Uncategorized – Next Act Theatre

Meet Pia Russo

Meet Pia Russo

By Pia Russo, Education Manager

At the end of this past summer, former Education Manager Grace DeWolff departed Next Act for a full-time teaching position at Golda Meir School. We’re excited to welcome our new Education Manager, Pia Russo! Let her introduce herself in her own words:

Hello! I’m Pia, proud newest member of the Next Act family. I graduated just last year from Marquette University with degrees in Theatre Arts and Secondary Education, as well as a minor in History. Most of my previous theatre experience is from Marquette, where I had a hand in GIDION’S KNOT and DOUBT: A PARABLE (directing), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and MAMMA MIA! (assistant stage managing) and ANTIGONE (stage managing). I also spent last summer interning at Door Shakespeare, where I (mostly) overcame a fear of bugs. It was during ANTIGONE that I met my predecessor, Grace DeWolff, who introduced me to Next Actors as a Teaching Assistant and soon passed me the torch as Education Manager. I am also currently finishing up the practicum of my Secondary Education degree at Pius XI High School, where I am student teaching theatre and government through January 2023.

My teaching philosophy revolves heavily around bringing equal opportunities to communities hurt by inequity, creating a democratic classroom and using youth art as a medium for authentic expression. I am so excited to bring that to my work at Next Act. When not at Next Act or teaching at Pius, I can be found playing board games, chilling with my roommate and cat (ideally together) and yelling about how much I love my students to anyone who will listen.

You’ve Been Busy

You’ve Been Busy

By Jane Flieller, Development Director


In the past few months, you’ve attended the first show of our 32nd season. We hope KILL MOVE PARADISE touched and enlightened you – perhaps walking away with a deeper understanding of the violence that shapes the lives of Black men, women and children on a daily basis. Maybe going a step further and learning more about what you can do to help.

If you were inspired to take action but don’t know where to start, consider reaching out to Nurturing Diversity Partners. Co-Founder Reggie Jackson was present at many of our Personal Previews and Talkbacks – maybe you saw him! Nurturing Diversity Partners helps foster conversations and connections between different communities.

We know you’re getting ready for the next show, THE TIN WOMAN by Sean Grennan, that will be here before you know it – just like the holidays!

And we know many of you have been hard at work helping us bring to life our artistic and educational programming by your generous and thoughtful contributions. From giving a little extra when you buy a ticket, to our extraordinary show sponsors and everything in between, we thank you. We truly appreciate your investment in our work.

Our Community Project

Our Community Project

By Malaina Moore, Community Liaison

Rufus King High School students at the KMP Student Matinee

Every year, Next Act creates a community project centered on one show that helps bring members of the community together in closer conversation about our work. This season, KILL MOVE PARADISE director Marti Gobel curated a workshop on movement and ritual that she and I took into schools before and after the student matinee.

Marti and I ran workshops at Golda Meir School, Ronald Reagan High School and Rufus King High School. Our workshops before the student matinee explored six basic emotions and how the characters in the play experience them. We then talked about rituals – what are the steps of a ritual, what order do they go in, what are the rules? Students created tableaus with their bodies depicting a range of rituals from brushing your teeth to a funeral. Finally, we read through a scene from KILL MOVE PARADISE.

On October 12, 2022, more than 100 students from these three schools attended a matinee. The performance was electric, and not just because of the tornado warnings that went off during the show (which the actors handled perfectly). The students loved the audience interaction and moments that rang true in their own lives.

This was clear when we returned for our second set of workshops after the matinee. We asked the students to make their own list of rules for the “afterlife” based on the rules of KILL MOVE PARADISE in the play: “Remember. Take care. Boogie Oogie Oogie. Make a house a home.” They didn’t have to think long – in less than a minute, students suggested “Go home,” “Be at peace,” “Decide to watch over,” “Sulk” and even “Dance” (“When I dance, that is when I feel like myself and like nothing in the world matters.”)

Giving these students an understanding of the text and of ritual allowed them to be vulnerable, to see themselves in the production and made room for an emotional response. It was great to see them innately understand and relate to the story of KILL MOVE PARADISE.

Make a House a Home

Make a House a Home

By Malaina Moore, Community Liaison

On Saturday, October 1, 2022, Next Act Theatre hosted Wisconsin’s first-ever Black Out Night performance, a performance reserved exclusively for Black or Black-identifying audience members. The evening performance of KILL MOVE PARADISE sold out, meaning the biggest audience of the show’s run came for a reception beforehand, a performance of the show and a post-show Spirit Talk.

Overall, the experience was electric – this performance was a small slice of what I aspire for theatre to be. Among the Black community, everyone was represented: a big mix of ages, genders and backgrounds. There were two little boys, maybe no more than 10 years old, who I helped get some soda before the play. I watched them during the show and they were so engaged. These are young Black men – they don’t go to plays often. Having them there meant they got to see themselves represented on stage and grapple with the reality of their experiences just like (the character) Tiny.

I met a subscriber who changed her seat to make sure she attended on Black Out Night. I saw Kristin E. Ellis, who played Nya in PIPELINE last season. I even saw a DoorDash driver who had delivered me food earlier in the week and had asked about the play! So many people from different places came together that the event had an energy of sharing – we were sharing the culture and sharing the night with each other.

During the performance, all the jokes landed. All the actors’ questions went answered. Marti Gobel, our director, called it a “family reunion.”

More than anything, this was a healing experience. The show and the talk afterwards were both healing. A lot of people told me, “I’m still processing what the show did to me, what it showed me.” Black Out Night is proof that plays that engage the community with a moving story matter to everyone. Even with more white audiences, this story resonated because it was important. And especially on Black Out Night, we followed the rules of KILL MOVE PARADISE and made a house a home.

From the Author of The Tin Woman

From the Author of THE TIN WOMAN

By Sean Grennan

Whenever I’m working on something new, particularly something with a science element to it like THE TIN WOMAN, I always do research and talk to as many people as I can before going near my keyboard. That was particularly true this time. Like everyone, I’m aware of transplant procedures, but also like nearly everyone, it hasn’t really touched my life yet.

The play is based on the true story of a woman who receives a heart transplant and then subsequently meets the family of the donor. (My sister gave me a newspaper clipping about it over Indian food some years back. She said, “Write this and make it not suck.”) At face value, it seems like a straightforward “feel good” show. But the more I dug into the subject matter, the more I realized that there were other possible avenues to run down.

In the course of this show’s life, I’ve been very privileged to meet and spend time with heart transplant recipients and donor families. Most of the recipients are grateful for their second chance and are living their “best life” now, cherishing the extra days they’ve been given. However, there is a kind of subset of them who aren’t sure if they were deserving of the gift. This is commonly called “survivor’s guilt,” and it’s seen in other walks of life, as when people have survived disasters that have taken others and might decide to not go on.

On the other side of the exchange, the families of donors are largely glad to be able to help others at a very difficult time. But nonetheless, they are still grieving, and grief manifests differently in all of us. So exploring that, seeing if people could heal each other, seemed a more interesting way to go with the play.

I will say that survivors and donor families have been very positive about seeing that side of things. They’ve also been glad that, because of the “heavy” nature of the piece, I decided that some humor was an absolute necessity! I never want to put two hours of homework on stage. I always feel that life is all of it – the laughter, the tears, the absurdity – and that we’re all looking for better understanding of our time here and our relationships. It’s so short, a blink.

I hope that you take some of that away from the show.

Tickets for THE TIN WOMAN are now on sale at https://nextact.org/shows/the-tin-woman/?tickets. This production is offered live at 255 S. Water Street. Performances run November 23 – December 18, 2022.

It’s All About Love

It’s All About Love

By Tanya Trimborn

Organ and tissue donation is central to our next play, THE TIN WOMAN. Main character Joy receives a heart transplant before the play begins, and throughout the story, we watch her grapple with having a second chance at life. Her saving grace is only possible thanks to someone else’s ultimate sacrifice and a family’s loss. Playwright Sean Grennan based the play on real events, and for some perspective, we sat down to talk with Tanya Trimborn, a real-life donor family member whose son gave the gift of life.

Tanya and Cai

Q: What’s your connection to organ and tissue donation?

A: My son, Cai Benavides, was 22 years old when he became an organ donor. When he was little, I would take him everywhere with me. I was a single mother and I did my best to raise him.

We went to the DMV when he was like 7 or 8 – I had to renew my license. He said, “Mom, what’s that orange dot? Let me see,” and snatched the license right out of my hand! I told him that the orange dot signals to somebody that if something should happen to me and I cannot live anymore, I want them to use what I can’t take with me—my organs—and give them to someone else who needs them. So they can live a longer and happier life with their family. Cai just seemed to get things quicker than other kids, and he said, “that’s a really good thing that you’re doing, Mom,” and that was that.

When he was a young adult, he had a very difficult time, and by the age of 18, he struggled with drug addiction. He was such an incredible kid, and it was sad to see that drugs took him down a different path. However, in the fall of 2017, Cai had completed a rehab program, he was in a sober living facility, attending NA meetings and doing all the little things he needed to do to put his life back together. That meant we could spend more time together as a family.

He and I had a chance to sit and chat one day and he went, “look what I did!” He pulls out his wallet and he shows me his ID and I saw the orange donor dot. I was like, “dang Cai, I’m so proud of you. You’re thinking of other people, it’s incredible that you’re doing that.”

In February of 2018, I got the call that he was in the ICU. He had no brain activity because of a drug overdose and was on life support. On February 12, they proclaimed him brain dead, and on February 14 – Valentine’s Day and National Organ Donor Day – my son became an organ donor himself. He donated both of his kidneys and his liver. I always say his addiction does not define who he was: his love, his kindness, his tenderness carries through that.

Q: How did you become a volunteer and speaker about organ and tissue donation?

A: I withdrew into myself, as one would do when you lose your only child. I was very critical of myself and felt like I had failed somehow. But I was always very proud that Cai was an organ donor. At his memorial, I had contacted Versiti (a non-profit that facilitates organ and tissue donations, as well as blood donations and research) to have “Donate Life” pins and stickers for people to take as a memento and a reminder of Cai’s legacy.

I knew that I had to participate to celebrate his legacy and the love I had for my son. At first I couldn’t speak about it – I was going into the Versiti office and helping stuff kits and envelopes. Or I would sit at a table, participating in conversation and being around people who had been affected by organ donation. Eventually, I started to feel comfortable enough to share.

For me, my healing and my path has been going through small moments of volunteering with Versiti, taking part in events and sharing Cai’s story. It was also doing artwork. I created an ofrenda for Cai. It really, really helped me – I had to think about things that I hadn’t thought about in a long time or that I hadn’t allowed myself to think about. (An ofrenda is the offering placed in a home altar during the annual Mexican Día de Muertos celebration. Cai’s ofrenda includes marigolds, pictures of him, locks of hair and other items with meaning.)

Cai’s ofrenda

Versiti, as an organization, has really assisted in allowing me the space to heal. I have never felt stifled, they have given me the space to participate in the things I want to participate in. They have helped me find my voice to speak. They have given me the strength to speak up about Cai and my loss. As an organization, they’re just great.

Q: Reading the script, what stood out to you about THE TIN WOMAN?

A: There was a little something in every character that I connected with. The lead character, Joy – her withdrawing into herself, I connected with that. How do you take something when you know someone else has sacrificed? When that someone has sacrificed the ultimate thing and they can’t be with their family? The way she has internalized it and pushed people away, I could see and understand that.

The hippy-dippy sister who sees signs in everything and who wants to please and make everybody happy, that’s me. It was hard to realize that I couldn’t make everybody happy after Cai passed away. I was constantly looking for those moments to show that Cai was still with me.

I connected with the nurse because of the nurses who were in the ICU with Cai. Through all the trauma that was happening on a daily basis, they were still there for our family – I saw what incredible people they were.

The mom allowing her husband the space to grieve the way he needs to, is so important. And the dad – I really identified with him. If the last conversation you have with someone is difficult, it can cause a ton of pain and guilt after they have gone. One of my last conversations with Cai I told him, “I know you think you can handle this, but one day your body may not be able to.” I understand EXACTLY where the father is, what he’s going through, because those words have repeated often in my mind after Cai died. The pain I felt was unbearable.

This play touched every single part of how I feel about going through organ donation with my son.

Q: What do you hope people come away with?

A: It’s all about love. It’s all about connection and interacting with other people. It’s about communication. I can’t take [my organs] with me, and I want to give them to other people – that’s a kind thing to do. It’s a loving thing to do. Organ donation is just a moment of love, and it makes the world better.

Cai and Tanya holding hands

As an employee of Print-n-Press, Tanya Trimborn has printed countless items for Next Act – including our latest newsletter! Tanya is also a volunteer with Versiti, sharing the story of her son’s organ donation. Among other appearances, she was the Donor Family Speaker for the 2022 Gift of Life Ceremony at the Wisconsin Governor’s Residence. 

Tickets for THE TIN WOMAN are now on sale at https://nextact.org/shows/the-tin-woman/?tickets. This production is offered live at 255 S. Water Street. Performances run November 23 – December 18, 2022.

Meet Our New Artistic Director

Next Act Theatre is pleased to announce that Cody Estle has been hired as our new Artistic Director. Cody was hired after a four-month national search and will assume the role on December 1, 2022. He will overlap outgoing Producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini for before fully taking over leadership of the company in spring 2023.

Cody became the Artistic Director at Chicago’s Raven Theatre in November 2017, where he had previously served as the Associate Artistic Director. He directed 13 productions during his tenure at Raven Theatre: those productions have been nominated for Jeff Awards for Best Production and Best Director and have been named “best of Chicago theatre” by Windy City Times and the Chicago Tribune. He also has directing credits with Northlight Theatre, Strawdog Theatre, Shattered Globe Theatre, First Floor Theatre, Redtwist Theatre, The Artistic Home, Haven Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre and Citadel Theatre. Cody is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) and is an alumnus of Columbia College Chicago.

“I am honored to become the Artistic Director of Next Act Theatre and to shepherd its legacy into the future. I look forward to building on the great work of David Cecsarini while opening the doors for even more individuals to participate in the theater’s great programming,” said Estle. “I’m excited to collaborate with the dedicated Board, staff, and artists to produce excellent theater for the people of Milwaukee.”

Next Act Theatre’s staff and Board of Directors are excited to welcome Cody and look forward to the artistic transition.

“The decision to offer Cody Estle the position was clear. He has demonstrated the ability to direct plays, plan seasons and work with Actors’ Equity and other professional organizations in the theater world. He’s articulate, thoughtful and we the right person to lead Next Act forward.” said David Anderson, President of the Next Act Theatre Board of Directors.

Cody will join David overseeing the continuing 2022-23 season during the transition period, begin planning the 2023-24 season and meet members of the Next Act community.

You will have a chance to meet Cody at The Retirement Roast of David Cecsarini on Sunday, December 11, 2022 from 6 – 9 p.m. Cody will also be present at other events and performances starting in December.

We hope you will join us in welcoming Cody to the Next Act Theatre family!

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

By A.J. Magoon, Marketing Director, and the Next Act Staff

Whew! The summer just flew by. While we still had some rental shows in our space, the lack of any Next Act productions gave the staff some free time – here’s how we stayed busy during the dog days of summer.

Jane Flieller, Development Director: Jane started her summer with Bravo, Next Act’s annual fundraiser, back in person after a two-year pause. She then spent a whirlwind weekend in New York City to celebrate a milestone birthday followed by wiling away many hours catching up on an ever-growing queue of books.

Libby Amato, Administrative Coordinator: This summer Libby bought a new house! And then spent all her free time on house and yard projects – and loved every minute of it.

A.J. Magoon, Marketing Director: When he wasn’t at Next Act, A.J. spent his summer overseeing Summit Players Theatre’s tour of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING performances and workshops in the Wisconsin state parks. A new homeowner, he also tried his hand at gardening and took lots of walks with his dog, Boomer.

Jessica Connelly, Stage Manager: In between puttering in her garden and snuggling her puppies, Jessica was able to squeeze a few live concerts and some great road trips with her husband and her Mother. But after her very busy 21-22 season, she also just relaxed.

Tom Darrow, Administrative Volunteer: This summer Tom relaxed on the new deck and spent more time with his cat Belle. After his grandchildren came for a week’s visit in July, he joined his fellow Quakers in raising money for an asylum family by selling reusable “paper” towels. He and Michael managed to travel to western Wisconsin to spend time with friends after enjoying one of their favorite events—Irish Fest.

Malaina Moore, Community Liaison: Malaina kicked off this summer with an amazing birthday weekend with some of her closest friends. Another highlight was seeing T-Pain at the Rave and 2 Chainz at Summerfest. She was also able to visit Washington D.C for the first time ever as she sent her very best friend off to Howard University School of Law! She also produced two pieces for the Milwaukee Black Theatre Festival, curating a program for Youth and Family Night and directing a remount of her first-ever produced show, THIS JUST IN.

David Cecsarini, Producing Artistic Director: David has been pretty much camped out at good ol’ Next Act on a very regular basis, with two notable exceptions: he and his wife Deborah took a quick driving sprint out east to celebrate his mom’s 98th birthday in late July. The miles allowed them time to appreciate (and frankly, for him to learn about) two brash and bold comedians: Dave Chappelle and Hannah Gadsby. Outlandishly, furiously funny. His other outing was spent around the house one weekend tending to a cluster of projects which brought satisfaction. His high bar for success is expressed in this pithy phrase, “Well, it’s better than it was.”

The Power of You

The Power of You

By Jane Flieller, Development Director

Maybe you don’t know what your support of Next Act accomplishes. The play’s the thing, of course, but what about the ripple effect? The many ways a play can touch a person? When you buy a ticket, bring a friend, make a donation – the play goes on. And with it comes joy, questions, insight, discussion, enlightenment. The power of you is what makes live theatre powerful.

“My friend and I watched Red Herring last night and were enthralled. All the actors were brilliant — and amazingly versatile. Their vibrance and warmth filled our evening with light. We sailed home, and the glow remains. Can’t wait to see the next show.”

– Patron to RED HERRING (2021-2022)

“Thank you so much for sharing the info. I’ll make sure to fill the form out and start booking some matinees. The students are clamoring for live theatre and we can’t wait to visit.”

– High School Teacher

Question and Answer

STUDENT: What about the play is universal and what is uniquely an African-American experience?

CAST MEMBER: Universally, it’s about two parents trying to do what’s right for their child. As an African-American, you carry the burden of never being allowed a bad day; of being on alert all the time; never being sure when you leave for work or school that you will come home.

– From a Talkback with High School Students to the Play, PIPELINE (2021-2022)

Consider a tax-deductible gift to Next Act Theatre and make a world of difference.

Did You Know?

When you make a contribution, your name is listed in our playbill (unless you ask for it not to be). But did you know you can make a gift in honor, memory or congratulations to someone? For example, Joe Smith (in honor of Jane Doe), Joe Smith (in memory of Jane Doe) or Joe Smith (for Jane Doe on her nuptials).

Consider joining our Producer’s Circle level of giving with your next donation! For an annual gift of $1,000 or more, you receive an exclusive behind-the-scenes event, a history-rich backstage tour, complimentary beverages at every performance you attend, your name in playbills and you have the satisfaction of knowing you helped bring a story to life. For more information on giving, contact Jane Flieller at jane@nextact.org or (4214) 278-7780.

Movement as Ritual

Movement as Ritual

By Marti Gobel, Director, KILL MOVE PARADISE

The African American race can trace its very survival to the execution of movement. We as a people have used movement to go forward and do better for ourselves and for the generations to follow: the Great Migration, dance, political and social marches for freedom, and most recently movement to demonstrate that we will not be forced to NOT move toward a better existence. Movement has served as the ritualistic provision of solutions for social problems, as well as to express the central values of our culture.

In all the shows I have had the honor to direct, I implement the natural ritualistic need to full-body express emotions such as pride, pain, anger, and in the case of KILL MOVE PARADISE by James Ijames, transcendence. This remarkable play offers a landscape of the African American existence that is dependent on movement. It is an unconscious ritual to which we were born as African Americans. Even when the ritual of passing from one existence to another is prematurely aborted, still we move with our whole selves. It is a beautiful tradition that I share with my people. It is a tradition that is unstoppable, un-outwittable and often underestimated. Perhaps, the most important but oft overlooked phenomenon of this movement is that it is executed with joy… With hope… With love of self.

Tickets for KILL MOVE PARADISE are now on sale at https://nextact.org/shows/kill-move-paradise/?tickets. This production is offered live at 255 S. Water Street. Performances run September 22 – October 16, 2022.