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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Life Well Lived in Art and Laughter

Off the Cuff with Milwaukee Artist of the Year Barbara Leigh

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Barbara Leigh was recently named co-Artist of the Year by the Milwaukee Arts Board. The co-founder and lynchpin of Milwaukee Public Theatre has more than 100 original works to her name and has spent four decades acting, teaching, leading workshops and organizing community projects. After suffering partial paraplegia in a serious accident in 1987, she took on hurt and healing with art, addressing trauma, survival, caregivers, Alzheimer’s, abuse scars and even the Americans with Disabilities Act. She sat down with Off the Cuff to discuss healing, laughter, hope and a life well lived in the arts. 

 

How did you get started?

Mike Moynihan and I started Friends Mime Theatre in 1974 as a “popular” theater for everyone, not just folks buying expensive tickets. That became the Milwaukee Public Theatre in 1991. We celebrate 40 in September. 

 

You turned paraplegia into art. How does art heal? 

It takes you out of normal, day-to-day patterns. It stimulates your imagination and inspires you to new possibilities. So too do we heal—with the new, with imagination, with stimulation and with hope. In my case, time as a mime was great preparation for paraplegia. And through the ordeal, so much struck me as funny! Looking up people’s noses? The hospital’s quirky characters? I had some wild times on morphine…

 

How does humor heal? 

You regain control over your life. When all else fails, you can still laugh!  Nobody can stop you. Smiling and laughter are immensely therapeutic, too. Science has proven it, time and again.

 

Greatest artistic accomplishment? 

Creating and touring the Survival Revival Revue (a one-woman musical) has been most powerful. 

 

Open mic on a soapbox—life lesson to share? 

Passion, Persistence, Poetry and Puns! Find what you love, keep doing it in unexpected zigzag ways and always exercise your humor. 

 

What’s next? 

What isn’t?

We’re currently touring Joey’s Lunch-Money Blues about bullying; Pieces: In My Own Voice about mental health; and Hansel and Gretel about junk food. Our “Food for Thought” workshops run in low-income neighborhoods. They utilize visual art and focus on mindfulness, fitness, food and gardening.

Coming Soon: a re-enactment of the Bay View Tragedy (with Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre); a Puppet Parade and Pageant through the streets of Riverwest and Harambee; and a Latino Carnival. 

And last but not least, Milwaukee Public Theatre’s 40th anniversary party! It is steampunk-themed, 6-10 p.m. on Friday, Sept.19 in the Plankinton Building, 161 W. Wisconsin Ave.

 

Last Call? 

Everyone is an artist and theater is soul food—nourishment to help find your greatest gift: your own voice. 

 

For more on Leigh’s biography, visit milwaukeepublictheatre.org/barbara-biography.html.