Scene | Theater
Appleton North Theater Embraces Hope
by Jim Romenesko
When the pandemic shut down school activities last March, Appleton North Theatre’s planned production of “The Laramie Project” was one of the casualties.
Now, with many local high school theatres carefully reopening their doors, that production is back on track.
“The Laramie Project” was developed by several members of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project, who interviewed dozens of residents of Laramie after the murder of Matthew Shepard. Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, severely beaten, lashed to a fence, and left to die outside Laramie in 1998. Two area men were convicted of the crime, which sparked national and global hate crime legislation.
The interviews were crafted into a stunning theatrical piece in Verbatim Theatre style, which employs direct quotes from the interviews and has been seen by millions around the world since its premiere in 2000. “The play shocks, challenges, and moves all who watch it,” said director Ron Parker, who heads up the North Theatre program. “It reveals the lowest depths of hatred and greatest heights of compassion that lie within all human beings in any seemingly average community.”
The show was a great choice for a return to full production, said Parker. “Not only is the play’s message even more relevant this year with all that has been seen with the expression of vitriol and hate, as well as the coming together of communities to combat it, the documentary style of the show transfers well to performing under COVID-19 conditions and restrictions.
“But it’s not only a play about a hate crime,” Parker insists. “It’s also a play about hope.”
And the students have embraced that hope.
Parker cites a principal philosophy of “Sources of Strength,” a national wellness program for schools, in which students are encouraged to be generous with their talents and resources. “By taking on ‘The Laramie Project,’ the cast and crew are focusing on helping others and, by so doing, are helping and healing themselves,” Parker said.
He says the themes of the play resonate strongly with the young actors. “They are constantly making connections between the events in Laramie and what is happening today,” he said.
In the North production, 21 students portray multiple characters, some directly connected to the murder and some simply members of the Laramie community, bringing forth the undeniable fact that damaging incidents like the Shepard murder cannot help but affect everyone.
“After every performance, there will be a talkback involving members of the community who deal with the problems portrayed in the play on a daily basis,” Parker says. “We hope to begin a dialogue on the issues of acceptance and change hearts and minds in our community.”
“The Laramie Project” will be presented April 29 through May 1. Current plans are to present the show for a limited live audience (subject to changes) and will be live streamed. For tickets, visit www.appletonnorththeatre.org
Brillion High School
“Working” April 22-25, April 29-30, and May 1-2
Chilton High School
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” April 18-20 and 22-24
Kimberly High School
“Songs for a New World” April 16-24
Xavier High School
“Spin.The pop hits of the early ‘60s” May (Dates TBA)
“Jack & The Beanstalk” May (Dates TBA)
Sleeping Giants Begin to Awaken
by Jim Romenesko
When Wisconsin schools were shuttered on March 18 of last year, most of us never expected that the situation would extend well into this year.
But there are signs of hope!
A survey of local high school theatre directors finds many planning streamed or live (some are producing both) shows for this spring.
Most producers are re-opening their venues with shows that feature small to medium-sized casts. Many are double-casting as a hedge against possible Covid-related problems and to give more actors the opportunity to perform. “The kids are overjoyed,” says one director. Ditto for their audiences!
Another major component of any show, the technical crew, is an important consideration moving forward. Students move through their high school years quickly and directors will be faced with the challenge of re-training for these critical positions once programs return to normal operation.
As one student put it, “If we didn’t produce a show this spring, we’d be starting next year with two years’ worth of classes who have no production experience whatsoever.”
Here’s a sneak peek at what’s in store as the curtain slowly rises on local school productions.
Appleton North High School
“Improvedy” Comedy Improv Shows presented March 19, April 16, May 21
“The Laramie Project” presented April 29 through May 1, directed by Ron Parker.
Both shows will be streamed with the possibility of presenting to a small, live audience. Details to be determined.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: www.appletonnorththeatre.org
Brillion High School
“Working” (2012 Revised Version) presented April 22 through 25, April 29, 30, May 1 and 2, directed by Jonathan Kobs. The production will be presented for a live audience.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: https://brillionsd.org/high_school/endries_performing_arts_center. (information will be available in the near future.)
Chilton High School
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” presented April 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, and 24. The show will be streamed and presented for a limited live audience. Tickets to attend in person are only available through cast members.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: www.englercenter.com
Kimberly High School
“Songs for a New World” directed by Todd Wegner. Presented April 16 through 24. The show will be streamed and presented for a live audience.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: www.kimberlytheatre.com
St. Mary Catholic High School
“Anything Goes” Directed by Hayden Kraus. March 12-14. The show will be available to stream on-demand
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: SMCSFineArts.org
Xavier High School
“Spin – the pop hits of the early ‘60’s.” A musical revue directed by Jim Romenesko. The show will be available to stream on demand in late April.
Xavier will also present its annual radio play (title TBD), a senior showcase and a children’s show (both in May).
Thriving Through Innovation
by Jim Romenesko
The current hold on live arts performances has impacted thousands across the country.
But Lance and Kimberly Lewis of Champion Video have found that their production services are very much in demand as performing groups adapt.
Champion Video is among the premiere video production companies in the region, filming and producing videos for more than seventy events each year. Among them are Appleton Boychoir’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Xavier’s High School’s Christmas Stars and Passion Play, Life Promotion’s Lifest!, and many area dance recitals, figure skating shows, and competitions.
“The majority of our work is in Northeast Wisconsin,” says Lewis. “However, we
do have some companies that fly us all over the country to capture their events.”
But a drastic change occurred last March when events were canceled due to the pandemic.
“When Covid hit, all of our events got canceled,” says Lewis. “My wife and I started talking about what we could do to pivot. Everything was on the table. We reached out to all of our clients to see what their needs were.”
One client, Rana Poley from NEW Fusion Dance in Green Bay asked if Champion
could put together a virtual dance recital.
“We came up with a way for parents to film their dancers at home and upload to our servers. We then would edit those videos to make it look like they were dancing together.”
But how could the video experts get all the individual parents to stand in as camera operators?
Lewis used what he knew. “I made a short video of what we were going to do along with a sample, and within a few days we were getting calls from dance schools from all over the country,” he says.
By the time the spring dance recital season was over, the Champion team had seven thousand individual dance videos, all filmed on their parents’ iPhones and sent to Champion.
And that was only the beginning.
Mishicot High School contracted Champion to produce part of their fall show, the Appleton Boychoir enlisted them to produce a “best of” televised program, and “Christmas Stars,” who’ve used Champion exclusively for almost a decade, took on a very ambitious project, knowing that Champion would partner with them on their first large-scale video project. “We filmed on five separate days and spent over 150 hours editing. But at the end of the day, we were able to put together an amazing-looking show while keeping the performers safe,” says Lewis. “It was a very different way for us to work.”
How does Champion garner such a high level of loyalty and trust among their clients?
Lewis says he and Kimberly form a relationship with every customer. “I tell them that we aim to be professional, reliable, and affordable so that they don’t have to worry about who
they are going to have do their video for their event year after year.”
“I think it’s the small stuff really. We answer our phones and we respond to emails and
texts as quickly as possible. We want our clients to feel like working with Champion Video is a worry- and hassle-free experience.”
Sounds Like Christmas
by Jim Romenesko
When Kieran Wallace walked onto the stage to appear in his first production at five years old, little did he know that eighteen years later, he’d play a key role in an innovative new version of that same production.
The show was “Christmas Stars” and Wallace, now a professional sound designer, is back at work on the production, this time in an important behind the scenes role, as the show is produced in a new, streaming format as the result of the Covid crisis.
“I’ve been involved in music and theatre nearly my entire life, largely thanks to both my parent’s and grandparents’ love of music and the arts,” said Wallace, now 23. “However, I remember middle school being the time when I developed a true sense of passion for music and theatre by consciously wanting to better myself as a musician and performer. I got involved in as many projects as possible.”
As graduation from St. Norbert College approached, Wallace felt he should pursue post-grad study to build on his degree in Music. “My path to working in audio production was definitely not a linear one,” he mused. Having only worked on the sound crew for one college production, his next taste of audio work came while he was creating his application portfolio for the grad school program just months before the deadline.
“As I got further into the portfolio requirements,” he says, “I knew that it was something I could see myself getting into. I taught myself the basics, while also learning from family and friends. Once I had my first few graduate-level classes, I never looked back and was in love with the field of work.”
Wallace credits his grad program at Berklee College of Music, which is based in Spain, with giving him a solid foundation and the right attitude for work in the competitive area of sound design by emphasizing collaboration. “Everyone was looking to develop themselves further by learning from each other’s unique musical approach and personal background,” he said. “I had industry-leading studios, equipment, professors, and peers all at my fingertips while experiencing the culture of Spain and Western Europe at the same time.”
Upon returning to the U.S., He was hired almost immediately by Paradyme Productions in Madison, a recording studio producing projects ranging from recording and producing solo artists and bands, to podcasts, commercial jingles, movie dialogue, audio books, and educational content.
”A typical workday for me almost never looks the same as the last,” Wallace says, “which keeps my job full of excitement and possibilities.”
But the Covid crisis has impacted the recording business as much as other businesses and activity at the Madison studio is down a bit. So when it was decided to present “Christmas Stars” as a streaming production, it was natural to include Wallace on the technical production team, joining musical director Peter Leschke, sound engineer Van Vehrs and the video team from Champion Video in Greenville.
“Before this year, I had experienced Christmas Stars both as a cast member in the show and a stagehand. It’s an honor to be able to lend my gifts and talents to the production this year, especially when we are dealing with such limiting world circumstances,” he said. “I never thought I would see Christmas Stars from this viewpoint, especially working alongside those who I’ve known as the people making it happen ever since I was a kid.”
An Island of Creativity in a Sea of Crisis
by Jim Romenesko
When the going gets tough, Stephanie Kapsa, a music teacher in the Appleton Area School District, gets going.
When faced with what she describes as “the inequities caused by online learning” and frustrations felt when thrust into the world of online learning last spring due to the Covid crisis, she decided to take action.
In a normal, in-person learning situation, students use the school’s musical instruments. In an online learning situation, students can only access what they have at home. “For a lot of kids, it was very limited,” Kapsa said.
“As a music educator, I work hard to teach the kids that music can help them through the good and bad things in life,” she said. “With the world feeling chaotic and the amount of change going on, I felt music was more important now than ever before. I wanted all students to have a way to create music.”
She decided to get kits of musical instruments into the hands of the students. But how could she and her fellow instructors make this magic happen for every student in Kindergarten through Grade 6 in the district? “There were many, many individuals who came together to help us pull off this huge undertaking,” says Kapsa.
“Renee Ulman, AASD Fine Arts Coordinator, secured funding through the district leadership team and school sites. Music teachers Jennifer Griffith, Melissa Fields, Kadie Smith, Becky O’Brien, and Wendy Pitts, collaborated on what the kits should have and how to put them together,” she said. All AASD general music teachers gave their input on the project.
Kapsa credits AASD and Ulman, in particular, for her support of the project and moving quickly to make the vision a reality. “Without them this would not have happened,” she said.
Kapsa’s team enlisted an impressive range of community resources to bring the project to fruition.
Heid Music worked with vendors to secure the large quantity of instruments needed, offered affordable pricing, and delivered all instruments to local churches for assembly.
In what can aptly be described as a textbook example of cooperation, The Mission Church of Appleton and First English Lutheran Church offered workspaces. Church members, music teachers, Lawrence music education student teachers, and Renee Ulman helped to put the kits together. The Community Church of Appleton delivered kits to each of the Elementary Schools.
Overall, about one hundred volunteers assisted with the project. Kapsa’s own family was enlisted to help, as well. Husband Nick, son Barrett, age 8, and daughter Reese, age 6, and even Nick’s mom, Becky, all pitched in. “Nick was made aware of the duties and responsibilities of being a music teacher’s spouse early on in our dating life,” she said, laughing. “The kids are now learning what their roles will be.”
7,500 student received music kits and Kapsa and her colleagues are thrilled with the result. “So far, the kids have been over the moon about their music kits! I love seeing all the excitement and pride in playing their instruments,” she said. “Now our lessons can incorporate many of the things we would teach in person. I personally have had a blast rocking and rolling with the kiddos during our live meets every week.”
The End of an Era
by Jim Romenesko
Record-breaking Broadway blockbusters can’t hold a candle to the nearly sixty-year run of one of Appleton’s classiest acts, Marcia Fellows of Marcia’s School of Dance.
Citing the effects of the Covid crisis on businesses in general and the performing arts in particular, Miss Marcia, as she is known by thousands of former students, has made the difficult decision to close her popular dance studio.
“Last week was really tough,” said Fellows, who operated the school with her daughter, Juliana Van Asten. “We would have begun our fall classes,” she mused. “We’ve come a long way since 1961.”
“After I had my second child, I decided I wanted to teach dance,” Miss Marcia reminisced. “I held classes at the Freedom VFW, beginning with about twenty students. That first season ended with a free recital held at the VFW hall in front of borrowed black curtains hung by family and friends.
“I really started with practically nothing – but I had a dream and wanted something better for the students and myself,” she said.
And her determination, dedication, and winning personality earned unending support from friends and family as the business grew.
“I can remember relatives painting scenery under the trees at my grandparent’s farm and then hauling the pieces across town in my grandfather’s coal-delivery truck,” she said with a smile.
Soon, the classes were moved to her parent’s home at the current Longview Drive location. “I taught on the cement floor of the basement,” she remembered. “I waxed it to fill in the chips and cracks.”
It wasn’t long before a bona fide studio wing was added to the house.
Her love for teaching was evident then as it is now. “Working with young people,” she said, “you’re not only teaching how to dance, but to have self-respect, to work well with others, and to build self-confidence. Seeing a young person grow in those traits – that’s got to be one of the best compliments you could have,” she said.
This noble approach made Miss Marcia’s studio one of the most popular in the region. And to top it off, she had a secret weapon – her mom.
Miss Julie, as she was known by all at the studio, worked tirelessly to promote the school and when her efforts paid off in a record number of new students, she laced up her dance shoes and hit the floor to assist with teaching.
“If a student came in fifteen minutes early, they didn’t sit around,” Marcia recalled with a smile. “Miss Julie had them on the dance floor for extra lessons.”
Asked about her proudest moment, she doesn’t hesitate. “In 2001, we started a class for students with disabilities. I’ll never forget the first time those girls performed for the other students at a dress rehearsal. The kids and parents went wild, cheering like crazy. My daughter and I stood backstage and wept.”
And that generous and innovative spirit has been officially recognized by the organization “Celebrating Abilities.” A plaque in the studio honors Marcia and Juliana for “making a difference in the community by enhancing the way people with disabilities can develop and celebrate their abilities.”
Since the closing was announced, Marcia and Juliana have received “a great outpouring of memories, support and notes from former students.” One that sums it up reads: “I wouldn’t be the person I am if it weren’t for you.”
Thank you and brava, Miss Marcia, on life’s work well done!
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center’s Reimagined Season
by Jim Romenesko
When Joni Mitchell sang “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” no one could have predicted how sharply we’d feel the sentiment fifty years later during the Covid crisis.
For many of us, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center’s pandemic-forced “extended intermission” is high on the list of things impacting our quality of life during the pandemic.
Maria Van Laanen, Fox Cities P.A.C. president has a deep understanding of the sense of loss that audiences, employees, volunteers, and performers are feeling. “Even in a sea of patrons, performers connect with the audience…that’s what people miss,” she said.
And those connections aren’t forged only during the performance. The ushers, box office personnel and others on the P.A.C. team are also dearly missing the experience of serving the community and performing companies at the world-class venue.
“Hosting three hundred fifty to four hundred events per year means spending a lot of time together,” she said. “We all thrive on serving and get so much energy from sharing the excitement of the performances with our artists and audiences.”
But the details involved in raising the curtain on a season of top national acts and touring productions after a global performing arts shutdown are almost unfathomable.
Van Laanen noted some of the challenges. “The artists must be comfortable, not only performing in a venue with a large crowd, but also touring the country while keeping safe. Artists who perform one-night concerts must commit to fifteen to twenty weeks on the road, and bigger tours need at least double that time.” Add to that a substantial number of international acts and you get an idea of the concerns that must be addressed before a tour can even be considered.
Then there are the government regulations, constantly updated in response to the ever-changing circumstances of the pandemic. There are so many people involved in making a touring performance happen that, even if regulations allow for fifty people to gather, “The show would never make it off the trucks,“ Van Laanen said.
And, indicative of Appleton’s stature in the touring world, the P.A.C. president is taking a national leadership role in addition to captaining the local ship.
A national coalition called Road Producers and Presenters has created the “Opening the Road Task Force” to determine the needs of the four most complex shows currently touring. These experts posit that, by determining the standards needed for venues to successfully host these gargantuan productions (“Frozen,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” and “Hamilton”), the procedures for less complex shows and concert events can be set. Van Laanen is chairing “Team Frozen.” “We have a voice at a very large table,” she said.
Despite the numerous obstacles to re-opening, Van Laanen sums up the strength and determination shared by so many in the arts community: “We’ll be back,” she stated confidently.
Live Theater During the Covid Crisis
by Jim Romenesko
Although remaining healthy is the highest priority for everyone during the Covid crisis, quality-of-life concerns loom large in the minds of many in the creative community.
Broadway theatres are shuttered until next March, touring productions have suspended operations, and, closer to home, the slate of upcoming Fox Valley productions has been wiped clean by the pandemic.
At Xavier and North High Schools, productions of “Matilda,” and “Grease” were closed after preview performances and Attic Chamber Theatre cancelled its summer season.
At Brillion Public Schools, Jonathan Kobs, high school and middle school choral director, was halfway through rehearsals for “Beauty & the Beast Jr.,” which was eventually cancelled. Appleton West Drama Director, Kreston Peckham, faced a similar situation with his production of “All Shook Up.” “This has been devastating for the kids involved in our theater program,” he said, “especially the seniors who were so looking forward to their last show.”
Theatre directors and managers agree that the shutdown has had a huge impact on student performers and technicians who thrive on the creative process.
But theatre is about surviving, even flourishing, in the face of adversity – rising above. And in that spirit, local producers are doing their best to plan the upcoming season amid audience concerns and constantly shifting government guidelines.
Although it’s impossible to know what will be allowed as far as theatre production during the next year, directors cite the importance of involvement in theatre for students as their motivation for planning.
“Many students call the theater their home,” says Peckham, “whether they work on the stage or behind the scenes, doing a show is about creating an ensemble – working together towards a common goal.”
Others stress the importance of setting a positive example for students. Jennifer Farrell, Theatre Manager for Chilton Public Schools, says “I worry about the impact that not having a full, live audience will have on our programs and students. However, I have to keep reminding myself that change is necessary right now and we must lead with positivity.”
The New York agencies that manage the production rights for plays and musicals are working overtime to provide the opportunity to live-stream shows in lieu of conventional live performances, something that, heretofore, was strictly prohibited.
While some producers feel that this is a viable alternative, others would rather wait until live audiences are allowed once again.
Attic Chamber Theatre President Berray Billington says the community theatre group subscribes to the latter philosophy. “We feel that theatre is between an audience and the performer. Without live interaction we feel it is not the direction we wish to take,” he said.
At Xavier, we are including student input as a major part of our planning. The goal is to avoid any situation where the rug is, again, pulled out from under students who’ve put in the enormous time and effort required to prepare.
Hayden Kraus, Director at St. Mary Central High School, is also focused on the student experience. “The focus will be on student learning, even if a full production is not able to take place,” he said.
In the end, the “Fabulous Invalid” will survive and thrive. And that, in no small part, will be due to the dedication, commitment, and determination of its producers, directors, and company members.
Fame, Fortune and All That Jazz
Kimberly High School Debuts Chicago
by Tricia Schwartz
A tale of fame, fortune and acquittal unfolds when nightclub starlet Velma Kelly and chorus girl Roxie Hart claw for the spotlight in a quest for stardom during Kimberly High School’s production of Chicago.
Set in the roaring twenties against the backdrop of the Chicago’s Jazz Age, murderesses Velma and Roxie seek absolution from their crimes while vying for headlines and public adoration amid a media circus orchestrated by their smooth-talking attorney, Billy Flynn.
KHS senior Macy Berendsen is one of two students cast as Roxie Hart. She likes Roxie’s naïve, curious and bold energy, but finds the character’s naivete to the world of murder and jazz rivaled by her strong confidence and unapologetic nature. Berendsen finds embodying Roxie’s bold and flirty energy integral to her portrayal, but is quick to label the character as “unlikeable”.
“Roxie is motivated for the wrong reasons and is ignorant to the way others feel,” Berendsen said. “It’s difficult to play someone who is so fun and bold, but yet so turned off to a sense of humanity.”
Kimberly High School theater teacher and Chicago director Todd Wegner seeks material – for both the classroom and the stage – that is well written and exposes students to a wide variety of genres and historical periods.
“I look for material that provides more than just a surface experience for the students as well as the audience,” Wegner said. “We can’t just focus on doing things that are meant for teenagers, because I don’t think that deals with the substance that these kids can handle.”
Salty in nature with motifs of seduction, corruption and murder, Chicago doesn’t shy away from adult themes. Students will perform a tamer version specifically licensed for high schools that has been adapted to omit overt sexual references and language.
Wegner says with the exception of absent musical numbers including “Class,” “A Bit of Good” and portions of “I Know a Girl,” along with a few lines of dialogue, the integrity of the story remains.
“It’s virtually the same,” Wegner said. “And [it] retains its initial intent.”
Wegner cited Chicago’s intense choreography as another reason for choosing it as one of three KHS theater productions for the 2019-20 school year.
“We didn’t do a lot of choreography last year. We have a lot of students who are excellent dancers,” said Wegner. “It was time to put on a dance musical,” he continued.
Audiences can expect a storyline of sassy lyrics and snappy beats to be accentuated with dance numbers inspired by famed choreographer Bob Fosse, who choreographed the original Broadway production in 1975.
Berendsen finds the Fosse choreography, which includes tight, quick movements requiring physicality and core control, fun and energetic.
“Compared to past shows we’ve done, the choreography is a lot more challenging because it follows the very specific style of Fosse,” Berendsen said. “It can be difficult to maintain a very isolated style.”
“We have spent a lot of time really focusing on capturing those movements and expressions. I think we’ve done Bob Fosse proud,” she said.
Performances will be March 27 and 28 at 7:00 p.m., March 29 at 2:00 p.m., and April 2, 3 and 4 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $14 for adults and $10 for students. Tickets are available in advance online at www.kimberlytheatre.com or between 11:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. by calling 1-866-967-8167. Tickets will also be sold at the door (if available) starting one hour prior to every performance. The show is rated PG-13.