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Onstage Chemistry
One local theater embraces small projects in DIY style.

Photo by Kat Schleicher
On a balmy evening in April, Aaron Kopec and Erica Case are right where you’d expect – in the theater/bar they own in Bay View. Case is behind the bar, laughing with friends. Kopec, looking rumpled in a dark corduroy jacket, is milling around the room making preparations for the night ahead. It’s not an unusual scene, but it’s only half the story at Alchemist.

To see the other half, step through the door near the cash register/box office and into the 64-seat black box theater. The show’s about to begin. Tonight, it’s In Love…Yet Again, a musical comedy by and starring Jason Powell. The set consists of a few chairs. Simple costume changes help Powell’s three co-stars slip into different characters. The only instruments in sight are acoustic guitars played by the performers. It’s part confessional monologue, part stand-up comedy and part musical – with smart, well-crafted songs with wit to burn.

This is the essence of Alchemist Theatre, “Ultra True-Definition 3D Entertainment,” as its tongue-in-cheek postcards announce. Price of admission: 12 bucks – sometimes a little more. No passing the hat before the show. No fundraising envelopes in the program. The Alchemist is a for-profit enterprise.

“It’s the obvious model for a lot of entertainment,” says Kopec, whose history in the local music scene includes small-scale recording and producing projects. “There’s the bar, and there’s the back room where the band plays. The band attracts people. You make your money off the drinks. The band keeps the cover charge.”

And it works. The “back room” at Alchemist has hosted dozens of productions since it opened in 2008, a coveted space for Milwaukee’s small, so-called “do-it-yourself” theater companies.

Kopec first worked the stage at Dale Gutzman’s Off the Wall Theatre, a kind of patron saint for Milwaukee’s small theaters. It was there that Kopec first had the idea for a theater/bar combination, but Gutzman wasn’t interested. So Kopec and Case leased a former copy machine repair shop in the heart of Bay View and went out on their own.

“We decided to take the leap,” says Case, who has a business degree from Alverno College and works as a human resources manager at Harley-Davidson. Kopec, eager to realize his idea from Off the Wall, spent six months gutting the space and rebuilding walls. They bought used movie theater seats and reupholstered them themselves (the original seats have since been replaced). And then, in 2008, Alchemist opened. They rent the space “dirt cheap” to local theater and improv groups. And the Alchemist also produces its own shows, which have grown in scale and ambition – Kopec’s adaptation of Faust last year was an environmental drama that played out in eight different locations around the building. It sold out before opening night.

Alchemist also started Project Empty Space last year, further establishing itself as the center of Milwaukee DIY theater. “People come to us with an idea,” Case says. “And we help them make it happen. Marketing, scheduling, technical advice, casting. We produce it completely.” So far, the shows have included a Ray Bradbury adaptation, the Marlo Thomas musical Free to Be You and Me, and an adaptation of a local writer’s novel.

And local theatergoers have taken note.

“There are a lot of people in Milwaukee who don’t know small theater even exists,” Kopec says. “They know there’s a gigantic complex Downtown where you went to on field trips. But that’s all. People walk past this building every day, but one day it catches their eye and they stop in.”

Role play 

Photo by Jen Loberg
This month’s show at Alchemist, Juliet and Romeo, is the product of a typical Alchemist collaboration. David Kaye, who runs Bad Example Productions, first came to Alchemist in 2010. “I always wanted to see a stage version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451,” Kaye says. “Aaron [Kopec] had a space. I said, ‘Hey, can I give you some money?’ He said, ‘Yes, please.’”

Since then, Kaye has returned with an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and a production of Cannibal! the Musical, written by Trey Parker (“South Park”). Juliet and Romeo is Kaye’s “gender-flipped” retelling of Shakespeare’s tragic love story. Inspired by the recent debates over gay marriage, Kaye and co-writer Theresa Stefaniak set the story in a matriarchal society where female same-sex couples are the norm and men are not allowed to marry. And it’s the women who get the great onstage swordplay.

“There are a few places I could do shows,” says Kaye, “but this place is incredibly comfortable. It’s very much a home to me and the company. I don’t have any background in technical stuff, and Aaron helps me with that.”

Kaye has a day job offering financial counseling to cancer patients, so he welcomes the “escape” of doing plays but only plans to produce one or two a year. “Since I’m producing, I get to do the shows that I want to see,” he says. “My goal is to get the show up, drop a little money into the actors’ pockets and move on to the next.”

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