Bringing Stories to Life with In Tandem Theatre’s Chris and Jane Flieller

By Patricia Obletz, Editor

For want of a shoe, Milwaukee’s In Tandem Theatre might never have been. But the shoe fit and Milwaukee has been enriched by the brilliant creative passion that inspires Chris and Jane Flieller to create season after season of provoking, enlightening and entertaining comedies, drama, musicals, classics and new works. Back in 1988, Jane needed black shoes to complete her ensemble as a backstage deckhand for a play in which Chris was an actor. Chris offered his extra pair and – they fit! Literally. And then emotionally, spiritually and the rest of love’s expressions, Chris and Jane have walked in each other’s shoes ever since.

In Tandem Theatre was incorporated in 1998 and in 2007, after years of roaming from venue to venue, the company settled into a cozy 99-seat studio theatre located in the lower level of the “big red church” at 10th and Wisconsin in downtown Milwaukee. In Tandem celebrates its 20th anniversary in the 2017–2018 season.

Chris was born in Texas, relocated with his family to Wisconsin as a baby, returned to Fort Worth to earn his undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University and then settled in Milwaukee where he received his MFA in Acting from the Professional Theatre Training Program and where he has spent the bulk of his career.

Shakespeare seduced Chris when he was 13 or 14, seeding his passion to act. He said, “My left brain has always been active. I can get pretty analytical and I’m good with numbers, but I also really have that right-brain. I have memories of watching something on TV and walking into the kitchen and singing ‘Moon River’ to my great-grandmother, so I’ve always had the inclination to perform.”

“His mother was an opera singer,” Jane added, “and his great-grandfather owned a carnival — so there’s a lot of showmanship within the ranks of his family.”

“During the season, my great-grandfather toured the carnival circuit from Indiana to Florida and back,” Chris said.

Jane said, “We’re doing a musical titled ‘Carnival’ in the spring of 2017, so we’re drawing on a lot of imagery from pictures that Chris has from his great-grandfather’s carnival years.”

“But reading Shakespeare in an accelerated English class and seeing how those words were strung together, seeing some memorable performances by great actors, a couple with whom I’m still in touch, motivated me,” Chris said. “One play that made a huge impression on me when I was in high school was ‘Kennedy’s Children.’ It is not a great play, but it was exceptionally performed at UW Madison, which mesmerized me and made me say, I want to do that.”

For Jane, theatre became a way of life early on. One of her three brothers was involved in theater and one Saturday, while in charge of his eight-year old sister, Jane, took her to rehearsal for a high school play he was in. “I fell in love immediately,” she said. “I loved the order of (the theater). I craved order: organization and discipline, because there was none at home. We came and left as we pleased, there was a lot of drug and alcohol abuse – it was a very chaotic place. The theater combined my desire for order and lust for creativity,” explained Jane.

“I was a natural caretaker — if one of my brothers or younger sister did something wrong, I was the fixer, even if I had nothing to do with it. The theater provided me with a place where I was wanted, needed and useful. At first, when people would ask me how my day was, I was just stymied! No one at home asked how my day had been. At the theater, there were people who watched out for me, making sure I got home okay, keeping an eye on me at cast parties. That was community theater and it was a really, really great place for me in which to grow up.

“Unlike Chris, I was not a good student. My parents, teachers and counselors said I wasn’t ‘college material,’ that I ‘wasn’t very bright,’ but that I typed really well. To be a 30-year career secretary at Ford Motor Company was what I was told to aspire to be. And if I was really lucky, I might marry an executive.

“When I finished high school, I moved to Detroit, got an apartment, and four years and four jobs later, at 22, I realized that this was a horrible way for me to live – I was so unhappy – there was no creative outlet for me. I realized that without a college degree, I would go nowhere.”

So despite the “you’re not college material” comments, Jane took a night course in psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit and thrived. “I not only did well,” she said, “I learned that, because the course went faster than any high school class, I never had a chance to get bored. I looked forward to other classes I might take.” Jane earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Liberal Arts with an emphasis on theater. “At that point, I was thinking I wanted to be an actor and singer. I had done a lot of musical theater, directed, stage managed; I got to be a props manager and worked on building sets – the only thing I didn’t like doing in the theater was costume design.”  

“I particularly enjoyed working in the small studio theater on campus on student directed projects. You had to be so creative and think fast, because you had limited resources and very limited time. It wasn’t unusual to rehearse five to six days a week from midnight to three in the morning because we all had classes, worked part-time jobs, or were involved in the mainstage productions. It was a great experience and matched my forte, which is multi-tasking.

“As I went through college, I was mostly hands on – I learn best by doing. Stage managing used all my knowledge and communication skills. Halfway through college, I realized I could make a career out of stage management and refocused my training in that direction. I enjoyed being the right-hand man to the director, the communications liaison between the designers, the actors, the administrators; keeping everything in motion. It was my responsibility to be sure that all the areas of production were talking to one another and that we didn’t, for instance, end up with a set painted yellow and a chorus of women in yellow dresses dancing in front of it.

“While my time at Wayne State was generally beneficial, I didn’t want to stay in Detroit. There weren’t many professional theater companies and I wanted to see other places. When I graduated, I sent out resumes all over the country. I didn’t care where I went as long as it wasn’t Detroit and, at 26, I could begin my journey.”

Jane accepted the position of administrator for a children’s theater company in Milwaukee. Knowing that Jane wanted to be a stage manager, the woman who ran that company asked her friend at Theater Tesseract (now Next Act Theatre) to take Jane on as an intern since that company rehearsed evenings and weekends and Jane could still work nine to five in the children’s theatre office. That production, in which she met her future husband, led to paid positions at other companies in town, launching her stage manager career. She even eventually returned to the children’s theatre in stage management, where she enjoyed two national tours.

“Sometimes I miss singing, but I don’t miss performing. I thrive on doing six things at once and in creating In Tandem Theatre, I can now keep myself occupied with all aspects of running a small arts organization from marketing, grant writing and other administrative responsibilities to all things production related.”

The Common Pursuit

In 1988, the play in which Jane was an intern was called ‘The Common Pursuit,’ featuring a young actor named Chris Flieller. He also worked for the children’s theater, so they were actually working together at two different companies at once. They fell in love during the course of the aptly named play and married five years later in 1993.

Chris and Jane pursued their respective careers, sometimes working together and sometimes not. For several years, they were both involved with Screaming Penguin Productions, a loose-knit group of friends who produced theater sporadically. Like Jane, Chris had similar undergraduate experiences working in all aspects of production, and also had enjoyed a solid experience working on student stage productions. They combined their talents and in 1998, they co-founded In Tandem Theatre, incorporating as a nonprofit.

“We wanted our theater to be a bridge between really small fringe theaters and big theater,” Jane said. “And we wanted to help emerging actors get paying parts in order to build their resumes while learning from established actors. While we are a non-union theatre, we employ union and non-union actors.”

In Tandem Theatre produced four plays a season, sometimes at three to four different venues, UW-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts Theater, Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, Brumder Mansion, and Discovery World among them. In 2007, they found a home for the company and with the help of many dedicated and talented volunteers, converted the lower level of an old red church into a theater at 10th Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

The Lure of Theater, Becoming Someone Else

“What’s it like to learn how someone else’s human nature faces universal crises,” PeaceOfMind asked.

Chris said, “Viewing or acting in magnificent stories that show the heights and the depths of human behavior. ‘The Boys Next Door’ (a play he was in at Madison Repertory Theatre), is about mentally disabled men in a group home that is hilariously funny and deeply touching at the same time.

“Producing and directing ‘Equus’ in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Theatre Department opened up unexpected possibilities – some spaces that modern humans aren’t used to in terms of ritual that hits a deep place in our collective consciousness,” he said thoughtfully. “And that’s a big anthropological place! Being able to do that play in a room full of people is really quite an amazing experience on stage, and as an audience goer.”

“Bringing a play to life also takes research: why do the characters think what they think and act how they act – what’s going on in their world at the time,” Jane said. “A good play is about well written characters who want something but something is in the way of them getting what they want. But what put them there? Who are they? Researching these things helps the director inform the actors as to where characters come from and what their journey is. And doing it in such a way that the audience, who doesn’t have the benefit of all the research done before the play opens, will get what is really happening on stage.

“We did do a show for which we did too much research,” Jane continued. “We had so much information in our heads about the politics and culture at the time that we were taken too far away from the story we were trying to tell.”

“It got muddied,” Chris said. “Everybody has a different metaphor for how you make a play. It certainly is a team effort. The individual characters have their own agenda, their own obstacles, but it’s the work of the actor to bring that all to bear in the rehearsal process, and also to make sure that they’re not creating their character beyond the intention of the playwright. You need to have a clear vision of the play you’re doing at the moment, and of how you want to reach an audience with it. And then it takes diligence, vigilance and attention to detail for all the big things to work themselves out,” Chris said.

“A play like the ‘Glass Menagerie,’ a classic that’s been done so many times,” Jane said, “requires a lot of thought and process because you want to make it fresh, but you don’t want to make stuff up. Every production is going to have the same basic elements, the story being the story. But what do you do to finesse it? What do you do to make it more interesting? We first saw a production of it in Chicago, which was regaled as one of the best productions of that play ever. They started the play with Tom, the brother and narrator, dressed as a homeless older adult, which right away informed the audience that things didn’t work out for him. When someone asked us if we were going to follow that lead, we said no, we liked the play as written — there is no real end in terms of whether things work out or not, we just get to see that moment in the time when lives change. Does that make the production in Chicago less valid? No, because that’s the interpretative part of art. What people think we did do differently was that we didn’t treat Amanda like she was half-crazy. She’s not. She’s desperate. She is passionate about her children. She misses the life she had and feels that she can have again someday. She has two children that she has to care for.”

Chris said, “What struck me in this play was the historical context that was given by the playwright that was happening in the world at the time of the play. I decided, as one of the producers of the piece, and the director agreed, that the world events needed to be at the forefront of setting up the scene. What it created was, rather than these strange and bizarre characters doing this strange and bizarre behavior, it became a much more human story of survival in tough economic times – especially for single women in 1937. As a result, we had a beautiful play.”

“We hope our work results in a fantastic experience for those who attend one of our plays or musicals because at In Tandem – we truly can’t do it without you,” Jane said. or 414–271–1371 for more information.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on December 13, 2016

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