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    Posted February 21, 2009

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By Councillor Dan Mooney, Chair, Milwaukee Area Liaison Committee

A blast from the past: An Equity theatre that employs seasoned veterans to work along side raw beginners. See a company that puts literature before ticket sales and art before schmaltz. That's what one finds when one delves into the twenty plus year history of First Stage Children's Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In February, traditionally Black History Month, schools and theatergoers have the opportunity to view a new play based on the book "Witness" by Karen Hesse and adapted for the stage by John Urquhart. This piece is a combination of episodic writing and plain mystery ensconced in a real life historical dilemma, appropriate for all ages.

Young characters are played by their age appropriate counterparts. These young performers train and apprentice with Equity masters such as Robert Spencer. This opportunity is rarely afforded burgeoning actors, but Milwaukee has a place for budding talent, and that talent ultimately fills the theatres of the Midwest. Ishtar Njaaga, a young African American actress beginning her career as the lead in WITNESS says, "Working with actors like Robert Spencer and the other Equity actors in the cast help me to understand the commitment and the artistry required to be strong in this profession. I would never undertake such a challenge without the support of those professionals who can guide me along the way. I am now aware of the requirements and am sturdy in the work ahead."

Young actors develop both life skills and stage skills at the First Stage Theater Academy, garnering training from professionals who give their time between performance commitments to their future colleagues. These students audition for the season, and are subsequently cast when the role is right. Artistic Director Jeff Frank approximates 500 children auditioning for 50 available roles in a season.

Still, the students who are cast must make a hefty commitment. Even with two young companies, the children alternate performances between the TYA twelve show per week contract, and make arrangements with their schools to miss every other day for a month. Ironically, parents find that their children are more on task at school and able to keep up with academic demands more constantly when involved in a First Stage production.

Most certainly, the children involved in performance get a first hand view of work ethic, mastery, and artistic craft, playing alongside theatre veterans and Equity masters. It is the apprenticeship model come full circle in a TYA circumstance.

We are proud to have this old fashioned/new fangled model in Milwaukee, and know that the Equity mentorship available to these young actors is the gateway to a career in the arts. Look out for Ishtar in ten years - she's bound for Broadway via old pros sharing new ideas in a reinvention of apprenticeship.

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