UWM premieres slice of Milwaukee history

Among the student actors meeting at the Avant Garde are Raven Dockery  as The Bluesmama (left), and Glenn Widdicombe as The Entrepreneur. (Photos by Rebecca Littman)

“Meet Me at the Avant Garde,” a new piece of musical theatre written by Fly Steffens (’12 BA Playwriting and Dramaturgy) and directed by Associate Professor Rebecca Holderness, premieres April 26-28 and May 2-5, featuring live music performed by Theatre and Guitar students. The research process becomes the story in this fictional look back at Milwaukee’s famous (and infamous) East Side coffeehouse.

The production is being presented at Kenilworth Studio 508, 1925 E. Kenilworth Pl.

“This multi-layered endeavor is one of our signature Year of the Arts events and incorporates everything we do at the Peck School – theater, music, dance, visual arts and video,” says Holderness, who also originated the concept for the production. “With its strong connection to the Milwaukee community, the production embodies another key component of the Year of the Arts.”

(L-R) McCormick Sweeney, Emily Rindt, Alex Van Abel, Fly Steffens iron out details during rehearsal.

The Avant Garde Coffeehouse, which was located on Milwaukee’s East Side from 1962-68, was the focus of the folk/blues revival in Wisconsin. It presented local performers and nationally known folk and blues artists, poetry readings, and experimental and underground films.

Faculty, staff and students in UWM’s Finger-Style Guitar Program, the only program of its kind in the nation, have been doing research for the past three years regarding Milwaukee’s impact on the national folk-blues revival in the 1960s. That research includes documenting visual, oral and musical history from primary sources, including transcribing rare recordings from performances at the Avant Garde. Inova Gallery, located in Kenilworth Square East, 2155 N. Prospect Ave., is showcasing this research through May 12.

During the course of the play, the past comes alive for three students when a mysterious box of reel-to-reel tapes appears at the 11th hour of The Avant Garde Coffeehouse Research Project. This musical coming-of-age story, based on the history uncovered by members of UWM’s Guitar Department, asks what happens when two generations of youth and music collide.

“The importance of building new work that is relevant to our community was at the core of my education as a theater artist,” says Steffens. “During my time as a student at the Peck School of the Arts, I developed several new plays, ranging from adaptations of classical works to community-based, devised theater.”

Ian Tanudjaja as The Whip

Steffens says she started writing the play immediately after graduation. “The skills and relationships I formed as a student prepared me to work on this long-term, collaborative process.”

Others who are playing key roles in the production are John Stropes, director of Guitar Studies; Joshua Lane, graduate student in Finger-Style Guitar; Bruce Knackert, associate director and gallery curator, Inova; and Edward Winslow, choreographer.

The play will be presented Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 28, at 2 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 2-4, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. Tickets are available from the Peck School of the Arts box office, 414-229-4308. Tickets are $8/general public; $5/13-18 years and Peck School students. Peck School Theatre majors and children under 12 are admitted free.