When it comes to putting on a great show, no one upstages our high schools.
“The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.”– Stella Adler, 20th Century actress and acting teacher.
Truth telling theater style is a decades-long specialty of the Tosa East Players and the Tosa West Trojan Players. The latest editions of the Tosa East Players and Tosa West Trojan Players strive to present quality theatre while creating a learning community that fosters performing and technical talent. It also creates a wide network of support from dedicated directors, parents and theatre patrons.
Kate Sarner of East and Adam Steffan of West direct the stage productions.
Sarner returned to Wisconsin after a New York theater career that included acting and eventually teaching.
“I saw a lot of my peers moving into other careers,” she said.
Back home, the Brookfield native taught at an MPS charter school before replacing longtime Tosa East theatre Director Tom Thaney. The Tosa East directorial bloodline goes back to Thaney’s predecessor Dale Hidde, whom the school honored by naming the recently renovated theatre after him
“I love to bring my passion and love of theater to the next generation,” Sarner said. “The history here has allowed me to lay down strong roots. The talent and the support is consistent and reliable.”
Adam Steffan worked at a children’s theater in North Carolina and at Milwaukee’s Skylight Theatre before returning to his Wauwatosa roots. Steffan is a Tosa East grad, so he extends Tosa East’s venerable history to its younger sister school that has its own strengths.
“I’m not sure there is anything in the water here (in Wauwatosa), but you do need to have someone at the helm who knows what they are doing and who can continue to garner support from the district and parents,” Steffan said.
The two directors have their own style. While both hold open auditions, Sarner said she holds them without the added pressure of an audience of peers or other supporters while Steffan opts for what he envisions as the learning experience of peer-infused auditions.
They also coordinate the timing between their shows, in an effort to avoid same date performances.
“It has happened, but we mostly avoid that,” Steffan said. “We support each other in any way we can including comparing approaches to the academic classes.”
Student perspective from East
Learning is at the heart of the theatre programs. Students recently said their experience was fruitful in the relationships they formed as well as the techniques they learned.
At Tosa East, Simon Hartman-Keiser, who most recently played a lead in “Pippin” after an experience in a number of other roles in previous shows like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Encore, Encore,” said being part of East’s theatre is like being part of a family.
“It has given me a place to work hard on a project and continue to a career,” he said.
He hopes to hone his career aspirations at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois Wesleyan or at UW-Stevens Point.
Sophomore Maria Serrano has developed her theatre role as a co-stage manager. She has also been a dance captain and performed in “Encore, Encore” and “Footloose.” Serrano said she hopes to study theatre in college when she is ready to enroll.
Augustina (Gusty) Piel, another sophomore, has found her theatre role as a co-stage manager, taking notes, scheduling and basically being the right hand of the director
“This is amazing,” said Piel, who follows her sister Katherine as an East theatre participant
“So much happens behind the scenes that people don’t see. l like the development process where the magic really happens.”
Jaxon Rakowiecki is a sophomore who also works behind the scenes, specifically constructing sets.
“I like the tech part because it involves physics and other sciences,” he said. “It’s a good foundation for the future.”
Jaxon’s siblings – Hailey and Sidney, also participated in the theatre during their high school days. His brother, Riley, a freshman at UW-Eau Clare, was involved in the technical side – lighting and sound — until he took a chance on auditioning.
“I got the role of Cogsworth the clock in “Beauty and the Beast,” he said. “I was so surprised and happy,”
Riley’s perspective of East’s director history suggests a kind of metamorphosis.
“Hidde was the founder, Thaney gave a lot of autonomy to the cast and Kate Sarner emphasizes the grandeur of it all,” he said.
West Student View
Seniors Krista Laszewski and Emily Pieper along with sophomores Bradley Nowacek and Bella Zeimet – all performers — pointed to the influences of parents and grandparents exposing them to theatre, as well as following the lead of siblings who travelled a prior theater path.
“You really learn stage presence, how to work with people and to take instruction well,” said Laszewski, who was newspaper reporter Mary Sunshine in this past year’s production of “Chicago.” “I’m planning to major in musical theater, but I haven’t decided where just yet.”
Pieper, who has been dance captain for most of the shows and played one of “Chicago’s” Merry Murderers, will be a business major at UW Madison in the fall but will find other theater outlets.
“I want to keep it as a hobby,” she said, noting that she ushers at nearby Sunset Theatre.
Nowacek, who played the Amos Hart “Mr. Cellophane” character in “Chicago,” and the dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors,” said he enjoys the collaboration.
“It teaches empathy,” he said. “You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if they are a heinous human being.”
Zeimet, who played Velma Kelly in “Chicago,” sees the big picture.
“I love theater and musical theater because it brings together every art form, from acting and singing to the dancers, pit musicians and the tech crew.”
Actors and tech crew at both schools agreed that collaboration may be the universal skill, while actors said learning and perfecting public speaking and stage presence were key.
Each high school has its own parent group that supports the activities by providing food for those evening and weekend rehearsals and the all-important tech weeks, helping create scenery and costumes and raising funds for a variety of unbudgeted items.
“We make sure the kids get what they need,” said Traci Harder, president of West’s Parent Network. “This is a whole different group of kids who are mature and not only do they become friends inside the theater group, but they remain friends outside of it as well. We sell ticket all over, including at Tosa Fest. The performances all sell out.”
At East, Jen Rakowiecki. Mom to current and past theatre students Sidney, Hailey, Riley and Jaxson, recently just stepped down as president of the Friends of Theatre Arts Board. She said serving a has been good experience.
“It’s a great organization and it means so much to the community as well as the kids,” she said
Theatre is a significant part of Wauwatosa’s DNA. Jill Fahr, a recently retired officer in East’s Friends group, credits pre-high school programs like the Children’s Theatre and programs at Longfellow and Whitman Middle Schools for generating interest and talent.
In particular, Fahr notes the efforts of the late Lois Weber who in addition to her decades long membership on the School Board also fostered the Children’s Theatre. In 2014 Longfellow named its theatre program in honor of Weber’s legacy.
Another important figure at Longfellow, Fahr said, is Kate Dombrowski who directed 20 productions during her career. She retired in 2014.
“The high school theatre programs is the one place in high school that you are mixing gender, age and all different levels of academics,” Fahr said. “It’s also a place where residents all over Wauwatosa support each of the high school productions. It’s affordable, quality entertainment. There is a lot that goes into it because it’s so important to not let the community down.”
A Tale of Two Theatre Upgrades
This 1268-seat venue was a bit worn before its makeover and rededication as the Dale K. Hidde Theatre in March of 2017. Director Kate Sarner said improvement include new curtains, paint, all new seats first floor bathrooms and sound and light facilities. While the supportive Friends of Theatre Arts help pay for some items such as dance mirrors and costume racks, Sarner said East’s rehab was earmarked from district funds.
For more information about Tosa East’s Dale K. Hidde Theatre, go to www.tosaeasttheatre.com
While Tosa West is decades younger than East, its 850-seat auditorium was in need of updated light and sound systems, so a new light board was installed in 2015 and a new sound board was introduced in 2016 – both through district funds. The Parent Network, Director Adam Steffan said, is helpful in providing funds for specific shows. An example might be shoes for the cast.
For more information about the theater season presented by the Tosa West Trojan Players, go to www.trojanplayers.com