DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – An acorn speaks, cracking open because of a question: Why theater?
“How did it start? Oh my gosh, how did it start, Warren? You probably know better than I do. (Laughs). I was a young girl, wasn’t I? I loved going to work with my father.”
Speaking is Alicia Birder Bakken, who goes professionally by her name from home, Alicia Birder. Her father is Dudley Birder, who is akin to an oak tree.
This mighty oak guided Music Theatre of St. Norbert College for 56 years. From a serious choir he created a pop music side group, the Swinging Knights show troupe that has an acorn of its own. When a friend died, Dudley Birder created a choir for a memorial concert, and the choir that got bigger and bigger today carries his name, the Dudley Birder Chorale of St. Norbert College that draws from 30 Northeastern Wisconsin communities.
In performance terms, Alicia Birder is an acorn.
She has her own enterprise (Birder Studio of Performing Arts), her own theater troupe (Birder Players) and a theater (Broadway Theatre) in which shows are present at a regular pace. Perhaps most prominent is the group of young singers of Birder Studio of Performing Arts that is part of the chorale’s annual “Holiday Pops” showcase at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.
Back to the start:
“I spent all my days that I possibly could at the theater and just fell in love with it. All aspects of it. I began, actually, creating costumes and working with the seamstresses. Then I recall building sets and painting. I loved to paint the sets. And then, of course, when the time was right and I was able to be on the stage, that followed. I do recall I did not make my first show, though. (Chuckles). It took a few tryouts before I got my first show.
“Yeah. I from a young age was creative and did not really fit the norm. Always trying to find an outlet to use my creative juices. I probably was 12 or 13 when I realized this was the path that was meant for me.”
For her first role with Music Theatre, “I was a dancer in ‘No, No Nanette,’ and I also taught tap to the leading lady, Lou (Lucille) Vidani. I used to ride my bicycle to her house to give her lessons. She’s a great memory.
“I then believe the next role was Zaneeta (the daffy daughter of the mayor) in ‘The Music Man.’ That was my teenage years.”
The great American musical that is to be revived, again, on Broadway in 2021 is by Meredith Willson.
“We (Music Theatre) received a little note from Meredith, signed, and it’s actually in the bathroom here at the Broadway Theatre. Framed and very special. He sent it… I’m sorry, I don’t recall which year of ‘The Music Man.’ I think we did it three times over the years.”
The note is a bright memory in a dark time. Look what the coronavirus COVID-19 has done to the calendar of Alicia Birder:
“We have lost over $110,000 in revenue from our productions that should have taken place in the months of April, May and June. We canceled some and postponed some.
“We took our classes immediately virtually, and our staff was quick to respond to that. We organized their teaching approach and have all of the students meet them at certain times to continue their educational classes for the remaining five weeks of the semester. We were to have two showcases and six private student recitals. What we decided to do was have the recitals done differently than as we know it and took an educational approach to it, having the student learn how to download their accompaniment and how to tape themselves in a recital in their own home and then send it to our staff, who then put six different virtual recitals together, and we had six different viewing times for family and friends. They were very successful, and a very positive result coming from a halted version of how we would have done it otherwise.
“It has affected our summer camps incredibly, obviously. We do have camps now. We revised our entire schedule to have both virtual and small in-person camps. We have had a few weeks of them with very small enrollment. So it has affected us greatly. We have about 5 percent of what we typically would have. We are moving forward with scheduling the fall, and, of course, following guidelines as they come out. Time will tell what that will look like.
“Regarding Broadway Theatre, we had to postpone ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’ a musical cabaret by Birder Players as well as Birder Players’ ‘Mamma Mia!’ production. Our fall looks different as well.
“We have put together Local Artists Series Supporting Broadway Theatre, and it’s a fund-raiser with all of our friends, talented artists who are sharing their time with us and doing a small performance.
“We will then open at the end of July a very small show called ‘Songs for a New World’ by Jason Robert Brown. It’s a four-person show, mostly solo vignettes with a few quartet numbers, and, of course, they will be socially distanced.
“And then we’re going to do ‘The Drawer Boy,’ which is a three-person play. Warren Elliott will be directing that. Then November will come, and we’re going to bring back ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ socially distanced with a little bit of a different flair.
“So the really interesting thing is trying to figure out how to do this. As we all know, music and entertainment really will have appeal in the coming days, and it’s important that we tiptoe our way back.
“I have had lots of volunteers help me remove all of our risers. We’ve cleared out the auditorium completely, and now we have socially distanced cocktail tables with chairs to keep everyone safe and follow the guidelines.
“When you order tickets, you have to do it through our box-office phone rather than online so that we can control purchases. And when a family calls or a friend calls who wants to sit with people they’re comfortable with, we will prepare that table specifically for them and then distance 10 feet before the next table. So rather than 140 seats, we will be looking at somewhere between 30 and 45 – so one-fourth/one-fifth of our normal capacity, which will be hard on us, but the good side is we’re going to be doing something. And it looks really nice. It’s very comfortable. Just has a different flair, right? (Chuckles).
“With Birder Players, we were just about to announce our entire next season the week before this all happened, and so we also have been hit hard there. We do have shows scheduled for the spring. ‘Something Rotten’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ are scheduled for 2021. And we will wait just a little bit longer before we confirm those dates. Maybe we’ll do them with the same seating (of a normal year), being they’re a little bit larger casts. But maybe we’ll keep our audience small.
“You know the fundraising climate is difficult at this time, understandably. Currently, our sponsorship is five percent of what we typically have for the season as well. And we hope that will change as things settle down, and hopefully things get better for everyone.”
Alicia Birder has an enterprise persona that consists of two main elements.
“I am executive director of Birder Studio of Performing Arts. I organize curriculum. I write curriculum. I do the scheduling for the season and summer camps. I have taught in the past. I no longer teach very much, but I still do direct the musicals with the children.
“I manage the program from day one to the end of the day and delegate to my staff. I hire people. I also welcome and seek volunteers, and I also do the fundraising.
“We do our Artreach Program, which is providing arts education to the underserved youth in the community with our partnership with the YMCA afterschool program and the Green Bay Public School program. I established that and make that happen each year as well. I have to staff that, and we also have students who get volunteer hours by mentoring with our teachers on the site at the schools. That’s a big part of our mission, actually. We’re on hold right now with that just for the summer because of schools being out. We did lose our six-week session in the spring. That has to be pushed back ‘til the schools open.”
“Broadway Theatre came to be when I was having coffee one day and I was doing some numbers, balancing some of our budgets, and I realized we were spending a lot of money to bring our student productions to the public by having to rent space. And that number was so high that I thought to myself, ‘What would happen if we had those dollars to invest in our own space? If we did that, what else would we gain?’
“And what we gained was the opportunity to put shows up on our schedule. Not renting space, you can do it in a way that works best for our calendar. We could also do many more productions. We could also run our shows longer and take breaks one week to the next. When you rent space, you have to go in and do it all in a week to save the dollars of renting the space, right?
“The other wonderful thing that it would do is allow us to build sets on our calendar and begin our Birder Players troupe, which would also perform and help to raise the dollars for our mission. So it seemed like a win-win situation and that brought on the capital campaign that we began four years, which ended last year and allowed us to bring what we have to this point to the community.
“Broadway Theatre was the Majestic Theatre (a movie house). Part of proscenium is still present in the building. The building was brought back to its original state with nearly all of the ceiling tiles the originals. The brick walls are the original walls and exposed, giving it a very unique and warm, welcoming feeling. The theater lies right in downtown De Pere on Broadway.
“Performing here are Birder Studio students. They bring their showcases, their recitals and their musical theater productions to the stage here.
“Birder Players troupe also performs here, bringing four to six productions a year as well as musical cabarets. All proceeds from their performances support our Artreach program.
“We have also rented our space. There have been other concerts, other music recitals and actual weddings and some events in the space.
“We do have the initial building to the south, which is used for our shop. All the sets are built there, and much of the painting is done. Upstairs from that is our green room and two dressing rooms, which provide space for the cast. It at one time was an apartment.
“We do have a liquor license and are able to provide beverages, both adult beverages and sodas with small snacks for all of our customers.
“We have many community sponsors each season, which bring great support and much needed help to bring what we bring to the town.
“My hope was to have a little black box theater like the Snapple Theatre in New York, where ‘The Fantasticks’ ran for many years, which was intimate, cozy, dark. And it (Broadway Theatre) is that. We seat 132 (when) in our auditorium style. Currently in our cabaret style, we seat 30 to 50.
“The stage changes with every show. We are able to rebuild it for a unique look for each show. Our lighting is limited, as we are in a small space but serves the space well.
“When we are in full swing, the audience is four feet from the edge of our stage. In our current setup, we are 15 feet from our audience.
“I have taken some risks with bigger shows in a small space. But my original base is a choreographer, so everything’s movement – where does it go, where does it end up and where does it live in between. So we have had bigger productions.
“What I do consider is, Will the show sell? Do we have the talent in this town? Can we deliver it as we hope to with production means, such as the set and costumes, make-up and hair? And will it be appealing for our audience in a small space?”
Why would anyone want to be Alicia Birder?
Laughing hard: “Oh gosh. Oh, that’s quite the question. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Why would anybody want to be me? Gosh. That’s a tough question. Would anybody want to be me? Does anybody want to work that hard? Passion. Passion. I have the gift of being able to work in a field for nearly my entire life where my passion is deep. And I love to get up every day and go to work. I suppose if you were that person, you would might be me – to give back to the community through the arts. Having been that creative kid is truly special.
“I have been my own boss. We have a board, of course, so I don’t get all of the things that I want. (Laughs). I started a little gymnastics program in my backyard when I was 10 and taught the neighborhood kids for $2 and hour or something. So I started as my own boss. Yeah.”
Monday: Alicia Birder explores her performance persona – showbiz!