Milwaukee Public Theatre: A Strong Presence at Riverwest Summer Festivals

by Jackie Dettloff They stand for diversity, creativity, and ordinary people, so it’s no wonder they have become part of the Riverwest landscape. Since 1993, Milwaukee Public Theatre (MPT) has performed in Gordon Park every year on the 4th of July. The group will be back again at the celebration next month, with workshops to involve family members of all ages at 9:30 a.m., immediately following the parade. The drumming of the AJULA Youth Drum and Dance Troupe at 10:30 will be one of the highlights of the Independence Day performance. This year, besides its traditional appearance in Gordon Park, MPT will also join the scene at Locust Street Days. With a troupe of jugglers, clowns, stilt walkers, and face-painters, MPT will bring smiles to the crowds that stroll down Locust Street on June 9. They even hint at bringing a 20-ft puppet to add to the festivities. Look for the theatre cast at the northeast corner of Bremen and Locust, where they will get a drum circle going between 12:30 and 2:30 and offer craft workshops for people who want to sit down and just play. Another way MPT is involved with the Riverwest community is through summer programs at COA. Working with children in the neighborhood, the group has offered sessions in Latin drumming and puppetry. MPT has also collaborated with Riverwest artist Marina Lee, who has her studio at the corner of Bremen and Burleigh. As part of their repertoire, theatre members have worked up a performance piece that features two gigantic puppets that were designed by Lee — a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly. “Transformation” is a word that comes up often when MPT members talk about their work. Artistic Director Barbara Leigh points out that one of the goals of the group is “to promote the arts as a resource for personal, community and cultural transformation.” She explains that Milwaukee Public Theatre used to be known as the Friends’ Mime Troupe, but in 1991 members changed the name to better reflect their beliefs. The MPT aims to make quality performance art available to everybody, not just people who can afford to pay high ticket price. They generally perform in schools, parks, and community events, though they also take commissions for private functions. They try to raise questions among their viewers, so while they sometimes put on huge extravaganzas with puppets and lots of buffoonery, they also feature more serious, thought-provoking work — like a solo piece about healing, and interactive skits with school children to focus on the way addiction can devastate individuals and families. Leigh estimates that the troupe reaches an audience of 80,000-100,000 annually, thanks to an ambitious schedule that includes more than 300 appearances a year. This year, for example, they will be touring with four shows. Besides the AJULA troupe, they will stage a bilingual show of folk tales from Latin America, an elaborate puppet show, and a program in Applied Theatre. For funding, MPT relies on a patchwork of donations from public and private sources. Leigh is proud of the work of the company that she helped found nearly 30 years ago and grateful to the nearly 100 volunteers who help MPT live out its vision. The group aims high, striving to foster “a stronger sense of community, aiming to be as accessible as the public library, radio/TV, as diverse as our community and as imaginative as Mother Nature herself.” This summer, MPT will be in our neighborhood on several occasions, and they will enliven Riverwest with the power of their performance art.
by Jackie Dettloff