In June of 1990, Next Act Theatre was created with the merger of Next Generation Theatre and Theatre Tesseract. Next Act began its journey with a subscriber base of 1,000. Leading the ambitious new theatre company were Producer Jane Barclay Mandel, Artistic Director Jonathan Smoots and Associate Artistic Director David Cecsarini.
1990 – 1992
Playing in the Public Library’s Centennial Hall, the first two years were an exercise in patience for this young theatre company. The work was critically acclaimed but the 8th and Wisconsin location proved a challenge for attracting new audiences. Near the end of its second year, Smoots and Cecsarini realized that, to survive, they needed to move Next Act downtown.
1992 – 1993
In 1992, Next Act performed in the Todd Wehr and Stiemke Theaters. Despite seeing positive sales and backed by the strong support of angel Jack Rosenberg, Next Act embarked on a reduced, three-production season. At this time, Smoots stepped down as Producing Director and Cecsarini took over the role, while Smoots stayed on as Artistic Associate for another three seasons.
Cecsarini was in need of a business partner and in the summer of 1992, Charles Kakuk, who was working in marketing at the Milwaukee Ballet, reached out. His phone call began a long and successful relationship with Cecsarini and the company as Kakuk brought many administrative talents to Next Act.
1993 – 1995
The next two seasons saw encouraging growth as the theatre continued to stage three productions per year at the Stiemke Theater.
1995 – 1998
By the 1995-96 season, the company added a fourth production to its season. Tight schedules at the Stiemke Theater made it necessary to secure an alternate space for one of the productions each year. The Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, the Humphrey Masonic Center and Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre supplied those additional venues through the years. The Next Act staff grew as C. Michael Wright joined the team as Associate Artistic Director in 1996 and Jonathan West took on Marketing and Development in 1997.
1998 – 2000
Seeing a need to establish a home space that could accommodate Next Act’s growing number of theatre patrons, a goal was set to build a theatre which would seat between 150-175 patrons. A suitable and affordable venue was not found, however, so an interim, 99-seat theatre space was created at 342 N. Water Street on the second floor. Housed in the same building as Next Act’s offices and rehearsal space, the Off-Broadway Theatre (named by Jack Rosenberg) opened in early 2000. The first production was A NIGHT IN NOVEMBER, a contemporary, Irish one-man show starring James Ridge, directed by Wright.
The summer of 2000 also marked the third season of Next Actors: Summer Theatre for Teens. Next Actors is a six-week program that gives up to 20 students the opportunity to experience playwriting and performance. With the guidance of professional teaching artists, the students create, produce and perform an original play. The program culminates in a week-long performance tour to senior and community centers and a final benefit performance at Next Act Theatre. There is no cost to participate in the Next Actors program.
2005 – 2010
These five years saw more changes for Next Act, as Wright left to assume Artistic Directorship at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. In addition, the Off-Broadway building was sold and Next Act once again faced the challenge of creating a new theatre space. In 2010, Next Act staged its final production at the Off-Broadway, the 2010 Next Actors Benefit performance. The Journey Home Capital Campaign to build Next Act’s new Walker’s Point facility began with critical initial support from subscribers and generous benefactors David and Julia Uihlein.
2010 – 2011
Next Act’s 2010-11 season was housed at the Tenth Street Theatre while offices and rehearsal space were temporarily located at 219 N. Milwaukee Street. Construction for Next Act’s new home began in May 2011 with a tight completion deadline of October 6, 2011, in time for the first performance of the 22nd season.
2011 – 2012
Next Act opened its new home at 255 S. Water Street with the powerful play THE EXONERATED. Next Act now had a dynamic new home with 152 seats that embraced an intimate, three-sided thrust stage.
The new facility brought with it an expansion of Next Act’s mission: to provide affordable performance space for other companies, emerging groups and independent artists.
2012 – present
Shortly before the 2014-15 season began, Kakuk lost his long battle with cancer. “He has truly given us his all and Next Act survives as a testament to his determination and commitment,” Cecsarini said.
Within four seasons in its new space, Next Act had retired all construction debt. Recent seasons have seen the company grow into its new space, complete theatre improvement projects and welcome new patrons.
The company faced challenges during its 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including show cancellations and the need to adapt plays to video format for online viewing. Dedicated artists, patrons, donors and staff helped the company weather the storm, however, and Next Act returned for in-person performances in fall 2021.
In the 2021-22 season, Renaissance Theaterworks, an established local theatre company dedicated to promoting the work of female authors and artists, made 255 S. Water Street its artistic home.
In the 2022-23 season, David Cecsarini retired as Producing Artistic Director, a role he had held at the theatre for 30 years, handing the reins to current Artistic Director Cody Estle.
Next Act Theatre continues to offer a four-production season of compelling and thought-provoking plays, enjoying a loyal and growing patron base. The company is particularly noted for its acting excellence, accessible performance style and for a varied and consistently interesting selection of stories. Next Act has mounted more than 100 main stage productions, most of them being area premieres, and seven original scripts.
For a printable version of our history, please download our History Document.