Don’t know what to do in Milwaukee tonight? Why not check out the Alchemist in Bayview for a night of great entertainment. With dozens of theaters to choose from around the city, it’s hard to pick just one. One hidden treasure that many people overlook is the Alchemist. With its creative approach to play production, a diverse audience, and affordable ticket prices the Alchemist offers an experience unlike any other.
The Alchemist opened in 2008 and is home to many independent theater performers in Milwaukee. Aaron Kopec from Mukwonago and Erica Case of Bayview are the two founders. Their goal with the Alchemist was to provide a theater venue similar to what musicians have in Milwaukee. Kopec got the idea while working with Dale Gutzman owner of Milwaukee’s Off The Wall Theater. During the theater’s off time, Kopec would rent the space in exchange for a small rental fee, and use it for performances.
Before the Alchemist open it used to be a copy repair store. Case’s parents owned the building back in the 1970s, and once the space opened up, it was remodeled into a theater. The building had gone through many revisions before the final design emerged. The theater size originally was double in size, and the lounge area resembled more of a cafe than a bar. However, since the architecture is supportive of the center wall, the layout couldn’t be changed too dramatically.
The decision to name the theater the Alchemist was also Kopec’s idea. “The long story is I used to have a small production company that did music and a couple of independent movies,” Kopec said. “I wanted something related to gold. Alchemists turn things into gold. The short story that I actually prefer is by calling it the Alchemist were first in the phone book.” Despite being first in the phone book Kopec, and Case said they still have people call, and confuse them with the Avalon Theater.
To fund play production, the Alchemist adopted the movie theater’s popcorn and soda model. Everything sold at the bar including James Bond 007’s signature vodka martini goes toward the funding of new plays. Kopec and Case don’t depend on making money from shows to stay in business. They know what their budget is going into any play, and assume from the beginning that no one will show up opening night. This way if a particular show flops then the Alchemist won’t become bankrupt.
Being independent gives the Alchemist a huge advantage over other theaters. For one, the types of plays shown are much more varied. Plays like “Rudolph the Pissed of Reindeer” or “Lions, Tigers, and Zombies” are risky endeavors for most theaters that rely too heavily on established play formulas to make their money. Second, by taking a different approach to theater performances, the Alchemist can attract people who normally never go to a theater.
For example, the past show “Murder Castle: The Chronicle of H. H. Holmes” sold out for its entire five-week run, and about 85% of the audience were people who never went to theater before according to Kopec. Also, by keeping ticket prices low, the Alchemist has one key advantage over other theaters. It can compete with dinner. “When you have a ticket price that’s 15 dollars that’s the same cost you pay to see a movie, Case said.” It’s something that you could go hey let’s check out what they got, and do it on a moment’s notice versus a big to-do, and months of advanced planning.”
The laid back atmosphere of the theater and lounge is key to the Alchemist success. Before and after the show people can order drinks or snacks and even socialize with cast members from the plays. All while sitting on comfy seats, and looking at the various paintings spread across the room. Besides being a place for theater, the lounge also hosts regular events unrelated to the theater. All kinds of people show up, and anyone who has an idea is welcome to try out their routine. Notable performances include a one-man clown show, independent films, and even fashion shows. The lounge is constantly evolving and has seen a steady progression throughout the year.
Being independent may have its advantages, but it can be tough work. “We don’t have a staff, so every aspect of running a business falls onto us, Case said,” Which includes building the sets, making the costumes, and website design.” It sounds like bragging, but it’s really not, Kopec said. “Bragging for me would be I have people to do this stuff for me.” Although Kopec and Case have no staff, they receive a lot of help from volunteers to help run the place. Many of which are performers from the plays.
The Alchemist has a core group of people they work with but is open to performers from all over the world. The hiring process for new actors and performers happens at Generals, a big event where over 80 actors perform auditions. Kopec and Case also have access to everyone’s resume there and can contact them. Anyone else interested contacts the Alchemist through its newsletter, Facebook, or come in for an audition.
With everything, there are flops and successes along the way. One breakout success is “Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer” written by Patrick Schmitz, which got picked up in Kenosha and will likely sell out for its third year. The play “Closet Land” didn’t perform too well but, received recognition by the press and audience members. Despite the fact that the Alchemist is independent one famous person has shown up.
That would be Marc Metcalf, who currently has a role on the popular show Mad Men, and had a role in Seinfeld. Another breakout star, but not quite as famous as Metcalf is a high school student Anna Wolf, who Case says is a great actress. One of Case’s favorite memories is when Wolf’s parents came in one with their daughter and said this. “This is the coolest thing to have my daughter be able to go a bar, and hang out with people and as a parent have it be a safe environment, Case said”. “That’s just not something we have in Milwaukee.”
Kopec and Case have many ideas for the future of the Alchemist, but they have to be picky when it comes to spending money on remodeling since they don’t accept donations. Something they would like to do is have bathrooms on the main floor. Bathrooms are currently only at the basement level, so this rules out people who are handicapped. The stage is wheelchair accessible, but not the bathrooms. The other thing they want to do is to use the courtyard outside for performances.
Both Kopec and Case are proud of the work they have accomplished with the Alchemist and hope that their work has influenced many young people to take an interest in theater. “To be able to do this, and not have to make a million dollars and to be able to give people the opportunity to do things and express themselves and share things and have a place for them to go is amazing, Case said.”