has moved forward into today’s online dating as well.

The Lonely Hearts Club Cast of THE FEW
In THE FEW, personals remain the profitable choice for such a small publication. But, true to the history of personal ads, the play embraces the lonely over-the-road truck driver. This is one of many landmarks in the practice’s evolution. In the early 1900s, personal ads saw a resurgence as Western farmers wrote to solicit love and practical assistance. From housekeepers to wife material, this isolated group leveraged personal ads to improve their situation. A different sort of request—pen pals—became the hallmark of World War II soldiers using the same mechanism to connect with others.  

So, when we enter the publishing office of THE FEW, we immediately see instant and obvious hallmarks of the personal ad. A need for capital, flexing the economy of the paid service, is keeping the paper afloat. On the edge of a potential millennium breakdown, the 1999 setting also prompts an uptick in ad sales, further demonstrating that finding love, or, as some advertisers suggest in their ads, just companionship, is more essential now than ever.

The lonely, secluded setting of northern Idaho and the desolate profession of traveling the country alone in a big rig embody the more recent history of the practice.

When we meet the characters, we also see remnants of other popular plays on the anonymous ad. The man in the letters becomes someone not only validated by your response, but he becomes larger than life, more ideal than the man standing before you. On paper, he’s piña coladas and getting drunk in the rain.

THE FEW gives us another insight, however, and presents an important counterpoint to my case.

If anonymity is the key to personal ads working, what we learn from Hunter’s characters is that it’s their desperation to no longer be anonymous that drives them. All lonely, all looking for connection, those who manage the personal ads may be the most in need of validation and acknowledgement. They are the most in need of relationships with another.

In fact, THE FEW becomes a case study in how those who enable the search for connection through this time-tested model come to quickly realize they, too, are also looking. For validation. For companionship. For love. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

American Misfits

by John M. Baker

Playwright Sam Hunter
Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Sam Hunter’s plays take us down roads not frequently traveled on the American stage. Anchored in small towns and cities throughout the landlocked state of Idaho, the plays are often set in unglamorous locations and populated by characters on the margins of society. From the tarnished evangelical in A BRIGHT NEW BOISE seeking employment at a Hobby Lobby craft store to the 600-pound online teacher in THE WHALE eating himself to death in his apartment, Hunter's characters find themselves in simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary circumstances, navigating big questions of modern life. With his growing body of work, Hunter is slowly mapping what he calls “a quotidian America that is often hidden behind curtains and doors.” In the process, he’s capturing the beauty and ugliness, the fragility and ruggedness, the banality and spirituality of living in America in the 21st century. 

Though New York City is Hunter’s home now, his roots are firmly planted in Idaho. Born and raised in the state’s panhandle, Hunter can trace his family’s lineage back six generations to the region’s first homesteaders. This deep-seated connection to the Northwest — like Horton Foote and the South — is only part of why Hunter frequently sets his plays in his home state. “Idaho has become a useful landscape,” he explains, “because people don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about it.” You’ve probably never set foot in the towns of Hunter’s plays, but there’s still something recognizable about the employee lounge in A BRIGHT NEW BOISE, the one-bedroom apartment in THE WHALE, and the lobby of the assisted living home in REST. “Which is really helpful,” he continues, “because it allows me to make something pan-American.” 

Morbidly obese writing instructor Charlie (Matthew Arkin) and his friend and caretaker Liz (Blake Lindsley) share a moment in this image from South Coast Repertory's West Coast premiere of THE WHALE (2013). Photo: Scott Brinegar.
Within these familiar and foreign landscapes, Hunter places characters from a particular walk of life. They’re Middle Americans: big-box store employees, nurses, a retired music professor, a former night watchman, a missionary. “I think the prevalence of upper middle class and upper class characters in our plays is surprising,” explains Hunter, “especially given the fact that the majority of America is not these people.” More specifically, Hunter is fascinated by the people living on the fringes of acceptability in these small towns. “The stories my dad told me about people from his hometown were just incredible,” he explained to David Rooney of The New York Times. “Like the guy who used to go to my grandpa’s grocery store: My dad had to deliver food to him, and his house was full of dead cats. You hear about somebody like that, and you think, ‘What is the story of that person?’” 

While a closeted gay teen in northern Idaho, Hunter attended a fundamentalist Christian high school and worked part-time at the local Walmart, which informs why so many of his plays center on characters living in quiet desperation, hungering for something greater. “Most of my plays are about seeking hope and meaning,” says Hunter, “and religion is the eternal well of hope and meaning for most Americans. It so shaped my childhood growing up in Idaho and going to a religious school, and so I see it in the larger cultural dialogue a lot. Mostly I write about it because people don't seem to want to talk about it.” Even when nonbelievers populate the plays, they still “point to the divine,” as Hunter says, whether it’s by way of Melville in THE WHALE or Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in REST. 

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre pitted actors Michael Laurence and Tasha Lawrence against each other as former lovers Bryan and QZ in its Off-Broadway premiere of THE FEW (2014). Photo: Joan Marcus.
“Hunter’s characters live in an Idaho where the divine smacks up against the banal, where their expansive worldviews create a profound disconnection to their quotidian surroundings,” writes Adam Greenfield, director of new play development at NYC’s Playwrights Horizons. “They’re as lost within Idaho’s suburban sprawl as they are within the cosmos, each one struggling with a fundamental part of his or her self — whether it’s religion, sexuality, ethics, or a cocktail of all these things — that doesn’t fit into their surroundings or daily lives.” 

American culture is certainly a part of the topography Hunter is mapping, but he’s not writing “issue” plays. Although he weaves topics like obesity, the Rapture, and gay conversion therapy into his scripts, as literary manager Douglas Langworthy of The Denver Center Theatre Company puts it, “they are never about these issues.” Rather, at the forefront of Hunter’s plays are his emotional and spiritual misfits — drawn with sensitivity — mirroring back to us their experience of Middle America today.  

John M. Baker is a dramaturg and the Artistic Leadership Fellow at The Lark, an international theatre laboratory based in New York. He is also the associate producer of Partial Comfort Productions in NYC, interim literary manager and dramaturg at Long Wharf Theatre and has formerly worked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Versions of this article originally appeared in playbills for productions of REST at South Coast Repertory and Victory Gardens.