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A critically acclaimed screenwriter and best-selling author is opening an incubator for local creatives.

Milwaukee native John Ridley – best known for penning the Academy Award-winning script for the 2013 smash-hit 12 Years a Slave – announced today that he’s moving forward with plans to open No Studios, a creative arts hub in downtown Milwaukee.

Ridley and his business partner, County Executive Chris Abele, have purchased a 40,000-square-foot building in the Pabst Brewery Complex on McKinley Ave. The two are currently overseeing extensive renovations to the building, intent upon transforming it into a profitable creative hub for filmmakers and other artists.  

The building will feature a 50-seat screening room, food and beverage services, galleries, a rooftop event space and studio spaces available for short- and long-term leases.

According to a recent press release, “The name No Studios was hand-picked by Ridley and embodies a double meaning. No is the Japanese root word for skill, talent, artistic endeavor, while the English word no is one that artists hear many times throughout their careers and yet continue to create, in spite of many obstacles.”

No Studios is slated to open some time in September with a weekend of special programming – including film screenings, performances, readings, art exhibitions and discussions.

John Ridley

John Ridley discussing his plans for No Studios

Ridley sat down with us this afternoon to answer some of our burning questions about the studio space and his work:

How could a creative arts hub help revitalize Milwaukee?

I certainly hope it could encourage artists who already here to do more, to share their stories, to get those stories across the country and around the world.

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Local films like Blood at the Doorstep have resonated – fortunately and unfortunately – with citizens in cities across America. So if we can provide a space for artists to come in and work and meet other like-minded individuals, that’s terrific. If we can build a conduit from Milwaukee to other cities, that’s terrific.

This is a wonderful, vibrant city. It’s dealing with so many of the issues that many other cities are dealing with. But it’s also small enough to allow a few determined individuals to make a real difference. People like you and me can change it for the better.

Will you be visiting Milwaukee often to help oversee the space?

We have a team in place that’s overseeing the infrastructure of the building itself. Steve Mech is very much a part of that and my sister [New York-based investment banker Lisa Caesar] too. And I’m in Los Angeles with a team of individuals working on branding and awareness, while also thinking about issues that Milwaukee Film and the Milwaukee Filmmaker Alliance might be sensitive to. What can we do to be brand ambassadors for them in other spaces?

Will No Studios focus on fostering local talent or on bringing national talent to Milwaukee?

We want to find ways to build relationships outside of the Milwaukee area. And part of that is trying to be a driver, trying to bring people in and provide them with experiences at No Studios that they can’t find anywhere else.

We want to be able to say to all kinds of folks that there are things here that you should be interested in, to communicate to people who might otherwise feel excluded that you can be a part of what’s going on. That’s part of why we decided to establish ourselves as a for-profit business. It enables us to set up special screenings, say, of Black Panther, or a local film like Blood at the Doorstep – the work we’re doing on the one end will help sustain the work we’re doing on the other.

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It sounds like audience engagement is important to you too.

Absolutely. And I think the audience is here. If a filmmaker or actor or artist is coming through the city, I’d love to be able to invite them to the studios for a talk-back. I absolutely believe in the importance of audience engagement, and I see it as my job to cultivate that engagement.

Shifting gears, why did you want to become a writer? Was it something you always wanted, even while growing up in Milwaukee?

Not having any other marketable skills – it felt like writing was about it for me. Oddly enough, I didn’t much like to read or write as a kid. I liked film. I liked seeing stories, but I couldn’t find many people like myself in those stories. Over the years, it’s been gratifying to try to create spaces for people to tell stories like mine, and to see a lot of individuals tell stories about identity, or gender, or socioeconomic differences.

I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been able to do what I’m passionate about.

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