Milwaukee Public Theatre (‘Shepherd Express’ December 2009)

Milwaukee Public Theatre

Serving the Community

By Kathy Nichols

Milwaukee Public Theatre, celebrating its 35th year, is responsible for creating and performing more than 400 productions, often at no charge or for a nominal fee, to audiences state and nationwide. With a focus on health education, MPT entertainers visit public places in Milwaukee, such as parks and schools, to exhibit their art.Some performances are done in the traditional way, but some allow for interaction with the audience. “They’re scenarios where things don’t turn out well and the audience can step in and become the characters,” says Barbara Leigh, co-founder and artistic and producing director. “It’s a really great way to give people a chance to rehearse for life.  Especially with kids dealing with things like drug abuse and peer pressure, being able to get out of it and not take drugs can be really tough.  So we present scenarios dealing with those things,” she continues.To accomplish this, MPT employs clowns, stiltwalkers, balloon artists, puppeteers, craft artists, fire spinners, storytellers, ventriloquists, and a host of other types of entertainers.Focusing on multi-cultural performances and workshops, MPT has put on shows such as“Latin American Folktales,” which incorporates music and masks from Spanish-speaking cultures and “Tales from the Nile,”which includes workshops in African dance, drumming, crafts and music.  Dealing with more than cultural differences,  “Capaz” is “a piece geared to work with Latino families who have children with special needs,” according to Azeeza Islam, associate artistic director, “‘Tasawari’ is the sister component to that, dealing with African American families with special needs.”MPT also tries to address social causes in its work. “We tend to try to keep our ear to the ground with regard to what sorts of things are going on, and deal with those issues,” says Leigh.  One example of this, “Unclothed…the Naked Truth,” presents stories from survivors of sexual abuse.   Another, “FAQS” (Facing Adolescents’ Questions about Sex), “is younger adults and/or teenagers who take adolescents’ questions about sex and sends a message through both rap music and acting about how kids can better protect themselves,” says Islam.

After programs such as this one, they have brochures available for students interested in getting help or further information.  For shows dealing with delicate subjects, counselors from both the school and the mental health facility are available. Another program, “Tobaccosaurus Rex,” is a puppet play about tobacco and its effects.

Another big component of MPT is their arts residency programs, with which they work with a number of agencies and schools.  “Our arts residencies cover all kinds of different things,” says Leigh. “We also do circus residencies called Rainbow Circus,” she continues.  “They learn things like acrobatic skills, juggling, balancing, and plate spinning.”

“We’ve got both summer programs and ones that run from September to December,” Islam adds.  “Most of them are after school, but some are during the day.” One of the two residencies Islam herself is involved with is at Stuart Elementary and is done in cooperation with Arts-at-Large.  “We’re dancing to the Michael Jackson tune ‘Man in the Mirror’ and some of the 3rd and 4th graders come up in a line asking ‘what life means to me’ and then they dance to the song,” says Islam with a smile.

It’s not only inner- city residents that benefit from MPT.  “We’ve gone into some of these communities that are totally Caucasian and, being that we work with a multi-cultural group, we’ve had a black ‘Uncle Sam,’ for example, we were able to, I think, give the message ‘we’re all in this together’ without beating people over their heads with it,” says Islam.

Working in conjunction with other groups is another important goal of MPT. One is the Ajula Performance Troupe, a project that focuses on African culture and is composed of performers aged 13 and up who are from central Milwaukee. Another, the Esperanza Players,  focuses its bilingual performances on health issues specific to Latinos.

“My co-founder, Mike Moynihan, and I were trying to figure out how to really reach people. We decided it’s not just through lecturing them, it’s through hands-on experience,” says Leigh.  “Theatre can reach people in ways that other forms don’t.”

“We have worked with so many people, and that’s really what makes us, gives us that energy that people brought to the theatre and that’s really what we’re about.  We’re really trying to collaborate (with other groups) and not be territorial.  We’re all struggling for the same money pot, but, ultimately, we’re all working for the same goals,” says Leigh.

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