Broadway Is Open, and Now, So Are Milwaukee’s Community Theaters

The local community theater scene comes together to brave the uphill climb back.

After the unprecedented drought, local theaters are thirsty and thriving to bring live theater back to Milwaukee’s stages. 

Some organizations, like Greendale Community Theater who performed its last show, Rock of Ages, in January of 2020, have been dark for almost two years, while others, like The Waukesha Civic, were able to offer some creative opportunities virtually. 

Local and state grants like the COVID-19 Cultural Organization Grant, the COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Grant and the Milwaukee County Cares Act Grants for Arts and Culture supported local theaters, among other organizations, in keeping staff at work to creatively solve how to keep theater alive through this isolated time.

The Sunset Playhouse was able to use the time to install a new stage floor and repaint areas of the theater. The Waukesha Civic, likewise, gave a few areas in its theater a facelift and was able to continue fundraising efforts for its $3 million expansion project. Lake Country Playhouse installed an ionization filtration system like those used in hospitals, which Artistic Director Sandra Baker-Renick says they’re hopeful will not only make patrons safer from COVID exposure, but also common winter exposure to other viruses. 

This financial support also allowed theaters to make decisions that honored their integrity with artists and patrons. The Falls Patio Players, among many other organizations, had to cancel a large musical, The Music Man, mid-production thanks to the shutdown. They chose to honor their staff stipends and refund tickets that were already purchased.

 

 

“As a theater company, we had never experienced something like this before,” says Jenna Reetz, president of Falls Patio Players. “We had to kind of come together as a team and figure out how we were going to make that work.”

Now as audiences return to the theater, the changes they’ll see go deeper than the new paint on the walls. 

The Waukesha Civic Theater spent much of the time having critical conversations around diversity and equitable practices to set goals of representation in the theater in works, authorship, production teams, artistic direction, staffing, and the board of directors. 

“What we learned from the pandemic is say yes more often than you say no,” Waukesha Civic Theater Executive Director Rhonda Schmidt says. “Make room for things that maybe aren’t always a part of us. That’s how you make authentic change. If you keep doing the same things, expecting a different result or expecting something to change, it won’t.”

Selecting shows has been one of the many challenges faced by theaters as they resurrect. Many have had to go back to the drawing board to plan their 2021-2022 seasons. While work in the virtual space allowed some of the theaters to recoup portions of their originally-planned seasons, to some degree, all of the theaters are now having to rethink shows as they reopen.

Some were able to transfer rights for previously-selected shows, yet many are having to be strategic in selecting shows that will keep cast sizes and expenditures to a minimum, yet still “give the audiences what they want” says Dawn Molly Dewane, president of Village Playhouse.  

Even obtaining rights for desired shows hasn’t come easy. Reetz at Patio Players says because rights houses had to be creative with staffing during the COVID shutdown, and now with the sudden burst of activity as theaters come back, there are a lot of holding patterns on obtaining rights based on what else is being put up throughout the nation.

Amidst these challenges, it seems there is no shortage of interested talent.

As new audition notices are being posted, directors are seeing much larger turnouts as artists are hungry to return to the creative outlet they’ve been lacking for the past year and a half. Tim Backes, artistic director at Greendale Community Theater, said they saw over 50 people audition for 11-12 roles in their upcoming musical, Little Women. 

While some audiences seem excited to be back, the overall turnout theaters are seeing has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic state. 

Dwane at Village Playhouse says audience turnout in recent shows is as low as 40-50% of the traditional turnout. She predicts some people are still hesitant to venture out and sit among groups in a theater.  Schmidt at Waukesha Civic Theater said they’ve reached only about 50% of their normal season ticket sales. 

Additional decision making in how to keep actors and audiences safe is another new challenge to local theaters. From masking for rehearsals, to masking for shows, to requesting masking and social distancing for audiences, theaters have enacted a number of safety protocols driven by CDC guidelines to keep actors and audiences safe. While none have yet moved toward making requirements of audiences, some groups like Lake Country Playhouse are requiring actors and production staff to be vaccinated in order to participate. 

To help make these difficult decisions, theaters are now coming together as a community to share ideas and best practices. 

“We share the same actors, we share several of the same patrons and ushers, and we are a community,” Schmidt at Waukesha Civic Theater says. “It’s not just, you know, our little community. It’s really a large community of community theaters.”

Collaboration and discussion about these difficult decisions has allowed area theaters to build, grow and move forward through uncharted territory to continue to preserve this “unique space in our world where people come together, especially in community theater, and give so much of their time and talent for no fiscal reimbursement, or very little,” Reetz at Patio Players says. 

While the challenges are great, Schmidt at Waukesha Civic Theater says they value the resulting growth and its impact on the future. 

“Let’s nurture those who have been impacted tremendously by the pandemic. Let’s ask for help from those who have been a little less affected. Let’s bring community together. And let’s…let’s keep going.” 

Here is a collection of some of the live community theater returning to Milwaukee this holiday season. For information about ticket sales and specific COVID protocols, visit the theater websites or contact their box offices. 

Lake Country Playhouse 

221 E. CAPITOL DR., HARTLAND 

  • A Christmas Carol, Musical, Dec. 2-12

Sunset Playhouse 

700 WALL ST., ELM GROVE

  • Mainstage Musical Production: She Loves Me, Dec. 2-Dec. 19
  • Sidenotes Cabaret Series: Ella Meets Mel, Dec. 8-Dec. 12

Waukesha Civic Theater 

264 W. MAIN ST., WAUKESHA

  • Sister Act, Dec. 3-Dec. 19
  • Cabaret series: Joel Kopischke’s I Got Yule, Babe Dec. 15-16

Falls Patio Players

PERFORMED AT NORTH MIDDLE SCHOOL AUDITORIUM | N88 W16750 GARFIELD DR., MENOMONEE FALLS

  • Christmas Carol, Dec. 3-5

Greendale Community Theater

PERFORMED AT GREENDALE HIGH SCHOOL | 6801 SOUTHWAY, GREENDALE

  • Little Women, Jan. 6-8, 13-15

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