Rebecca Moder – Next Act Theatre

Standing By to Lend a Hand

by Christine Yündem, Ticket Office Manager

It’s almost an hour until performance time and there are already people bustling about in the theatre lobby. They are volunteer ushers, signing in, donning their badges, meeting with the House Manager, sharing information and prepping programs for the soon-to-arrive audience. Greeting patrons, taking their tickets and locating seats, these friendly folks appreciate theatre-goers and are always ready to provide any extra information or assistance that may be helpful.

Each of our four regular-season productions requires a total of 154 ushers through the run, and independent productions that rent the Next Act Theatre space also benefit by using our reliable, experienced ushers corps.

And Next Act truly appreciates its volunteers, not only for the services they provide but for their support of the theatre in the community at large. Some loyal volunteers have been with us for decades while new recruits come on board each season.  

If you or a friend are interested in finding out more about volunteering for Next Act, please click here or call the Ticket Office at 414-278-0765.

New Year, New Plans

by Grace DeWolff

Next Act is already looking forward to our summer education plans! In the hopes of increasing enrollment, we’ve adjusted programming to accommodate the very busy lives of our students: the Next Actors program will be shortened by a week, and an additional two-week opportunity will be added to the end of the summer in our new Special Skill Development program. I’m excited to tell you all about it!

We’ve noticed that our teens struggle to commit to six weeks of programming (five weeks of developing a show, and one week of touring that show to local communities) so we have shortened the duration of Next Actors. We will still have a full week of touring to local organizations; we are simply removing the intimidation of a blank page from the writing process and instead letting our students work with a theme. “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation,” Orson Wells is alleged to have said. The ideas, specific topics and every word of the script will still be written by our students; we’ll just give them a more limited springboard for their topic. With 2020 being an election year, the topic this summer will be “Democracy.” If our local teens were founding a new country today, what would it look like? Find out in July!

The Special Skill Development program is totally new this year. The current education project of delivering Shakespeare into classrooms has sparked a lot of interest, and students with limited summer availability will now have access to two weeks of intensive Shakespeare study. It is my hope to culminate the two-week program into a free public performance of “Shakespeare in the Park, Jr.” Plans are still being worked out, but everyone at Next Act is passionate about the new project.

Thank you for supporting Next Act and all our past and future students!

30 Never Looked (or Sounded) So Good

As we find ourselves in the midst of our 30th anniversary season and reflecting over the 112 mainstage shows we’ve produced, we asked you about your relationship with Next Act Theatre. What first brought you here? How long have you been a patron? What keeps you coming back? We’ve compiled some of your answers below. Share your favorite memory with us on Facebook or by emailing info@nextact.org.

“From the day we saw Jonathan Smoots in the role of a lonely and isolated fisherman who was in a relationship by mail, while Next Act (then Theatre Tesseract) was still at Lincoln High School for the Arts, we were “hooked.” Over the years, we have enjoyed the consistency of David Cecsarini’s mission of presenting meaningful and thought-provoking shows and look forward with anticipation learning the theme for the next season.

Thank you, Next Act, for providing Milwaukee with Theatre That Matters.

– Norm and Sherry Malmon, season ticket holder

“My wife and I were introduced to NAT by a couple of friends that invited us to join them at a performance. TAKING LEAVE was one of the first shows and we were captivated by the intimate space and the power of the performance. There have been so many great shows over the years that we keep coming back and bringing friends to share the experience.”

Dave Anderson, Board President and season ticket holder

“LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR. Well-casted and well-acted.”

Gary Springman, first-year season ticket holder

“I appreciate the variety that is offered. I tend to not be drawn to highly advertised, greatly hyped shows or “classics” that are done over & over. I’d rather see something that is fresh to me and that offers some food for thought as well as entertainment, and I find that at Next Act.”

Lynda D., season ticket holder since 2016

“I was introduced to Next Act one week after moving to Milwaukee in 2016. I was at the Women of Influence symposium, entered the raffle at your display booth – and won a free subscription. I was hooked after the first show. I don’t think I’ve been familiar with a single show (until this year’s LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR) in your past three seasons… and I’ve loved every one. The shows are always interesting and thought-provoking and I love the talkbacks. The theatre is intimate and I just love everything about what you do. BRAVO!”

Caryn, season ticket holder since 2016

“I would give up my season tickets to any arts organization before I’d give up Next Act!”

Cathy Dills, season ticket holder since 2000

“It’s always a fun experience to see how each component of the play come together to tell a story, or teach us a lesson, and make us laugh or cry. The stage design interpretation, costume designs and acting come together so nicely. We look forward to the rest of the season and enjoy the ‘escape’.”

Christine B, season ticket holder since 2019

“I tend to like dramas better than comedies. My favorite is PAVILION. I like the ambiance of Next Act… EVERYBODY is nice. I remember years ago that I just forgot to go to a play, and Charles gave me tickets for a later performance. I was very impressed with his kindness.”

Russell Brooker, season ticket holder

“We love Next Act! David Cecsarini has his finger on the pulse of Milwaukee theatergoers. His up close and personal approach is what keeps us coming back year after year! Superb acting, inventive plays – and not a bad seat in the house.”

Marianne and Shel Lubar, season ticket holder since 1998

“I have been a subscriber for more than 15 years. So many shows, so little time. I have enjoyed them all; I have learned something from each and every one. Thank you, Next Act Theatre!!”

Joyce, Board Secretary and season ticket holder since 2000

“My son and myself have been attending plays for over ten years. The reason we love Next Act is because many of its plays touch human life situations and experiences, which make us think, make us laugh and make us cry.

One play that really touched me was THE OTHER PLACE because my family suffered with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. Deborah Staples did a wonderful portrayal of a person losing their memory. I cried throughout this whole production because it brought back so many memories. Thank you for sharing this very painful life experience.”

Rose Oliva, season ticket holder since 2008

“Karen and I have many fond memories going all the way back to Theatre Tesseract, but a more recent experience really illustrates why we have been such loyal patrons. It was during a performance of VISITING MR. GREEN in the new space. We usually like to sit in the first row of the center section, but had to exchange tickets and ended up in the first row of a side section instead. At first I was somewhat distracted by the audience seated directly across from us, but soon found myself so engaged that they just disappeared. That feeling of getting caught up in the characters and the story, that feeling of immersion, is a recurring theme to our Next Act experience. What could be better?”

Jim Toth and Karen Johnson, season ticket holders & Volunteer Art Curator

Did You Know?

In A SMALL FIRE, we welcome back three actors to our stage that you may recognize, but may not know how long they have been affiliated with Next Act.

Mary MacDonald Kerr will play Emily Bridges

Jonathan Smoots will play John Bridges

Emily Vitrano will play Jenny Bridges

Why A SMALL FIRE?

by David Cecsarini

I’ll admit, this play is tricky to write about. Adam Bock’s A SMALL FIRE is a gentle, quiet and, ultimately, deeply moving expression of what it means to be alive.

Exactly; a simple story about … everything.

Bock brings us the character of Emily Bridges, a tough, self-made construction company CEO, who suffers no fools or nonsense, either professionally or personally. She depends heavily on her construction manager Billy Fontaine, who sometimes plays the additional role of family friend. Emily’s husband John clearly hovers in the background of their relationship, and their adult daughter, Jenny – not particularly close to Mom – is poised to embrace a fresh start with her impending marriage.

CHANGES

Into this uneasy status quo comes and unidentified phenomenon? Syndrome? Disease? which gradually brings profound and, seemingly, irrevocable change to the Bridges’ household. How this mysterious intrusion alters the lives of the family becomes the journey of discovery that playwright Bock has prepared for his audience. It is a journey which is much better experienced than described, and so, with no spoiler alerts necessary, I leave it to the play to explain further.

The play does, however, generate rather provocative questions for which I have no good answers, only more questions.

The play challenges me by asking, “Who am I? What is my personal identity? What makes me, Me? And how would I manage if that identify, that self-image, the ‘story of Me’ were suddenly lost?”

As per usual, I start to look for answers close to home.

FAMILY STORIES

My dad, Harry A. Cecsarini, was a first generation Italian-American who grew up in Cleveland, was educated as an engineer, served in World War II, and then set out to grab his slice of the American Dream. Along the way, he met and married Alice Hitchcock, and they created a family, with kids Linda, Lois and David.

Family photos show the Cecsarini’s as 1950s quintessential: split-level house, Chevy in the garage, 4th of July, Happy Halloween, Merry Christmas with all the trimmings.

Dad was gone a lot. His classic breadwinner job required many hours and plenty of overseas travel, which he enjoyed. He also identified strongly with his job; it was the yardstick with which to measure his success. As many people do, I think my dad saw his life mainly through the lens of his career. And when that career ended too soon and too quietly, things changed.

At the same time that Mom was establishing herself as a top-notch school principal’s assistant, Dad established himself in his chair, homebound. And although he south out activities and hobbies, he never latched onto a pursuit which would adequately engage hi time, talent and attention, and gradually faded into himself. Mom faithfully and lovingly cared for him till the end, in 1996. And yet, throughout his decline, she coaxed from him nearly every bit of himself which remained, though rendered inaccessible to anyone else.

My mom is a phenomenon of devotion and love.

OUR PLAY

In A SMALL FIRE, Emily Bridges faces increasing challenges to her health, her ability to work and eventually, to her self-identity. She and her family must either meet these challenges together and remain whole, or suffer the consequences of fear, pain and defeat. Adam Bock’s heart-rending play offers us an intimate and inspirational look inside this deeply personal struggle of a family crisis. He shows us there is strength and hope in the phenomenon of love.

Perhaps we know this to be true, but it never hurts to say it again.

See you at the theatre.

Teaching Shakespeare’s Language

by Grace DeWolff

This season, Next Act Theatre launched a new arts education initiative that takes Shakespeare directly into schools.

When did you first learn about William Shakespeare? Was it in a high school freshman English class? Did a parent drag you to the theatre, and once your ear was tuned to the language, did you begin to lean forward in your seat? Did someone dump the Complete Works on your desk and tell you to read it? Was the BBC’s Television Shakespeare on one day in the early ’80s?

My goal as a teacher is to give high school students a positive experience with the Bard, one they’ll hopefully remember fondly enough to buy a ticket to a play, put a Shakespeare movie on their Netflix cue, or audition for a role at school. We start with what they know – I ask them how or if they’ve encountered Shakespeare before (some have, some haven’t) and what they think about it. The spectrum of experience and opinion is wide and varied – some young people think it’s boring and not relatable, some young people think it’s exciting and fun.

Then, we put Shakespeare where he belongs in historical context: about a century and a half after the printing press was invented, and only about 50 years before the first colony at Jamestown. We talk about what that means for the English language – Shakespeare’s original texts have early modern vocabulary but no grasp yet of grammar or spelling. We talk about how English evolves (and the students attempt to keep me up to date on the new hip lingo – although I’m told nobody says “hip” anymore) and once we feel prepared, we dive into Shakespeare’s verse structure, dirty jokes, and colorful characters. We don’t just read; we play.

I have secret goals – ones I don’t overtly state to the class. It’s my belief that studying the language you use daily helps you express yourself better – and there is research that suggests that when you expand your emotional vocabulary, you are literally able to feel those emotions more deeply. Aldous Huxley describes discovering Shakespeare in his book “Brave New World” thusly: “The strange words rolled through his mind; rumbled, like talking thunder … What did the words exactly mean? He only half knew. But their magic was strong.”

It’s my hope that I can pass on some of that magic to the next generation. I’m so lucky that Next Act has allowed me to begin my Classroom Shakespeare workshops this year! It is my favorite thing to do, and I hope the program continues to evolve and adapt to student needs – just like the English language.

Join the Clean Plate Club!

Next Act Theatre is teaming up with the Hunger Task Force this holiday season, and we need your help!

The Hunger Task Force tells us they are in need of certain items this year, so here’s what you can do:

When you come down to Next Act to see LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR, we encourage you to bring a couple cans of low-sodium vegetables for our food drive. Our goal is to gather 300 pounds of canned vegetables to help feed families in need. Be sure these items aren’t expired so we can use them to put a smile on the faces of hungry folks!

Any questions? Call Jane at 414-278-7780 or email jane@nextact.org. Thank you for your help!

Who Will Buy This Wonderful Feeling?

by Jane Flieller

Who really wants another fruitcake? Ugly sweater?? Talking doorknob??? How about the perfect gift? The one that can be kept forever? An experience they’ll never forget! Consider giving the gift of live theatre! Here are three good reasons:

An experience will last a lifetime. Next Act is committed to producing stories that encourage discussion, stirring the heart and mind. Take someone – send someone.

It’s affordable. Next Act offers the best prices in town for live, professional theatre.

Live theatre is unique and fun. Nothing beats gathering with other folks and sharing stories that are immediate and engaging. No two performances are quite the same and the ephemeral nature of live theatre creates a one-of-a-kind experience.

Perhaps you’d like to consider a gift to Next Act Theatre. There are several ways to help:

Consider a tax-deductible donation in any amount. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit arts organization, Next Act Theatre relies on the generosity of our patrons, foundations, and sponsors as ticket sales only cover about half the cost of producing great live theatre. Every penny counts, but did you know that $1,000 or more puts you right in the heart of our Producer’s Circle, earning you rewards like a special invitation to an annual reception and sneak peek of the fall show!

AmazonSmile! If you shop online at Amazon, you can raise money for Next Act Theatre! From your browser, go to Smile.Amazon.com/ch/39-1553360 (for ease, bookmark it on all your devices). Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to Next Act. AmazonSmile has all the same items that Amazon does, so when you shop, shop for Next Act!

Come to a show! Nothing supports us more than our audience. We’re committed to bringing you the best in compelling theatre produced in an intimate setting, featuring the best of local, professional talent. Plays are chosen with the intent to stimulate thought, foster the exchange of ideas and promote new perspectives and understanding. Come for a Personal Preview or stay for a Talkback. Enjoy a delicious beverage from our full-service bar and take in the various visual arts exhibits in the lobby. And bring a friend!

Happy Holidays from all of us at Next Act Theatre. We wish you a peaceful and productive 2020!

Did you know…

The Geniuses of Your Show of Shows

by Jody Hirsh, Judaic Education Director at Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center

It was the early 50s. The Cold War was gaining in intensity. People were beginning to build personal fallout shelters to withstand the threat of nuclear war. Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy was intensifying the search for Communists in America. Writers and performers were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. But on Saturday nights, America tuned in to the phenomenally popular Your Show of Shows. America needed laughter, and on Saturday nights, we got what we needed.

The first commercial TV broadcasts began in 1947. Televisions were black and white only, and TV shows were broadcast live. From February 25, 1950, until June 5, 1954, Your Show of Shows was a live weekly 90-minute broadcast. Live. Memorized. Performed without cue cards or teleprompters. The show, produced by Max Liebman, featured the stellar comedy team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca (who had already proven themselves in Liebman’s Admiral Broadway Revue) augmented by the mercurial Carl Reiner and puckish Howard Morris. In the few years before Your Show of Shows, there were other variety shows, and other comedy sketches performed live on TV, but this monumental series is often credited with the invention of TV comedy. Those of us who viewed the show on Saturday nights will never forget some of the classic routines – The German Professor, Doris & Charlie Hickenlooper, the Cuckoo Clock, whole monologues spoken in fake foreign languages, movie parodies, and other legendary sketches.

And behind all of it were the writers. Liebman, the producer, assembled a team of comic geniuses who met in the celebrated Writers’ Room in the NBC-TV office building. Mel Brooks was specifically recruited by Caesar and gained the reputation as the most irritating, but also funniest, guy in the room. A young Woody Allen, too, wrote for Sid Caesar in Caesar’s next project, Caesar’s Hour. In a writer’s world of men, Caesar and Liebman had the vision specifically to include women, Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond, among the male writers. A young Neil Simon began his career as one of the writers, and later based his 1993 play LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR on the extraordinary experience. The writers’ room in the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, written by Carl Reiner, was also based on the Your Show of Shows writers’ room.

It’s no accident that the writers were almost all Jewish, with the exception of Tony Webster. The show premiered five years after the Holocaust, at a time when the Hollywood Blacklist targeted, among others, Jewish writers and performers. Humor had always been a Jewish tool to combat tragedy and suffering. Even in the concentration camps of the Nazi Regime, Jews told jokes. A famous joke from the period is as follows:

It’s a little-known fact, that toward the end of Hitler’s power, he consulted a famous fortune teller, wanting to know the exact date when he would die. “Your death,” said the fortune teller, “will be on a Jewish holiday.” “Which one?” a terrified Hitler asked. The fortune teller replied, “Whatever day you die will be a Jewish holiday!”

Almost 40 years after the close of Your Show of Shows, Neil Simon, then an established playwright, penned LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR based on his own experience. While not being documentary theatre, the characters are inspired by the original writers of Your Show of Shows. The play even reenacts the creation of the famous parody of the 1953 film version of Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.

Kenny: What dost thou seekest in the constellations, Caesar?

Max: (Reads, doing Brando.) A clustuh a stahs in da heavens.

Brian: And by what name dost this cluster be called, oh, Caesar?

Max: It is called Stelluh … Stelluh! Stulluh for Stahlight! (Max smiles as Max.) That’s good. I like that… Good joke, Kenny.

The references in LAUGHTER are thinly veiled ones to the real creators of Your Show of Shows. And Simon’s writing is a tribute to the Jewish writers of early television. The writing is full of Yiddish words and archetypical Jewish irony. The background is the turmoil of the paradoxes of life of the 1950s. The comedy of Your Show of Shows, as it is in the fictional Max Prince Show, is never overtly political. LAUGHTER, however, captures the milieu. In a scene in which the Russian-born head of the writing team, Val Slotsky, announces the death of Stalin, he continues:

Val: There’s more news. The U.S. State Department just announced they have positive proof that Russia has the hydrogen bomb.

Lucas: Jesus! That is scary.

Val: Tell my children. Because they’re the ones who will inherit the devastation the focking politicians left them.

LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR captures a moment in history, written by an eye witness. It is a tribute to the pioneering beginnings of broadcast TV and a very funny reenactment of the legendary Writers’ Room of Your Show of Shows.