In Arts & Entertainment

Amy Jensen was on the fast track as an accountant before she left for the theater world.

A theater love story and "Hamlet" in the Fifth Ward

Many actors trace their careers back to a specific childhood moment in a theater. A live play unexpectedly expanded their world and thrilled them to the core.

Amy Jensen is probably one of the few accountants who had a similar experience as an adult. She changed her career as a result of an evening spent in the audience at the Seattle Children's Theatre in the early '90s. On Nov. 16, Jensen will assume the managing directorship of the Skylight Opera Theatre at a critical time in the company's 50-year history. She was such a natural choice for the job, her appointment seemed a no-brainer.

Jensen was on the fast track in the Seattle offices of Ernst & Young when she was sent to the Seattle Children's Theatre for auditing field work. She had grown up in Whitefish Bay and earned a bachelor's degree in geological sciences from UWM. Mount St. Helens erupted while she was in high school, prompting an intense interest in seismic activity.

"Geological sciences turned out to be a wonderful liberal arts degree, but by the time I graduated I knew geology was not a long term career for me," Jensen recently said over a glass of wine. "I was so enjoying literature and general education courses. I realized there was a wider world."

Jensen, who is 44, had always excelled at math, and that led to her receiving another bachelor's degree, in accounting, from the University of Washington. The Ernst & Young job followed, and soon she was crunching numbers for Seattle businesses involved with cows, trucks and trash, as she likes to describe it. But it was her accounting work for the Seattle Children's Theatre that stirred something in her.

"I fell in love with the feel of the place," Jensen explained. The company invited her to the opening night of a world premiere of "The Firebird." "I felt I was part of what was happening on stage. The set was stunning -- dark and bluish," she recalled.

After two years in Ernst & Young's Seattle office, Jensen transferred to the firm's Milwaukee branch. The tug of family pulled her back to her hometown, and in three years here she rose to the level of manager in the giant international company. But something was missing.

"Public accounting is a demanding profession," she said. "It is at least 60 hours a week. You learn a lot. But at the end of the week, I was wondering why I was there. I kept going back to my feeling when I was involved with the children's theater."

Jensen gave Ernst & Young a month's notice without having another job. She interviewed with several prospective employers, including Skylight's then-managing director Joan Lounsbery, who was seeking a financial director for the company. She got the job and a new life.

The Skylight couldn't match the size of her Ernst & Young paycheck, but Jensen quickly found other forms of compensation from the company. "If there is a possibility of falling in love with a place and falling in love with a job, that was it," she said.

"That drop in pay was never once regretted. I have such admiration for people who have the talent, the drive and the confidence to put themselves out there on a stage and create a different world for a few hours. The magic they create on a relatively shoestring budget. All of that creativity and cleverness, I want to be a part of that."

Jensen left the Skylight after a little more than five years to be the director of finance for the Milwaukee Art Museum. "Ambition got the better of me," she said with a smile. "I had the sense that I had done all I could at the Skylight, and I was ready to step up to a larger budget."

She moved on to the United Performing Arts Fund, where she was vice-president of finance and administration, and then took a year off to get her MBA from UWM. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra came knocking on Jensen's door before the ink was dry on her master's degree parchment. She has been vice-president and chief financial officer of the MSO since 2006, and was one of 18 executives given a "CFO of the Year" award by The Business Journal in 2008.

After the Skylight's budget problems and governance crisis reached a peak this summer, Jensen spent three MSO furlough days volunteering in the Skylight office, examining the company's financial condition. Her old boss and mentor, Lounsbery, is temporarily back in Milwaukee to help put the Skylight back together, and she highly approves of the board's choice for new managing director.

"When I hired Amy as the Skylight's finance director 15 years ago, I predicted that someday she would be sitting in the managing director's chair," Lounsbery said. "She brings a hefty dose of financial expertise to the position, she loves the Skylight, and she loves a challenge."

Goats & monkeys in Walker's Point

The sudden closure of Milwaukee Shakespeare exactly one year ago led to the formation of a drastically scaled down followup company, which quirkily calls itself goats & monkeys. Yes, you read that correctly. No upper case in the name.

The new group, heavily comprised of former Milwaukee Shakespeare personnel, is devoted to presenting staged readings with low budgets but high performance values. Goats & monkeys mounted a reading of "Othello" in May at the Live Artists Have to Eat art studio in the Fifth Ward, and the company was back there last weekend reading "Hamlet."

The cast had partially memorized the script, and it was outstanding, with Brian J. Gill (Hamlet), Laura Gray (Ophelia), Jonathan Smoots (Claudius), Laura Gordon (Gertrude), Norman Moses (Polonius), Peter Silbert (Gravedigger) and others delivering evocative, highly developed performances.

But the goats & monkeys format needs refinement, which it is likely to get. The non-traditional performance space is charming; spending nearly three and a half hours with "Hamlet," sitting on a small movable chair in a confined space, is not. The play wanted to break out into more physicality, and so did I.

Company co-founder Paula Suozzi told me the next offering will probably be done in February at a different location and feature a montage of scenes from various works. A Valentine's theme may run through it. My hunch is that shorter pieces will fit the goats & monkeys structure better than long classics.

The company must also resolve an underlying financial issue. Everyone involved with the first two productions worked for no pay, and admission was free, with the suggestion that the audience make donations at the door. Actors' Equity, the stage actors union, is unlikely to agree to indefinitely permit its members to perform without compensation. Stay tuned.


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