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Bucketworks, Then and Now

Milwaukee's lab for learning and performing

Sep. 28, 2011
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When my job dissolved with Theatre X in 2004, Bucketworks rescued me. There was nothing like it, a “health club for the brain” where, for a negotiable fee, members had access to space, tools, technology and the spiritual reinforcement that comes from being part of a creative community of people trying to live on something like their own terms. The generous staff, especially the founding visionary James Carlson, gave me daily shots of optimism, a place to make theater and my own website.

In 2007, the rented building at Third and McKinley was sold. Carlson and friends put all they'd learned from five years of operating a communal workspace into the design of a second Bucketworks at Sixth and Vliet. With a better performance space, Brian Miracle's Quasi-Cafe and the energies of many artist-entrepreneurs who knew the value of sharing skills, ideas and resources, the new Bucketworks was bursting with promise. Then in 2008 the roof burst under heavy rain. Flooding ruined the café and half of the building. It happened again in 2009. Two disasters meant another move.

“We lost a lot of goods, but the biggest impact was on community,” Carlson says. “Since then it's been a roller coaster. We've learned that recovery can take years.”

Bucketworks reopened in 2010 at 706 S. Fifth St., just north of National Avenue. Three connected buildings offer several large and small meeting rooms, private offices, rehearsal rooms, storage, construction and gallery spaces, a kitchen, an outdoor patio and indoor parking, all at miniscule cost to members.

It's a superior facility, but quieter. “It's become a lab for teaching and learning,” Carlson says. “Our events are learning events rather than performance events, but we're trying to bring the club feeling back.”

One such event is BarcampMilwaukee6 on Oct. 1-2, organized by the technology group Web414. The agenda of this free public “un-conference” is set by participants who gather from across the Midwest to share knowledge on topics like starting a business, picking locks and living sustainably.

Another is the Great Lakes Constructivist Consortium (GLCC) forum on Oct. 20, titled "Meeting the Radical Edge: Maker Spaces and Deschooling," for Milwaukeeans interested in constructivist schools and project-based learning.

“We support this because we believe in it,” Carlson says with passion. “Bucketworks is a hands-on place and this is hands-on learning.”

Carlson is self-taught; although his genius is apparent, he didn't finish high school. He's taken lucrative jobs designing computer programs for major corporations, but only to support his Bucketworks calling. GLCC will showcase student projects on Nov. 18 at Manpower.

A third member, ArtWorks for Milwaukee, uses public art to teach employment skills to youth. Other member businesses include The Elumenati, a company that makes and installs immersive visualization domes in museums, schools, businesses and government facilities; H2OScore, which works with Marquette students to compile precise data on water usage by address to help homes and businesses achieve sustainability; and Integrated Precision Controls, which builds solar power plants in rural India.

Bucketworks also houses three theater companies. Angry Young Men, Bill Olsen and Josh Perkins' puppet collective, will present its adaptation of Night of the Living Dead on Oct. 27 at the Oriental Theatre. The World's Stage, a Bucketworks-supported youth theater led by Patrick Schley, recently presented Greater Tuna. Director Jordan Gwiazdowski has a new group. Visual artists, take note: Bucketworks needs a curator for the art gallery, which has its own street entrance.

Word of Bucketworks' existence has spread even as it has struggled to rebuild. A national movement of “hackers,” not cyber-burglars but rather a grassroots movement of “people who want to solve problems by opening things up and looking inside,” is blossoming in cities across the country. Bucketworks predates it and embodies its ideals, and Carlson was called on for advice.

“So we gathered the [hacker] leaders and founded the Space Federation,” he says, “banding to share ideas and teach each other.” In August, he was invited to Germany to present the Space Federation to European networks of similar “Maker Spaces.”

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, collectives like RedLine and the new “creative ecosystem” at Grand Avenue have developed. “There couldn't be too many places like this in a city,” Carlson says, before adding, ruefully, “This is a movement on the verge of being co-opted.”

John Schneider is the
Shepherd's assistant A&E editor. He was a resident playwright, director and actor with Theatre X.


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