Photo by Sara Stathas
On a brisk October Saturday – a day when teenagers are typically trying skateboard tricks or sleeping in after a late-night Facebook gabfest – 75 high schoolers are instead listening intently to talks about “antitheses” and “kinesthetic response.”
They are scattered around the Schlitz Park-area Milwaukee Youth Arts Center amid other classes at First Stage Theater Academy. But members of the so-called Young Company are stage veterans to some degree. And this is serious work.
In a large hall, 20 students walk over a glowing amber wood floor while instructor Matt Daniels talks them through a “viewpoints” exercise, helping them think about how actors inhabit the space of a theater. In another large hall, Karl Miller leads a group in high-energy choreography.
The exercise is very different down the hall. In a smaller classroom, 20 other students listen to Marcy Kearns talk about the language of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Student Kyle Madigan, working on the moment in Shakespeare’s play when Marc Antony discovers Julius Caesar stabbed to death, explores the opposite ideas (“thesis and antithesis”) of the speech: “O, mighty Caesar. Dost thou lie so low?”
Actors in the largest group are all here for the first time, and they sit campfire-style around John Maclay, director of the Young Company. The order of business is auditions, and Maclay calls for volunteers. Hands shoot up, and Mallorey Wallace confidently stands and makes her entrance, introducing herself and her monologue from Romeo and Juliet. Maclay stops her after a few seconds, the sound of Shakespeare’s first line hanging in the room. He looks around the audience. “Positive comments?” Quick answers from the group: “She sounded welcoming.” “She seemed physically comfortable.” More compliments. “Snaps for that,” Maclay says, and the audience snaps fingers in the preferred mode of applause.
Then comes the work, and Maclay digs into the details of Wallace’s short presentation. Telling the group about the importance of attentiveness and detail, he sums it up with an intimidating and noble call to the art of theater: “You have to change the world with words – that’s what actors do.”
It’s all heady stuff for the high school demographic, but since the Young Company was formed 10 years ago, it has developed into one of the most-envied theater-training programs in the country. First Stage alumni have been placed in the nation’s top theater schools (including Northwestern University and Juilliard School), and recruiters routinely visit to scout the newest crop of talent. Recruiters tell Maclay that this is a place they keep their eyes on. Company members are invited to perform in shows, both at home and at national competitions, but the Young Company experience is primarily about this Saturday morning work. And it is work.
THE WALKING DEAD
The teen actors will stage one bloody performance.
Life in Young Company isn’t all iambic pentameter and classical tragedy. The Bard has been on their minds this fall (in October, a group won several awards at the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s high school competition), but the students have had different kinds of “bloody deeds” in mind, preparing to perform Mitch Brian’s horror-comedy, Maul of the Dead.
It’s a little bit George Romero, and a little bit Saturday Night Fever. And a lot of fun.
“That’s exactly the point,” says Theater Academy Director Jennifer Adams, who will direct the show. “They do a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of deep, heavy material. But there is all kinds of theater out there, and this gives them a chance to spread their wings in a different way.”
Since this is a zombie musical comedy, wings are not literally involved. But there is plenty of blood, rotting flesh, and hacked off limbs – special stage effects that present their own acting challenges.
Adams expects the cast to rise from the dead, er, to these challenges. “They are tremendous,” she says, “not only as actors, but as young people. At auditions the other day, I was blown away at how fearless they are, wanting to take a risk and make big character choices. But [they are] also fearless in supporting each other on stage and off. They are just kind of amazing.”
Maul of the Dead
Dec. 6-8. First Stage’s Young Company. Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. 325 W. Walnut St. 414-267-2961, firststage.org.
Just ask Laura Mesrobian, Kiaran Hartnett and Maxwell Mainwood, seniors who are serious about performing careers. Sitting in a conference room after more than three hours of classes, they are poised and articulate, a testament to First Stage’s emphasis on personal growth as well as theater training. All of them are looking to study theater in college, but their work with First Stage isn’t only about that.
“For me, it’s about trying to find yourself as an actor,” says Mainwood, a senior at New Berlin Eisenhower High School. “All the things we do here are designed to help you discover something new.”
“I plan to study psychology as well as theater,” says Hartnett, who attends Whitefish Bay High School. “Even if I don’t end up in theater, the skills you learn here help you in so many ways – just communicating with people.”
And Mesrobian – also a classmate at Whitefish Bay – makes the strongest claim for the Young Company: “As an actor, you learn to empathize with people. It’s just a good way to generally be a better person.”
This would be music to Maclay’s ears, who believes strongly in the First Stage mission of teaching life skills first and theater second. But in recent years, the curriculum of the Young Company training has taken a step forward. “This year,” Maclay says, “the majority of students said they wanted something more challenging. So we decided we would teach them what we learned in college – in a truncated way. And they really responded to that.”
But even as the material gets more sophisticated, the insights come from within.
“They don’t tell you what to discover,” says Mainwood, describing some of the personal breakthroughs he’s made during his time in the Young Company. “They want you to make those discoveries yourself, and when you do that, it’s more meaningful. You carry them with you.”