Like many who are employed at your Fox Cities P.A.C., I have lived and breathed the arts from music to writing for as long as I can remember. As the 2023-24 Season draws closer, I find myself reflecting on my first impressions of and my first season with the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.
I discovered the Center in 2017 when I attended a performance of Finding Neverland with a group from my college. Stepping foot into the building for the first time, I was impressed by its artistry and sheer size. I didn’t know it then, but that was only the beginning of a much deeper relationship with the Center. Five years later, I went from being a patron to an employee of the Fox Cities P.A.C. After spending more than a year in my role as Brand Storyteller and completing my first season, I realized that it’s so much more than a home for touring Broadway productions. People are able to engage in life-changing experiences through education programs, interactive workshops, and performances, leading to a livelier community that understands the power of the arts.
I grew up watching classic movie musicals with my family and taking voice and dance lessons. With music in my blood and dance in my heart, I’ve always been drawn to the theater. I was eight years old when I saw my first stage production, Thoroughly Modern Millie at The Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson. Sitting so close to the magic, I couldn’t help but be lured in and whisked away by the captivating story of a small-town girl headed for the big city with all her hopes and dreams. More than eighteen years later and the theater is still one of my favorite places to be. To date, I have seen 12 touring Broadway productions, eight of them at the Center, and a handful of community performances.
If you’re looking for the best live entertainment in Northeastern Wisconsin, your Fox Cities P.A.C. is an excellent choice. From touring Broadway productions to intimate theater cabarets, cultural performances to commercial acts, there is something for everyone to experience. In the Fox Cities P.A.C.’s 20th Anniversary Season, I attended a variety of shows featuring world-class talent through the Kimberly-Clark Broadway Across America – Fox Cities Series and Boldt Arts Alive! Series. For Broadway, I was able to see Disney’s ALADDIN and To Kill A Mockingbird. While vastly different, both productions were incredibly powerful and stirring while taking me back to my childhood. The brightly colorful and lavish costuming of Disney’s ALADDIN, as well as the jovial and humorous Genie as portrayed by Marcus M. Martin, captured the whimsy of the beloved animated film. On the flip side, the stellar cast of To Kill A Mockingbird including the impeccable casting of Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch told the story of the familiar literary classic through a new perspective. The performance left audiences gasping and experiencing a wide range of emotions that offered a chance for reflection on important ongoing conversations.
Thought-provoking performances extend beyond Broadway into the Boldt Arts Alive! Series, Spotlight Series and the new Viewpoint Speaker Series. In the 2022-23 Season, I attended three cultural Boldt Arts Alive! Series performances and a few of their connected community engagement activities. In September 2022, I took a friend to see the cultural contemporary rock group, Brulé, that celebrates Native American cultures through music, dance and storytelling. Prior to the performance, there was a talk with the group’s members that put into context what we would see on stage from the cultural significance of the dances to the regalia they were wearing. Even during the performance, Brulé’s founding member, Paul LaRoche explained more of what was taking place, weaving stories through the music and dance. I left that impactful performance with my friend, talking about the symbolism and the history of the culture and how it made us think of our own cultural backgrounds.
The second Boldt Arts Alive! Series performance I took in was on January 28, 2023. It was a collaborative, interactive and multigenerational performance, with the GRAMMY® Award-winning group from South Carolina, Ranky Tanky. It was a blend of Gullah culture and jazz that was innovative yet familiar, exploring the traditions of African American culture in the coastal South during slavery. I thoroughly enjoyed joining in on the clapping and call-and-response parts of the performance. What elevated this concert even more was that during the show, Ranky Tanky was joined on stage by more than 100 local choir members of all ages from Appleton Boychoir, Lawrence Community Girl Choir and NEWVoices. It was amazing to hear 100+ voices singing together in solidarity, unifying community members of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.
Perhaps the performance I was most excitedly anticipating, Ballet Hispánico performed as part of the Boldt Arts Alive! Series on February 7, 2023. Prior to the performance, community members were able to attend a dance workshop with a member of the dance company open to all ages and skill levels as part of the Community First Community Engagement Series. Attendees spent time learning the bachata, salsa and other Latin dancing. It felt invigorating to relearn such fun dance styles that I had nearly forgotten. The movements themselves brought a sense of confidence and power to even the most inexperienced dancer.
Going into the performance, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect other than modern ballet; it was so much more than that. The three performed dances shared stories of flamenco, Mexican Americanism and the Havana, Cuba club scene in the 1950’s. It was a celebration and an education on the beauty, struggles and nuances of the Latine/Latinx/Hispanic cultures through contemporary and traditional movement and music.
After the performance, more than 200 audience members stayed for a post-show Q+A with Fox Cities P.A.C. President and CEO Maria Van Laanen, Ballet Hispánico’s Artistic Director & CEO, Eduardo Vilaro and two additional company dance members. The questions asked sparked a cultural conversation that spoke to the deeper context of the performed pieces and the importance of diverse representation. The community was genuinely curious about Latine/Latinx/Hispanic culture and how performances like Ballet Hispánico can add to a larger cultural dialogue across the globe.
Beyond multicultural performances, I also learned more about the education programs and initiatives that community members, families, students and educators can participate in. Through these programs, people are able to explore other cultures, aspects of the arts, classroom subjects, social issues and more. In addition to the Amcor Education Series and the Center Stage High School Musical Theater Program, the Fox Cities P.A.C. also offers the Community First Community Engagement Series which includes the Frank C. Shattuck Performing Arts Touch the Hearts of Students (P.A.T.H.S.) Program and the Family First Nights® Program.
Throughout the season, I loved having the opportunity to sit in on workshops, meetings and rehearsals with the Center Stage Program participants in the program’s seventh year. I felt honored to be a part of the Center Stage Program’s legacy during a record year that welcomed approximately 2,000 participating students from 31 high schools in 10 counties throughout Northeastern Wisconsin. The students who participated in the program were dedicated to understanding and exploring all aspects of musical theater, and it showed with every interaction.
In January 2023, I watched and took notes as 18 high school students engaged in a vocal workshop with cast members, Terica Marie (Anna of Cleves) and Amina Faye (Jane Seymour) from the touring Broadway musical, SIX. The students sang 32 measures of a song of their choice a cappella and received feedback from Terica and Amina including digging into the meaning of the song and the circumstances around it, spatial movement, gestures, audience connection and more. With just a few minutes of critique, the talented young singers displayed improved technique and delivered more emotionally charged and connective performances.
Each time I saw these high school students perform, I was blown away by their immense talent. I was able to sit in on a few rehearsals for the Center Stage High School Musical Theater Showcase on May 6, 2023. The students worked with theater professionals who know the world of musical theater. From blocking to emoting while singing, these students handled the direction incredibly well, showing their dedication in learning and staging the Showcase in one week. The Showcase had a record attendance and allowed the community to celebrate students representing 31 local high schools, their accomplishments, and relationships that they spent the year building.
Many in the community know what a gem the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center is in the region, and I hope that more people discover the Center and realize that it is so much more than just a theater, or a theater for touring Broadway productions. It is a place to come together to learn more about and celebrate the arts in all its forms. I had the opportunity, alongside so many others in the community, to contextualize and gain a deeper meaning of the performances I saw on stage by attending workshops and discussions. What I learned in those experiences has stayed with me, offering a new way of understanding art and culture. I have enjoyed my time here, doing what I love in an environment that I love, and am eager to continue learning and growing moving forward.
Written by Philomena Dorobek, Brand Storyteller
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center