Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 16

Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer

Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.



Even as a cascade of theater companies announce recalibrated seasons starting later this Fall or in 2021, other theater companies’ new seasons are already underway, at a moment when the theater subscription model and the very notion of a theater “season” are under siege. So are theaters and theater artists generally. And because theater companies and artists now need your help more than ever, investing in one or more of these companies’ subscriptions – or at least being aware of individual offerings in various companies’ upcoming seasons – has never mattered more.

Taking in most or all of a company’s season not only represents an investment in and commitment to the future of that company and the artists to whom it gives work. It also offers a chance to suss out the themes running through a company’s season, as programmed plays begin talking to one another in the way that plays invariably do – thereby fostering conversation between visions and worlds that might seem to have nothing to do with each other. Such conversational inter-play is only going to get better, now that it’s possible to compare productions from Miami to Seattle and from Los Angeles to New York without ever getting on a plane.

I therefore want to spend time in this edition of the picks celebrating companies – including my beloved Forward Theater – that have stayed the course, somehow overcoming seemingly insuperable obstacles to preserve the notion of a season. I’ve tried to select a wide variety of companies and seasons, offering different types of plays – and, just as important, different approaches to how a pandemic-era season might unfold and what it might include. Each of my selections involves a company with a currently running or about to open production; in future volumes of picks, I’ll periodically profile other companies as their seasons get under way.

I’m well aware that taking advantage of such offerings requires a financial investment; I’m also very aware that many of you may currently be in a particularly vulnerable financial position. I’ve tried, through the first 15 volumes of Mike’s Picks, to ensure that the vast majority of my recommended offerings could be accessed for free. Each of this week’s particularly robust (i.e., longer) bonus selections can similarly be accessed for free. And I already have some exciting free selections – involving productions that won’t have expired and will therefore still be available – cued up for the weeks to come.

But in a country (and a state) where government doesn’t value or support the arts – it’s again worth pointing out, as I have before, that Wisconsin ranks dead last among states in per capita arts spending – theaters won’t survive unless we support them. That’s why increasing numbers of theater companies are now charging for what they’d been offering for free when the pandemic began; they do so because they must (here’s looking at you, magnificent National Theatre). And I don’t need to convince anyone still reading this introduction that what we pay for the shows we see is a steal, given the extraordinary value of what we receive in return.

So until we can collectively return to actual brick-and-mortar theaters, please do what you can to ensure that the companies we love will still be standing when we reach the other side. In the interim, they’re continuing to give us plenty of reasons to be grateful, one stream at a time.

I’m always grateful when I hear from you, regarding the ideas in these introductory remarks, my weekly picks, your suggestions for future picks, or any other arts-related matters on your mind. You can reach me via email through Forward at or directly at As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. And as always, I promise to write back.

Bonus Selections:

First, here’s the full, hour-long archived production – available through September 14 – of the Wooster Group’s haunting and harrowing The B-Side: Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons, A Record Album Interpretation. It channels the ghosts of those many thousands gone, from the first days of slavery through the harsh Texas penal farms of a half century ago. It’s presented without fanfare by a trio of performers, whose voices overlay the recorded voices of various anonymous souls, hereby being honored and remembered: WATCH

Second, from Stan’s Cafe Theatre in Birmingham, UK, here’s the 25-minute For Quality Purposes, in which we watch a day in the life of five call-center workers, each of them both feeling and embodying the loneliness, isolation, and frustration of life in a pandemic (yes, it was created after lockdown). An easy target for comedians’ jokes, these workers are treated here with the empathy and respect they’re frequently denied and always deserve: WATCH

Third, here’s Jordan E. Cooper’s Mama Got a Cough, an hilarious short in which five siblings on a Zoom call divide their time between mercilessly teasing each other and trying to persuade their sick mother to get to the hospital. Her unwillingness to go is among the many times this comic piece simultaneously captures the daily inequalities of Living While Black in America: WATCH

Finally, in celebration of the imminent release of the film version of choreographer Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes, here’s both the ravishing trailer from Bourne’s London stage production (cut short by the pandemic) as well as Bourne’s fun and inspiring 12-minute film, in which his cast offers a homemade pandemic version of The Red Shoes that captures the often forgotten humor as well as the sheer joy of dance:

Stage Production Trailer (2019): WATCH

Red Shoes From Home (2020): WATCH

Selections for Volume 16 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):

1. Fact and Fiction (Forward Theater Company): One day before theaters began closing in March, Forward had announced its Season 12, opening with a production of The Lifespan of a Fact. Accepting early on during the pandemic that Lifespan wouldn’t be happening on stage, Forward was nevertheless determined to “stage” Lifespan for you. With Wisconsin theater legend and onetime Madison Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Joe Hanreddy at the helm, that’s exactly what Forward has done, through a standard rehearsal period for a production augmented by a complete design team.

Tickets/info: The Lifespan of a Fact

The result, as channeled by Wisconsin actors James Carrington, Michael Herold, and Mary MacDonald Kerr, is a full-fledged, multimedia virtual production. As production lighting designer Noele Stollmack notes, Forward is “going to elevate what’s going on right now into something more 3-dimensional.” To further enhance the theatergoing experience, Forward has also included a beautiful virtual lobby that includes a delightful guide to streaming on your television (recommended), a preshow lecture, and a schedule of live talkbacks. Purchasing a ticket entitles you to one streamed viewing at any point during the complete run of the show, from this Friday through September 27.

Speaking of streaming, here’s a quote from John, a hotshot writer who’s one of Lifespan’s two protagonists: “I’ve just streamlined this quote in order to help things move along a little better, and to create a bit of resonance with neighboring paragraphs,” John says, regarding an article he wrote. “It’s what writers do.” He’s responding to fellow protagonist Jim, a fact-checker at the magazine where John’s article is scheduled for publication.

How far does John’s literary license extend? In writing his article, John also changes numbers and colors while conflating separate events that stretch over months. “I take liberties with things that deepen the central truth of the piece,” John insists. “If you say that an event occurred, readers need to trust that it occurred,” Jim responds. “How can you even for a moment claim that facts are negotiable?”

Mired in a mud-slinging election season with numerous allegations involving fake news, has this play – based on a true story – ever been more relevant? You can ponder that question for yourself during and after watching Forward’s production. Tickets can be purchased from Forward’s website, which will also provide information regarding the remaining plays in its 12th season, being presented under the rubric United Stories of America. I’ve also included a link below to a FAQ addressing additional questions about this production as well as pandemic-induced changes to Forward’s season.

2. The Groves of Academe (Court Theatre): Drawing on its ties to the University of Chicago, Court Theatre in Hyde Park has announced one of this year’s most exciting seasons. It begins this Fall with online seminars involving various plays and playwrights (August Wilson; Euripides’ The Bacchae; Caryl Churchill’s Fen; Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs), each presented over four sessions led by various scholars and supplemented by documentaries, interviews, and suggestions for additional reading. Also this Fall, Court will undertake an even deeper, seven-session dive (culminating in a reading) into Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s latest and most personal play – involving his discovery that he is Jewish and that this was the reason he’d been whisked out of his native Czechoslovakia as an infant (the Stoppard sessions make excellent preparation for reading Hermione Lee’s soon-to-be published Stoppard biography, which is drawing pre-pub raves). In Winter and Spring 2021, Court will conclude its season with three live productions, offering audiences the opportunity to attend the first two either in-person or virtually.

Season tickets/info: Court Theatre 2020-21 Season

While seminars and/or plays can be purchased individually, Court’s pricing structure encourages purchasing a subscription, which is available starting at $96. Court’s season-opening offering, The World of August Wilson and the Black Creative Voice, began yesterday and will also air on the next three Tuesdays; purchasing access to this seminar allows one to watch each of its four offerings at any point during the ensuing 60 days.

3. The Two-Year Season (American Conservatory Theater): One of the more innovative recent season announcements comes from Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon’s A.C.T. in San Francisco, which announced a season starting this September and stretching into 2022. Remote options are frontloaded, with five in-person productions beginning next Spring and stretching into a production of The Lehman Trilogy in Spring 2022. Along the way, there’ll be readings of new and classic plays as well as a full-length filmed production of Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom that I can’t wait to see (I talk more about Christian, and share a few clips from Animal Wisdom, in my final pick to Volume 2).

Love in Warcraft

But that’s all ahead of us. First up, in conjunction with Alaska’s Perseverance Theater, A.C.T. is giving us a virtual production of Madhuri Shekar’s Love in Warcraft, involving a college senior who presents as a fearless warrior with a boyfriend while she is gaming. In real life, she’s never been in love, even though she ghostwrites letters for those who are. What happens when she falls for one of her clients? Will this female Cyrano reveal her true self (and just what is one’s true self, anyway)? Or will she hide behind the persona she’s created online?

The play will be performed live online twice this weekend (1:00 pm CDT on September 11 and 10:00 pm CDT on September 12). It will then stream for one additional week starting next weekend (September 18-25). Tickets begin at $15; tickets for either of this weekend’s live performances must be reserved at least 4.5 hours in advance of show time. While Shekar’s play includes a snippet of game footage to animate a scene, A.C.T. indicates that a deep familiarity with either Warcraft or other video games is not necessary.

4. Live Performance, From an Actual Stage (Old Vic): Britain’s venerable Old Vic has previously appeared among my picks. That’s a reflection of the exceptional quality of The Old Vic’s online pandemic programming, which has included plenty of free material: excellent archived productions, a series of monologues on the National Health Service, and a very good podcast exploring theater artists’ favorite plays. But the standout has been Old Vic: In Camera, which is about to serve up its third ticketed production featuring actors performing live from the Old Vic’s stage but without an audience. The first two were excellent; I’m still on a high after watching Andrew Scott’s devastating solo turn this past week in the world premiere of Stephen Beresford’s Three Kings.

Faith Healer

I have high hopes for the just-announced third installment in this Old Vic season: a timely production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, performed by a killer cast led by Michael Sheen (Francis) and including Indira Varma (Grace) and David Threllfall (Teddy). Friel’s great play is about many things; among them is the willing suspension of disbelief, how much harder that can be when the road grows rocky, and the toll this takes on the conjurers. Welcome to 2020.

Fun fact: The reliably outstanding Mary MacDonald Kerr from Forward’s Lifespan cast played Grace in the best production of Faith Healer I’ve seen, at Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre in 2008. “Mary MacDonald Kerr brought me close to tears,” I wrote in my review, “as she moved seamlessly along the play’s longest dramatic arc, from a semblance of order and control to naked pain and abject longing.”

Speaking of plays talking to one another, Faith Healer is also a play that can be usefully juxtaposed with The Lifespan of a Fact, which covers similar terrain from a completely different angle. And because it’s built on monologues, Friel’s play is also ideally suited to remaining credible on a socially distanced stage.

There will only be five performances of Faith Healer, between next Wednesday, September 16 and Saturday, September 19. Tickets are on sale now; seating for each performance is capped at the theater’s capacity (just over 1,000 seats). Performances do sell out. Given the quality of Old Vic’s offerings thus far, they should.

5. Forever Young (First Stage): Milwaukee’s justly renowned First Stage, one of the best young people’s theater companies in the United States, is kicking off its recently announced 2020-21 season with a reading and a seven-episode virtual series; true to form with First Stage, both involve new work.

Apollo and the Trial of Hercules

First up, as the season opener in Forward’s Foundry series of readings of developing plays, comes Joe Foust and John Maclay’s Apollo and the Trial of Hercules. This is the same dynamic duo that had me in stitches three years ago at Robin Hood – First Stage’s 60th world premiere production in its storied 30-year history. Robin Hood delivered laughs while challenging us to rethink our narrowly masculine idea of what it means to be a hero.

Apollo and the Trial of Hercules sounds like another adaptation of a classic story; this time, it’s Homer’s Odyssey, recast as a teen’s quest for his missing father (a professor of Mythology, of course). First Stage describes Apollo as “filled with mischief, mayhem, fighting, fury, and just pure fun” and suggests it’s appropriate for families with young people ages nine and up. The reading can be streamed anytime this weekend; on Sunday night (September 13) at 7:00 pm, you can register for a live discussion and share your thoughts with the playwrights and creative team.

The Quest for Solomon’s Treasure

One week later, on September 20, First Stage unveils the initial episode in Maclay’s The Quest for Solomon’s Treasure, its first full production of the season. A seven-episode web series, this world premiere follows six young Milwaukeeans working to solve clues in a treasure hunt to save the day. True to First Stage’s aesthetic, audiences will be empowered to participate in the story; in each week’s new 15-20-minute episode, they’ll be given new clues assisting them in solving the mystery alongside the characters.

First Stage describes Quest as a cross between Goonies and National Treasure, with plenty of Milwaukee mixed in; it’s suggested for families with young people ages eight and up. One episode will drop each week through early November; the entire series will remain available for viewing through May 2021. Tickets (one ticket buys access to the entire series) begin at $12 – a deal if there ever was one, given that the return on this modest investment in the future could include hooking a young person on theater for life.

References (in order of mention):

* Eric Berryman, The B-Side: Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons, A Record Album Interpretation (The Wooster Group):

* Craig Stephens, James Yarker and cast, For Quality Purposes (Stan’s Cafe Theatre):

* Jordan E. Cooper, Mama Got a Cough (Cookout Entertainment):

* Matthew Bourne, The Red Shoes (Sadler’s Wells, 2019 Trailer):

* Matthew Bourne, The Red Shoes at Home (New Adventures, 2020 short):

* Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, The Lifespan of a Fact (Forward Theater Company):

* Forward Theater, FAQ Regarding The Lifespan of a Fact and Season 12:

* Court Theatre Season Announcement:

* The World of August Wilson and The Black Creative Voice (Court Theatre):

* Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life (Penguin; publication date of 2/23/21)

* Jennifer Bielstein and Pam MacKinnon, A.C.T. 20/21/22 Season Announcement:

* Madhuri Shekar, In Love and Warcraft (American Conservatory Theater and Perseverance Theatre):

* Brian Friel, Faith Healer (The Old Vic):

* Joe Foust and John Maclay, Apollo and The Trial of Hercules (First Stage):

* John Maclay, The Quest for Solomon’s Treasure (First Stage):