From pool room to zombie invasion: A brief history of Youngblood Theatre Company
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Youngblood Theatre Company isn’t like other Milwaukee theater companies. It does odd plays, with people who don’t talk normally, in bizarre situations; it performs in odd places, like neglected industrial sites, the basement of a costume shop, a barn, an unused hospital wing, and a pool room at Landmark Lanes. Lately, instead of advertising a season, Youngblood just sends out an email with the “what,” “where,” and “when” of its next show. Reviewers freely toss words like ”superb,” “jaw-dropping,” and “thrilling” in the company’s general direction. Veteran critic Damien Jaques called the Youngblood members his “current stage heroes.”
They do seem like superheroes, each with their own special power: Michael Cotey is Mr. Fantastic, brainy and versatile; Tess Cinpinski can vanish into the subtlest of roles; Benjamin Wilson burns through mountains of scripts, separating the gold from the crap; Andrew Voss smashes through audiences’ defenses with his unreserved emotional commitment. And Rich Gillard? He’s good at playing villains. And there’s no question that Youngblood shows get their consistent polish from the long-term collaborations of designer Evan Crain and lighting wizards Ross Zentner and Jason Fassl. Youngblood does artisanal theater, like lovingly cooked vegan dinners: rich, nourishing, and much tastier than you’d expect. Now, before a fall launch party Sept. 9 at Transfer, it seems time to look back on the company’s respectable body of work.
“How about some theatre?” With that fateful email to a few of his fellow UWM theater graduates, Michael Cotey became the nominal artistic director. A word he keeps using to describe the company’s genesis is “random.” Three of his friends just happened to have plays they wanted to do, and he mentioned to Cinpinski that they should do them all. “Let’s do it,” she said, and Youngblood was born.
After the first play, David’s Redhaired Death, they rushed over to the Landmark and put on a tale of lust and loss called Savage In Limbo. “The tech was simple,” Cotey recalls. “We just turned the bar track lighting toward the middle of the room. That was our lighting design.”
Countering that show’s machismo, Wilson’s original play God Bridge was a dreamlike fable about a woman seeking her lost child among homeless people who had evolved their own underworld civilization. (As hostage to a pair of crazed bums, Cotey spent most of the play tied to a chair.) Relying on social media and word of mouth, they ran to full houses, reaping lavish praise from critics.
Pumped from succeeding at something no one had tried before, Youngblood next tackled Adam Rapp’s edgy drama Red Light Winter, about two buddies and an enigmatic Amsterdam prostitute. The play featured nudity, (simulated) drugs, and sex, but real-life drama trumped what was happening on the stage when, at an opening-night party, a possibly drunk, definitely kitchen-knife-wielding dude attacked and critically wounded actor Andrew Voss. The show was canceled. Youngblood was slated to do another original Wilson play, Monster And Mantagora Island, but the script required Voss’ character to stab another character with a knife, and the understandably creeped-out company decided to cancel that show, too. Thankfully, Voss recovered (he’ll probably show you his scar if you ask him nicely), and the massive support the company’s members received only boosted them further, while bringing them closer together. They even co-sponsored a blood drive at UWM.
Their next show, Spirits To Enforce, by quirky Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, launched their reputation into the ionosphere. An indescribable poetic comedy about a group of superheroes in a submarine anchored in a city harbor and running a telethon to raise funds for a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it was Cotey’s first foray into directing. The show ran like a dream.
Wilson’s surreal, psychological Drive Me To Arson was well received at the Minnesota fringe festival; though, according to Cotey, they felt a bit out of place compared to the other “pretty silly” entries. By now, Youngblood had developed a modus operandi: lyrical new plays that were dark to the point of apocalyptic. “We pick plays that excite us,” Cotey says. “Dysfunction is more interesting.”
Freakshow was a perfect case in point: a tale of old, weird America, when traveling circuses made steady money from farmers gawking at sensationalized deformities. Cinpinski, as an armless, legless woman who uses her sexuality to rule the miniature world of the carnival, spent the entire show crammed onto a small pedestal. (Director Jason Economus made her rehearse with a book balanced on her head.) At the end of the play, the circus burns down, the economy changes, and the freaks are left unemployed—a workable metaphor for the college experience.
Getting back on the horse that threw it, Youngblood re-did Red Light Winter at the Alchemist Theatre. Regarding the nudity and sex, Cotey says, “It was about the vulnerability. In that moment, it made sense for what the characters were feeling.” Emotional rawness was indeed the effect; it was a gorgeous, heartbreaking show.
An Apology On The Course And Outcome Of Certain Events Delivered By Doctor John Faustus On This His Final Evening was basically a 50-minute monologue by the hapless doctor just before he’s dragged off to hell. “It was the single most satisfying theatrical experience of my life,” Cotey says. He shaved his head for the production. “It was [director Edward Morgan’s] idea, and I just said, let’s go with it.” He also had to spend a half hour huddled in an antiquated freight elevator waiting for his entrance. “I consumed one or two beers in that elevator sometimes,” he recalls.
Gruesome Playground Injuries, about—surprise!—two emotionally wounded characters who meet in a succession of hospital rooms over the course of years, was both horribly funny and terribly sad. Director Wilson had the actors apply their assorted prosthetic wounds in full view, adding another dimension of theatricality.
That same summer, Minnesota Moon was performed for free in a barn in Greendale. “We often don’t know where we’re going to perform until the first week of rehearsals,” says Cotey. “It depends on who’s willing to have us, and we usually don’t get our first choice. When we get into the space, the design of the show evolves to fit the space.”
Flu Season, about two emotional wrecks in a very strange rehab center, collapsed the idea of storytelling in on itself. Designer Ross Zentner’s stylish projections weren’t called for in the script, but they brought a rich layer of visual lyricism to the sterile setting. A test-pattern image marked a breakdown in the narrative—and snagged a picture in American Theater magazine.
Youngblood’s most recent show, the amusingly grim Neighborhood 3: Requisition Of Doom, found the company exploring the horror genre and computer gaming, in the form of a sinister MMORPG about a zombie apocalypse. Asked if they worry about being pigeonholed as “Milwaukee’s emo theatre company,” Cotey just laughs. “We don’t want to do plays just to keep doing plays. We want every show to mean something to people, to have something they can take home and think about.”
Despite recently getting non-profit status and a board of directors, Youngblood keeps facing the challenges of doing theater: organization, raising money, and working day jobs—a situation Cotey characterizes as having “all these tiles of time, and you get to do theater in the grout.”
Youngblood will keep growing. Its next show, [sic], by Melissa James Gibson, is about a trio of young artists between college and the rest of life. It strikes familiar territory, but after that, Steve Yockey’s Cartoon sounds like Toy Story as seen by George Orwell—with singing and dancing! And knowing Youngblood, it will probably be dark, bittersweet, and strangely beautiful.