Small Town, Big Dreams- An Avant-garde Theater Thrives in Waterloo

City Notes, The Culture, Isthmus, Aug. 11, 1995

Half an hour east of ‘East Towne, the small and otherwise respectable community of Waterloo, something peculiar has happened.  It isn’t an alien invasion, though if some locals have thought so they can be forgiven their mistake.  It isn’t a religious revival either, thought the two individuals responsible go about their work with the energy and passion of frontier preachers with souls to save.

What has happened is the creation of a truly innovative avant-garde theatre, a temporary home to a kaleidoscopic population of singers, artists, musicians, comedians, dancers–and, first among equals, actors.  The blurb calls it “a residential gallery and performance space,” and its name is the Mode Theatre.

It’s also the home of founders Jinx Davis and Andy Pizer.  If you go to a show there, you are met at the door with a handshake or a hug.  You are invited to come up and see Jinx and Andy’s beautiful apartment.  During the interval you discover that your $10 ticket lets you loose in a side room laid out with coffee, juice and half a dozen or more superb desserts.  (Go for the chocolate cheesecake.  I did, twice.)  The desserts are so good because in the daytime, away from the lights, Davis runs a catering service for the people who put Waterloo on the national map, Trek Bicycles.  Pizer has a separate business based on his invention of a construction tool called the NAILER, which he sells nationally.  That and the tickets help them keep the Mode going.  “We are definitely not the kind of people who get grants.” Davis explains, her voice tinged with irony at the very idea.

Davis’ parents were UW professors; after lengthy travels away from Wisconsin she returned 10 years ago and in 1987 did an MFA in acting at UW-Madison.  Pizer, having grown up in Milwaukee, lived in Madison most of his life.  They moved to Waterloo in 1990, and the Mode is now in its third year.

Davis admits that relations with local people were awkward at first, but this has changed quickly.  Now, she estimates, almost 50% of a typical audience is from Waterloo, with the remainder coming from such far-flung places as Madison.  Davis know this strange theatrical enterprise was coming to be accepted when was stopped on the streets of Waterloo at 3 a.m. by a drunk.   “We’re so happy to have you guys here,” he said.  “The theater.  Great.”  Davis asked whether he had ever been to a performance.  “N o,” he replied. “My buddies would think I was weird.”

Whether the artist who come to the Mode are weird, you will have to decide for yourself.  They are certainly not mainstream, and they are certainly not boring.  In June, Bay area performance artist Jamie McHugh was on stage in Alive at the Edge: Field Notes form an Endangered Species, a collage of dance, mime and storytelling about life with HIV.  In July, Milwaukee actress Stephanie Kulke premiered her hilariously original work Remembering Adol Lessons, a look at the teen years in a small town that manages to bring to affection and nostalgia a kind of steely precision that makes it always truthful, never sentimental.

Davis often performs herself, always alone, and on Aug. 19 she will be back with a new work, All Nets Have Holes, a series of character studies of imaginary women.  On Aug. 25 and 26, Milwaukee opera singer Nedra Cobb performs a piece by Davis called The Singing Bag Lady and Respighi’s Il Tramonto.  If you’re a performer, don’t expect that adding yourself to this list will be easy–according to Davis, the theater is inundated with request to perform, and although many call, few are chosen.

The 3,000-square  foot performance space on the first floor seats about 100.  Stackable chairs face a small dais, and all four walls are adorned with artwork.  The art changes completely every six to eight weeks, and the walls have hosted about 16 separate exhibits so far.

What is it about Waterloo?  Trek Bicycles AND thriving theater?  It has become a place worth investigating.


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January 1, 2015