At Torah Academy of Milwaukee, it’s not just about the theater

 

GLENDALE – Blocking, in theater, is when the director tells actors where to stand, to ensure proper dramatic effect and good lines of sight for the audience. It’s one aspect of managing a production.

At the Torah Academy of Milwaukee, a high school for girls, the student directors, both 17, meet with adult producer and director Lisa Hiller to “pre-block all of the scenes,” said Rina Ordan. But then at rehearsal, “She really lets us take control.”

Ordan and Estie Meister are co-student directors, both of them seniors at TAM. They say Hiller’s favorite line during rehearsals and planning is, “I’ll defer to you.”

This is how the final weeks are going before their musical, “The Goldenland Marching Band,” is performed on Feb. 17 at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. The 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. shows are put on by girls, for girls and women. It’s a big endeavor, organized by TAM but with participation from girls at other schools.

Torah Academy of Milwaukee’s musical rehearsal includes, from left to right, Essie Kittner, Tova Handler, Leah Jarcaig, Tehilla Ordan, Shira Jacob, Estie Meister and Liba Fried. Photo by Blimie T Photography.

Hiller and Sarah Frank, the adult musical director, have been leading the musical as deeply devoted volunteers since 2002. Both had children enter and graduate from TAM while they were working on the musicals. The women have continued because they love it. There’s a joy in watching the girls develop and gain confidence, they said.

The musical was switched from every two years to an annual production in 2007, at the request of the school. It takes up hundreds of hours of Hiller’s and Frank’s time annually. “We would call it a hobby but it’s sort of more than a hobby,” Hiller said.

Hiller said she wants students to lead as much as possible and she wants them to see their peers leading, so that they know big things are possible. She calls the endeavor, “A bissle (little bit of) theater and a lot of leadership.”

Just about everyone who works on the show also has a part in the show. There are about 30 actors from Torah Academy of Milwaukee, with three more working backstage only, plus another 26 actors from Yeshiva Elementary School and two from Bader Hillel Academy. Prior years have included representation from Milwaukee Jewish Day School.

In fact, it’s a nice aspect of the show that it brings different ages together.

“Everyone’s working together,” said student Producer Brachi Zohn. “I think a lot of the barriers come down. I think during practice when we are all meshed together for so long, it builds a lot of relationships.” Zohn works with Rebecca Kalmar, also a student producer.

Students are on spotlight, on curtains and more. Committees include set, props and scenery, all made up of TAM students.

Zohn, 17, handles issues like scheduling. Zohn, in fact, has to make sure other students are doing their jobs even as she and other student leaders work to keep it all fun. “We’re the ones keeping up the good atmosphere,” Zohn said.

After months of rehearsal at TAM in Glendale, the girls will have a final week to rehearse at the JCC Ritz Theater stage from 5:30-10 p.m. “We basically live together,” joked Ordan.

“It’s gratifying because they work hard and they’re so polite and cooperative about it,” said Nancy Weiss-McQuide, an adult theater performance advisor for the girls.

The musical exudes positive energy with upbeat songs and a sense of humor, according to the girls. The story is a work of fiction built on history, when Jews immigrated to Milwaukee from overseas in the 1800s and early 1900s and were assisted locally by The Settlement House. This was essentially a local support center for immigrants. When The Settlement House board member Lizzie Kander published a cookbook as a fundraiser, it took off. Students were inspired by this true story, relayed to them during a visit with Education Director Ellie Gettinger of Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. This history interacts with the thrust of the musical, which is a comedy of errors in establishing a Goldenland Marching Band.

During one meeting with students on blocking, in Hiller’s home at her dining room table, one question raised was how to get a group of girls from one side of the stage to the other for the next scene.

“We were figuring out, how are we going to bring them in dramatically into the next scene?” Hiller said. Moving a large group quickly backstage is not easy and was not a great option.

The girls’ idea was to have the actors move to the other side of the stage in action, Hiller recalled.

“A bissle theater and a lot of leadership,” Hiller repeated. ‘It’s really true.”

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How to go

  • “The Goldenland Marching Band,” a Torah Academy of Milwaukee musical
  • Sunday, Feb. 17, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
  • At the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s Ritz Theater, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.
  • Show is put on by girls, for girls and women.
  • For more information, contact TamOnStage@Gmail.com or 414-352-6789.