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Milwaukee’s Rising Talent

New voices in theater

Dec. 30, 2008
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Creative outlets are essential to a community's long-term well-being, yet theater remains one of the most delicate species in the cultural ecosystem of any city. Because it relies on disparate, shifting factors, fresh talent is a must.

All too often, the most capable young actors leave town after reaching a certain level of success, moving on to places like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Top talent seems to stay in Milwaukee only if the actors have fallen in love and decided to settle down, start a theater company or both.

Youth Movement

Ruth Arnell is relatively unique in this respect. The highly talented young actress has landed starring roles in shows with suburban theater companies like the Sunset Playhouse and Waukesha Civic Theatre as well as smaller companies such as Spiral Theatre. Shortly after graduating from college, Arnell moved to California to pursue an acting career. Finding the place too artificial, Arnell says she returned with dreams of becoming a full-time actress in the Milwaukee area.

Arnell, who registered with a local talent agency and is gaining steady work, is on her way to attaining that dream. As with many younger stage actors, Arnell is interested in furthering her goals through emerging technologies. She notes that she wants to show audiences the full process of theater acting, a goal she is realizing through video blogs online. Among other items, interested parties accessing her YouTube page (Internet handle "behnnie") can see her delivering extemporaneous biographical monologues and even eight minutes' worth of audition preparation.

Arnell isn't the only young talent drawn to the stage by new technology. Aaron Kopec says he never thought of himself as much of a theater person. In fact, he never thought of himself as much of a bar person, either. Yet he now runs the successful Alchemist Theatre and Lounge in a strange story involving a recording studio, a love of technology and likely a great deal of spackle. The theater world came about as a second interest to Kopec, whose preferred reading is a technical manual.

Years ago Kopec wanted to be a filmmaker, a dream that mutated after his involvement with a few projects for Dale Gutzman, artistic director of Off the Wall Theatre. After only a handful of experiences with the stage, Kopec fell in love with the immediacy of theater. When Alchemist's space at 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. became available, Kopec decided to build and run a theater.

The tiny storefront studio regularly sells out performances to a younger demographic than any other theater venue in town. In December, Kopec embraced a wide range of roles when he designed and built a set, arranged lighting and technical cues, and performed in the same play. Kopec says he enjoys the anxiety of being onstage, the tiny imperfections that give theater that vibrant, in-the-moment feeling that makes it so appealing.

Like Kopec, Matt Kemple is no stranger to acting in a show in which he's also done extensive technical work. The Ohio native graduated from St. Norbert College, near Green Bay. Between Green Bay and Columbus, Ohio, Kemple has worked on theatrical productions in communities so small that he practically had to build them himself.

On moving to Milwaukee, Kemple quickly became involved in a dozen tiny theater projects. He currently serves as the public-relations representative for Next Act Theatre. Kemple helped create the highly successful Milwaukee Sketch and Improv Festival and is involved in Pink Banana Theatre, a rising young company.

As always, established theater companies try to attract younger audiences while smaller companies with natural youth appeal try to reach older audiences. The rising talent of Milwaukee's theater scene should help both causes. Kemple, for example, says he wants to integrate the two ends of theater, and one of his first steps is a March production that teams tiny Pink Banana with the larger, more established Renaissance Theaterworks. It's a mutation that could prove to be very promising for the evolution of local theater.


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