Actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker both had formative artistic experiences in Wisconsin before becoming a celebrated TV couple on “L.A. Law.” Now they’re returning to Milwaukee June 13 to help the United Performing Arts Fund make such experiences available to other young people.
The long-married actors will be featured during the UPAF annual campaign finale, which begins at 5:30 p.m. June 13 in Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s Northern Lights Theater, 1721 W. Canal St. Tickets for the event, which includes beverages and hors d’oeuvres, are $10. Make reservations at upaf.org.
UPAF raises operating funds for 14 performing arts organizations such as the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and First Stage. It also provides one-time grants to arts organizations.
Tucker performed in five Milwaukee Repertory Theater productions in 1967-’69; Eikenberry spent two years acting, writing and making art as a student at Madison West High School.
Eikenberry and Tucker responded individually to questions by email about their Wisconsin years and their lives as performing artists. Their responses have been excerpted and lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Eikenberry: My “aha” moment was when I played Ophelia in a Columbia University production of “Hamlet.” My parents had gotten divorced when I was 15 and it was very hard, but I was a girl who never cried. I had a lot of feelings locked up inside, and I was afraid to let them out. One day I was in my dorm room rehearsing Ophelia’s monologue, “Oh what a noble mind is here oer’thrown … ,” and these big tears started rolling down my face. And suddenly I realized that if I put on a mask and pretended to be someone else it might open the door into myself.
Tucker: I was a Lost Boy in “Peter Pan” when I was around 12 years old, and I had a small solo in the song, “I Won’t Grow Up.” On opening night, standing there in the spotlight, singing my little piece, time slowed down — like it does when you’re in the middle of a terrible accident. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
Q: Michael, what stands out for you about your time performing with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater? Did you have favorite hangouts while you were in Milwaukee?
Tucker: Highlights were “Waiting for Godot,” “The Three Sisters” and the night my daughter was born. We used to hang out in Kalt’s — right next door to the old Fred Miller Theater (now the Miramar Theatre on N. Oakland Ave.).
Q: Jill, what are your memories of living in Madison?
Eikenberry: What stands out for me are the last two years at Madison West High, when I was part of a great group of very creative people, who are still my friends today. We had a wonderful drama teacher named Tom Tewes, and we acted in plays and musicals, and we wrote and directed the senior class play. We also published the literary magazine, which was filled with student poems, stories and artwork. It was an amazing time, when the arts were available to every kid in high school.
Q: What was your favorite experience of performing with your partner on TV, stage or film?
Eikenberry: My favorite experience performing with Mike was the camping episode in “L.A. Law” where I used a poison oak leaf instead of toilet paper. I felt like we were the Ricardos. We had permission to go broad, and we did!
Tucker: We were cast as a couple on an episode of “Hill Street Blues.” I looked into her eyes and everything I was supposed to feel, I felt. I realized in a flash that acting isn’t about pretending at all. You can just be there.
Q: Do you ever daydream about being some other kind of performer?
Tucker: I’m living my dream. I’ve been primarily a writer since the mid-’90s, and it takes an act of violence to get me to act anymore.
Eikenberry: I daydream about being a professional drummer in a great funk band. I’ve been taking drum lessons for several years (from our son Max, who actually is professional drummer) and I feel like I’m almost ready.
Q: If you could dreamcast yourselves together in any role on stage, what would it be?
Eikenberry: I’m about to play my dream role in a play that Mike wrote (“Fern Hill”). We will be doing a full production in August and September of this year at the New Jersey Repertory Company. It is truly one of the best parts I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m very excited. Mike will also get to play his dream role. He’ll be the playwright — not an actor in the show.
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