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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011

Teaching Children to Fly

Inspiring theater from Milwaukee's First Stage

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I vividly remember Rob Goodman 25 years ago, excited, nervous and even a bit sheepish that he was being given the chance to create a professional children's theater for Milwaukee County after eight years of stage managing for the Milwaukee Rep.

“When I look back,” Goodman says, “I have flown so high beyond what I ever thought would happen. It makes me weep, how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who share a vision to help inspire children to become who they really are. I often get credit for being the founding artistic director of First Stage, but the reality is that First Stage found me. Before it existed, it found me. I believe in that.”

Now, First Stage is a national leader in theater for young audiences. One primary focus has been new play production. Forty-four new scripts—nearly two for each year of the company's existence—have been added to the world's canon of children's plays. Goodman, now First Stage's managing director, speaks of feeling a great responsibility to foster playwriting excellence because children's theater has such an impact on its audiences.

“Children are like dry sponges,” he says, “soaking up the world. We are dedicated to providing positive and powerful experiences that enable children to better cope with their own personal experiences and the world they live in. We've developed a process and a cadre of artists from across the country who are really good at that.”

On Oct. 28, First Stage will open Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly, a world premiere by the esteemed playwright Y York, commissioned by the company for its 25th anniversary season. The play will run through Nov. 13 in the Todd Wehr Theater of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. It's the first in First Stage's “Wisconsin Cycle” of six new plays about and for the Milwaukee community to be produced in coming seasons.

According to Goodman, “It's about a black Milwaukee family in 1964 trying to cope with the problems they face as a family.” The mother suffers from mental illness and the father tries to deny or hide it. Their 9-year-old daughter has no way to understand the strange behavior of either parent. “So how does she cope?” Goodman asks. “How does she have and maintain dreams? How does she learn how to fly?” He pauses. “She discovers she can create art.”

The play is based on the life of Milwaukee collage artist Della Wells. Born in 1951, Wells is a self-taught artist with more than 2,000 works in various media to her credit. She is considered one of the leading folk artists in the United States, although she is not yet well known to her hometown.

First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank was introduced to Wells and immediately felt her story should be told. Goodman asked his friend Y York to write the script, but York was hesitant because it was a living subject. Goodman convinced her to visit Milwaukee and meet Wells. The women spent two days talking. Afterward, according to Goodman, both women said they felt they'd known each other all their lives. York understood how she could write a play that spoke for them both.

Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly was selected for the 2010 New Visions/New Voices festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. This is the premier new play development program in the United States for theater for young audiences. A handful of new scripts by American playwrights and international authors are selected every two years for workshops and a staged reading for directors and managers from across the country. Wells saw the play there. She responded with five new artworks, currently on view at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St., the home that First Stage co-built and shares with the Milwaukee Symphony Youth Orchestra.

“So Y's art has now inspired more art,” Goodman says, laughing with joy. “I love that. My hope is that children and families will become inspired to believe that they, too, can learn how to fly, each in their own way.”

John Schneider was a member of Milwaukee's experimental Theatre X from 1970-2004. He's a member of the
Shepherd's editorial staff and teaches theater at Marquette University.