Tracy Doyle and Ben Turk
It’s opening night for “The Plight of the Ruling Class,” and the cast almost seems to outnumber the crowd watching in the darkened Astor Theatre, a tiny space in the back of the Brady Street Pharmacy.
As the evening’s three short plays unfold, Tracy Doyle watches from the audience. Ben Turk pauses to observe from a side aisle, wincing when a prop window crashes down unexpectedly.
Ben and Tracy are the self-dubbed “boss man” and “boss lady” of Insurgent Theatre, a small group with a big dream: “To galvanize and politicize theatre from the ground up.”
It’s part of what some call Milwaukee’s “underground” theater scene. Tracy and Ben think of it as “DIY theater.”
They aren’t affiliated with a college or organization; they don’t qualify for the United Performing Arts Fund; they work with small budgets, hand-made props and novice actors. They produce only local, original scripts. They’re not afraid to tackle topics in controversial and disturbing ways: In “The Plight of the Ruling Class,” one play involves race and cannibalism, while another depicts a rape fantasy that gets out of control.
So far they’ve managed to survive, even thrive, without having to “kiss anyone’s ass for big funds.” A donation plea in their program goes like this, only without the swear words dashed out: “Give us your f-ing money! Put it in the bag, and – Hey! Don’t look at me. Don’t f-ing look at me, pig. Just give me the f-ing money. NOW! In other words, generous donations of money or materials are always appreciated.”
Audience members buy $15 “bourgeois” tickets in advance or $8 “proletariat” tickets at the door. The goal is to compete with movie ticket prices.
“Everybody complains about how nobody’s going to theater anymore…and it’s a dying art or whatever,” Ben said. “But I don’t think it is. It just needs to shift to its audience. And we’ve successfully done that.”
It started in 2001 when Ben launched S-MartKino with another friend. “It’s nonsense,” he said of the name. “It means nothing.” S-MartKino’s activities were just as random: Celebrating “Marxmas,” a.k.a. Karl Marx’s birthday; passing out communist T-shirts; stopping people on the street with survey questions along the lines of “Define ‘beauty.’” “Draw ‘truth.’”
When Tracy arrived and began helping with surveys, “There were a lot of philosophical, existential, high-falutin’ questions,” she recalled. “My surveys were a lot more low key – not as pretentious as some people’s.” She threw a look in Ben’s direction, and the two erupted in laughter.
Both natives of Racine, the couple met through a mutual friend at an experimental movie screening at UWM a few years ago. Now they live together in Riverwest with their three cats and a whole lot of theater props.
It was Tracy’s influence that brought S-MartKino from the street to the stage. She’d been involved in theater since middle school, but her passion was really ignited after working with Madison’s Broom Street Theater, which performs edgy, original works. Soon, she and Ben were collaborating on ReVerb, a modern translation of Sartre’s “No Exit” that starred a punk rock anarchist and a sorority girl.
They produce a show whenever they find a script that catches their eye, or when Ben writes one himself. He wrote about Iraq in “Bring the War Home” last year, and they’ll restage a revised version this fall.
Tracy doesn’t identify with a particular political camp. Ben, who majored in political science in college, calls himself an “entrepreneurial communist,” which helps explain his approach to Insurgent. . “We’re taking theater out of the hands of the rich and bourgeois people,” he said, “and making it more available to see as an audience and more available to participate in.”
Half of the theater’s proceeds are split among the cast, while the other half helps fund the next production.
Ben’s the writer; Tracy’s the editor. She directs the actors; he handles the technical stuff.