Through intentional script and acting choices, an inclusive and accepting mindset, the purpose of Milwaukee's second-largest theater company is clear: helping young people achieve their potential.

First Stage isn’t kids’ theater. There aren’t any Teletubbies or childish gimmicks in these shows, although there could be a fart joke or two depending on what the script calls for.

Young casts wrestle with grown-up themes, working alongside adult professional actors who oftentimes take a backing role to youthful leads.

Thanks to First Stage’s all-inclusive ethos, there’s something for everybody on both sides of the fourth wall.


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First Stage Theater

325 W. Walnut St.
Capacity: 498
Season: 6 mainstage plays September-June
facebook.com/firststage
firststage.org

Purpose

“The Wiz,” photo courtesy of First Stage.

The primary purpose here is helping young people grow. Through the First Stage Theater Academy, which is considered the nation’s largest theater training program for youth with as many as 3,000 enrollments yearly, students learn to take risks and strengthen their self-esteem first — the thespian lessons come second.

With such a wide reach, First Stage finds the kids who will often end up leading adult theater programs. One First Stage grad, Jeremy Tardy, is making it in Hollywood with a central role in Marvel’s New Warriors on ABC and credits in projects ranging from Dear White People to War Dogs.

Planning

First Stage, Big River

Ben Kindler, DiMonte Henning and cast; photo by Paul Ruffolo

Rarely will First Stage take on overly weighty or depressing King Lear-esque scripts. Despite the professional focus, it’s still a kid-focused company.

There’s an overarching air of positivity. The intent for audiences is to have them leave with a positive outlook, but enlightened.

Heading into the 2018-19 season, Artistic Director Jeff Frank appropriately referred to First Stage as “the trailblazer.”

That year, mixed casts of actors took on adaptations of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. None of these shows avoided tough topics — racism for Huck, dysfunctional families in Matilda, infidelity in The Crucible — but the performances are of course kept family-friendly.

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Inclusion

First Stage refers to itself as an “Equity Theater for Young Audiences.” For adult performers, that means that not all actors have to be affiliated with a union. And by employing “age-appropriate casting,” performances don’t fall into the uncanny valley of having some teenager pretend they’re 8 years old.

Beyond that, First Stage also has the Next Steps program for actors with autism and other sensory-processing disorders. The instructor-student ratio in Next Steps is 2:1 — and sometimes as hands-on as 1:1 — allowing those kids to get on stage without the stressful burnout that can sometimes come with traditional theater.

There are also sensory-friendly performances for the other shows each season, where lights are dimmed and crowd sizes are shrunk, allowing different groups of people to still enjoy the theater.

Holes, First Stage. Photo courtesy of First Stage

By the numbers

*All stats according to First Stage’s 2017-18 annual impact report

120,505

Total audience members

428

Total performances

2nd

largest theater company in Milwaukee

184

total young performers

60

total adult performers

98

schools that participated in First Stage’s Theater in Education

90%

of the participants in the Theater Academy reported improved self-confidence

630

students received scholarships to take part in First Stage programming

17

straight years with a balanced budget (take that Wisconsin state government)

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