\The Milwaukee Rep’s current production of Lost Girl focuses on a young woman struggling to grow up. As she evolves from a little girl, enchanted by magical stories, to a young woman asking hard questions about her future and the people around her, she loses her innocence, but finds confidence in her true self. The show is beautifully rendered by a group of teens who can identify with the protagonist both personally and professionally. They are all part of the Milwaukee Rep’s Professional Training Institute (PTI) — a program designed specifically for young people to find their voices and begin their careers in the professional world of the performing arts.
Now in its second year, the advanced actor training program for high school students attracted more than 100 auditioners. But for this season’s cohort of PTI students, only 16 were chosen —from 14 different schools. Over the course of the year, the budding actors met once a month to attend workshops with notable theater professionals with connections to the Rep. Guest mentors included Nicholas Rodriguez (Guys and Dolls), Soraya Broukhim (The Who & The What), Milwaukee Rep casting director Frank Honts, Milwaukee High School of the Arts graduate and creator of Murder for Two Joe Kinosian, Associate Artistic Director May Adrales, One House Over playwright Catherine Treieschmann, music mogul Abdul Hamid Royal (Black Pearl Sings!), local favorites Mark Corkins, and Elizabeth Ledo, and Rep Associate Artists James Pickering and Angela Iannone.
Nicolet High School junior Reese Parish really appreciated the opportunity to interact with these guest artists, especially local actor Norman Moses. “He talked about the business of acting,” she explained. “The financial life of an artist is just as important as getting up on stage and performing, and yet it’s the part of acting I knew the least about. It definitely gave me a new perspective on how I need to go about handling my financial life as I begin to become more of an independent actor and person,” she said.
Marquette University High School senior Kenyon Terrell echoed Parish’s enthusiasm for his teachers, and the PTI program as a whole. “My peers within the cohort are a group of hilarious and talented individuals who have taught me just as much as the professional instructors. Chiefly among those lessons is the value of a person’s experiences and their story, and the cultural necessity for those stories to be shared,” he said. “And participating in a workshop with Jim Pickering, to me, was nothing short of a master class.”
The program culminated in the world premiere production of Lost Girl, by Kimberly Belflower. This lyrical, ensemble play picks up the Peter Pan story long after Wendy has returned from Neverland. She brought a couple of the lost boys with her, but left her heart — and her kiss — behind with Peter. Although the magical orphan promised to come back for Wendy, she fears he has abandoned her. Now she must figure out how to move on with her life — and really grow up.
Directed by Ryan Quinn, the new work was tailored to the talents and personalities of the entire class, and presented in the Rep’s Stiemke Theater July 19-22. “Working with these young and hungry actors is a joy, and I am very proud of the dedication they have put in,” Quinn commented. “I’ve really challenged them as young artists, and they have risen to meet those high expectations.”
He also had high praise for Lost Girl. “The play is a workout for actors, as they have to stretch many different artistic muscles. It has wonderful, intimate scenes that then blow open in huge ensemble chorus moments. It has scenes that feel naturalistic, only to burst open in poetry and abstraction. I think it is a great vehicle for high schools students because you can’t do all the things the play asks you to do without having a specific voice to add to the process. Our performers can’t sit on the sidelines waiting, but need to offer something in each and every day of rehearsal.”
Portraying Wendy, Parish was deeply challenged by the part. “I had the most amazing time discovering who this brave young woman was and how she came to be the way she was. Through the play you see Wendy take the once shared narrative and make it her own.” She continued, “It’s a fantastic thing to witness young women being the focal point of theater. Working with the other strong cast members has elevated this production and helps us all feel connected to Wendy,” she said.
Playing the lost boy Slightly, Terrell noted that this experience was different from any other cast he’d been part of. “The diversity of the participants has made the experience unique. The camaraderie and union cultivated among a group of young people from the farthest reaches of Milwaukee County, is the type of event with enough potency to affect our city, for the better.”
Quinn, who also directed the final project for PTI last year, commented on the experience saying, “I am again blown away by the talent of these young performers. Not only in terms of acting, but all the other gifts they brought to the table. They were asked to sing, move, write music, create story, be professionals and become young leaders for Milwaukee. They have been champions at every step of the process.”
Summarizing the extraordinary experience, Quinn said, “The PTI actors go through a year of classes with working professional theater makers, and then get a true professional rehearsal process, with a professional production team at the end of their time. They receive full support from the Rep, and then get to perform on the Rep stage. They receive access to numerous people working in the industry, and then get a chance to showcase their talent in a world class venue. I can’t think of better training.”