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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

All About Community

Puppets, parades and pageants for Milwaukee Public Theatre’s 40th anniversary

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Milwaukee Public Theatre calls its upcoming 40th birthday party “The Steampunk Circus of Metamorphosis.” “Steampunk” for its setting amid the Victorian trappings of the Grand Avenue’s Plankinton Building, and because the Milwaukee Steampunk Society will present a Steampunk Fashion Show. “Circus” because of performances inside the Plankinton by artists who’ve worked with the company through the years—including actors, puppeteers, musicians, dancers, mimes, stilt walkers, fortunetellers, face painters, clowns, craft artists and a magician. “Metamorphosis” because that word best captures the shape-shifting eclecticism of what is surely one of the most transformative of Milwaukee’s performing art groups. A “Time Tunnel” of memorabilia from MPT’s archives of compassionate, socially activist productions and community work (sometimes contributed in virtual anonymity) should make an illuminating party centerpiece.

“I think involving people in the art on a grassroots level is our most important mission, our reason for being,” says Artistic Director Barbara Leigh, who co-founded the company with playwright/director Michael Moynihan as Friends Mime Theatre in 1974. “When Michael left and we changed our name, many people didn’t know it was the same company. I’m not a creator like Michael; I’m a midwife for the arts. I have to reach out to collaborators. We only want to make things happen. We have to balance our desire to have people know and respect us against having our collaborators feel empowered to do what they do.”

MPT has been working on many platforms. They are a partner in the construction of The Lab, a new public performance space to open this fall inside the Plankinton Building. MPT also collaborated with the Medical College of Wisconsin and Children’s Hospital to create a bilingual acting troupe to help families with children with special health care needs. With the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), MPT produces performances of playwright Brenda Wesley’s Pieces: In My Own Voice. It shatters stereotypes through monologues describing mental illness existentially. Out To Lunch: The Fresh Food Variety Show by playwright Neil Haven was added to the repertory last summer.

Food, health and healing have been important subjects for MPT from its earliest days. Its website lists the names and locations of Milwaukee’s farmers markets and urban gardens. Their existence is a testament to MPT’s 40 years of advocacy.

MPT has produced educational touring shows with directors Mark Weinberg and Jenny Wanasak on bullying, drug abuse and dropping out of school; with playwright La’Ketta Caldwell on sexual abuse and healing; on teen suicide and, separately, junk food (Hansel and Gretel: A Cautionary Tale) with The Quasimondo Milwaukee Physical Theatre, a company whose style echoes Leigh’s. While earning her doctorate in French Theater, Leigh studied physical theater at the schools of Marcel Marceau and Etienne Decroux in Paris, studies which shaped her life’s work.

Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre has been MPT’s decades-long collaborator, co-creating large-scale outdoor music-theater performances and the annual reenactment of the Bay View Rolling Mills tragedy at which a state militia killed peaceful fellow citizens during a strike and from which the Wisconsin labor movement was born. Milwaukee Mask and Puppet is now a partner in the new Downtown theater, The Lab, as are puppet maker Jeff Holub and theatrical designer Stewart Johnson. Within MPT’s embrace and management, these artists and many other collaborators have produced, in various manifestations, the glorious All City People’s Parade and Pageant and the Latino Carnival parades in recent summers.

On Aug. 30, this summer’s edition, called the Reclamation Parade and Pageant, will focus on the reclamation of the Harambee neighborhood, hard hit by foreclosures. MPT’s collaborators are the Holton Youth and Family Center (510 E. Burleigh St.) and Harambee residents Annushka Peck and Julia Swanson. Sponsorship is provided through an ArtPlace America grant to Art Milwaukee (now NEWaukee), the Greater Milwaukee Committee and Beintween, Keith Hayes’ “social and spatial network” which aims to transform, through art, unused urban spaces into places for community engagement. With the Artery Project, Beintween hopes to turn a gravelly former railroad corridor into a parkland biking and walking path that provides meeting ground for the adjoining Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods.

“It’s a joiners’ parade,” says lead artist Peck, a MIAD faculty member who operates a community garden in Harambee with Swanson, “because a neighborhood is something you participate in.” Peck and yoga teacher Katharina Hren worked with youngsters at the Holton Center to create characters, movements, masks and costumes.

The “Reclamation Parade” starts at 11:30 a.m. at the Richards Street entrance to the Beer Line Trail and continues to Capitol Drive, with the “Pageant”—a colorful musical about a community’s hope for triumph over racial and economic discrimination—being performed at the mid-point at 12:30 p.m.

The “Steampunk Circus of Metamorphosis” runs 6-10 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 19 at the Historic Plankinton Building, 161 W. Wisconsin Ave.