First Stage launches relief fund as it prepares for virtual season

Adam LaSalle, Annie Sturtz and Amirah Muhammad in Elf The Musical. (Photo: Paul Ruffolo)

Milwaukee youth theater organization First Stage has launched a relief initiative to help it weather the challenges of moving to a fully remote 2020-’21 season. 

The Molitor Foundation, a charitable foundation founded by former owners Lynn and Scott Molitor, has pledged to match 1-1 all gifts made to the new HOPE Fund up to $100,000. 

The relief effort is aimed at making up the gap as the organization plans to pause live theater performances for the upcoming season. In lieu of in-person programming, First Stage is rolling out virtual offerings for its supporters, called Through Our Lens, which will include streaming plays, short-form episodic performances, new play readings and other signature theater events.

First Stage has chosen to forgo in-person performances this year due to current CDC recommendations for the COVID-19 pandemic, along with financial considerations, said artistic director Jeff Frank during the organization’s virtual ImpACT event this week. 

“The predicted revenue losses due to limitations on audience size proved to be an untenable challenge,” he said. 

“We are not closing the door to producing physical plays (in 2020-’21), but we feel we must wait until we know that we can rehearse, produce and present safely for all involved in a way that is artistically exciting and fiscally responsible,” he added.

The organization’s overall budget has been cut by 50% this season, but decreases in production expenses will allow the majority of First Stage staff to return to work, Frank said. Seasonal staff will work for a shorter season than normal, and all full-time staff will take a four-week furlough, he said. 

First Stage has about 50 full-time employees.

In an ordinary year, First Stage’s Theater Academy serves nearly 2,000 students, and its Theater in Education programs serve about 20,000 students. 

The organization has also launched a virtual portal to provide theater education resources at home. 

“It is the amazing First Stage team that continues to focus on delivering our mission of transforming lives through theater to our community’s young people, families and educators,” said managing director Betsy Corry. “Support of the HOPE Fund initiative ensures that we can continue to serve.”

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