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.
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.
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.
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.
By the numbers
*All stats according to First Stage’s 2017-18 annual impact report
Total audience members
largest theater company in Milwaukee
total young performers
total adult performers
schools that participated in First Stage’s Theater in Education
of the participants in the Theater Academy reported improved self-confidence
students received scholarships to take part in First Stage programming
straight years with a balanced budget (take that Wisconsin state government)