Nō Studios’ Lisa Caesar Discusses Creating a Downtown Destination for Artists and Activists – Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2021-12-02 08:52:54 –

Lisa Caesar is the Chief Operating Officer for Milwaukee’s Nō Studios, an artistic and creative event space in Downtown Milwaukee for creatives, community activists and others to engage and interact.

But she’s also the sister of the studio’s founder, filmmaker John Ridley. The sister-brother duo are Wisconsin natives. Ridley’s artistic endeavors include 12 Years A Slave, for which he wrote the screenplay about Solomon Northup; Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992 about the 1992 L.A. Rodney King riots; the biopic on music icon Jimi Hendrix starring André 3000, All Is By My Side; and he’s the creator of the “American Crime” TV series.

While Ridley is out making groundbreaking films, Caesar is helping run Nō Studios with a team of creatives. Caesar is a graduate of Oberlin College with honors in economics and holds a MBA from Harvard Business School. She has worked in the financial industry for various banks in the United States and abroad.

She resides in Westchester, NY with her husband, three children and a labradoodle named Darcy. While in New York, Caesar took the time to talk to the Shepherd Express about Nō Studios.

What is No Studios?

Well, Nō Studios is devised as a destination for creatives in community organizations. John and I defined “destination” broadly as a physical space, so you have the building in the Pabst Brewery Complex, not too far from Fiserv Forum. So, that’s one destination for people to gather, and that’s fully equipped with a performance stage. We have event spaces and we also have a screening room and two bars. So, it’s a really a fully developed event space specifically designed for artists and creatives and people who need to collaborate.

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During the pandemic, we also developed a virtual footprint, so we have production capability. We actually built a production infrastructure in our first-floor gallery, so we’ve done at least 100 virtual events at this point. We can connect the Milwaukee creatives and activists with the outside of Milwaukee. It’s a destination for creatives and activists, but that destination isn’t just tied to the physical space.

How did you guys come up with the name “Nō Studios?” Why the name “No Studios?”

Well, John, who is my brother and founder, speaks fluent Japanese and he was an East Asian Studies major in college. He’s always had an interest in that culture, the language, and all aspects of East Asian culture. So, “nō” is actually the sino-Japanese root word for skill or talent, so it really does fit our brand. We also just state in English, the word “no” is something that a lot of creatives also hear all the time, so it’s kinda a planned word from that aspect.

Also, from that perspective, when you start a new company and you’re evaluating trademarks, you have to get cleared on all your marks. This particular brand wasn’t taken, so we were able to achieve all our trademarks with it. It’s really a combination of things, but the genesis is skill, talent, and kinda a celebration, I guess, of East Asian culture.

Going back to the foundation, what was the inspiration behind the studio? How did you and Mr. Ridley come up with the idea for a studio?

John is obviously a creative, and he appreciates venues where he can come in and collaborate with like-minded people. So, we see these venues like So-Ho house and Newhouse here in New York and the Norwood Club. There’s so many of these venues on the East Coast and West Coast, and in other major areas, urban areas. We didn’t think that there were very many and we couldn’t identify many in the Midwest or Milwaukee, so it was really modeled after the idea that people who are like-minded want to gather for networking, for inspiration, for collaboration, and all the reasons why we want to be with people. It was kinda founded on that idea, and that was the original model.

Now, obviously, we’ve had to evolve that to fit the Milwaukee market, and we launched in 2018. We spent the last several years refining, tweaking the model and making it a little bit more relevant for Milwaukee, but the original inspiration was really to mimic those gathering places that John and I are so familiar with in other cities in the country and in the world. Once we were in Milwaukee and had the infrastructure, we continued to tweak it because what works in one city isn’t necessarily going to work precisely the same in another city.

Of course, with COVID-19, we had to reevaluate the entire business model because we were trapped outside of our venue. It wasn’t safe to execute the model; it wasn’t safe for people to be with each other. That’s when we really thought deeply about what gathering meant and went into production services.

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That leads me to my next question. Why Milwaukee? You guys could have built the artspace in New York or Chicago or LA. Why did you decide to come back home to Milwaukee?

I think for a few reasons. One reason is because I think neither John or I had any experience building a business like this, so we knew there was a tremendous amount of risk. We didn’t want to be in New York or L.A. because the cost of failure is so incredibly high; those are very, very expensive markets. We wanted to de-risk a new business venture by locating it in a less expensive market, so that was one big reason.

The other, though, is just from a purely commercial business perspective. We said, “Let’s be where there is less competition.” In New York again and Chicago, and some of the larger markets, these venues already exist. There are a lot of them. We didn’t see exactly what we were trying to build in Milwaukee, so to be where the competition wasn’t was another thought.

Maybe the third thing is I’m from Milwaukee and John is from Milwaukee. We thought that “We know something about the city.” It’s not completely foreign to us, although we haven’t lived there recently. We have a network there. Our parents are there, my sister is there. We knew that we could get some support. There was some familiarity. Obviously, a lot of seminal value being able to bring this home. What we found out after the search, there is in fact a very layered and rich creative community in Milwaukee, and it ended up being a fantastic fit for us because of the creative community. So, it was sorta all of those reasons at the same time.

What is your ultimate goal in creating No Studios? What are you hoping to accomplish with the studio?

The goal isn’t necessarily art centric. We do want to support the artistic community, but I think the goal is more broadly: We just want to support connections between people. I think what we’re really hoping to achieve is the dismantling of barriers whether they be physical barriers. We invite everyone into our building regardless of what they look like or their demographic or who they are, but we also want to dismantle emotional and cultural barriers if those barriers are preventing people from collaborating and working together.

And art is really a vehicle to do that. It’s really a “means to an end” rather than just a goal in and of itself. I go back to John because he’s creative and this is ultimately his vision. Nō Studios mirrors the way John looks at life, which is using art as a vehicle to bring people together and I think if we can manifest that through Nō Studios, that’s the ultimate goal. How that happens specifically, whether it’s inside of the venue or outside of the venue, I actually don’t think it matters that much.

How can Milwaukee help you accomplish that? What do you like about the art community in Milwaukee?

As far as what Milwaukee can do to help, the more healthy Milwaukee is as a community, the more healthy the businesses that exist in Milwaukee. If we can provide support to Milwaukee whether it be support to the youth and the school system to the artistic community to the physical infrastructure, really doesn’t matter from my perspective.

In order for Nō Studios to be healthy as a business, we need to exist in a city that is healthy. Reducing the trauma in the city and building up the fantastic aspects that the city already has is really the goal and however that happens, it doesn’t have to happen at Nō Studios. None of the businesses in Milwaukee are going to thrive unless Milwaukee has a healthy economy with healthy people in it. That’s the big vision for Milwaukee. Whatever small thing we can do to contribute to that is kinda what we want to do.

What has been the most joyous experience for you as a part of No Studios? What is your favorite aspect of the studio?

There have been so many highlights that I couldn’t rank them. Anytime that I see people gathered at Nō Studios, just folks on the rooftop enjoying themselves, just a big event like “Dance Fest, Social Justice Summit.” To me, it’s all satisfying because I know that those moments would not have happened without our intervention and those moments are cumulative. The more those moments that we can all experience, the more we get to know our neighbors. The more productive our conversation.

I think there’s a reduction in the feeling of threat or fear when you’re meeting with people who are different from you. The more that we can elevate voices that may be marginalized or celebrate people that are often not celebrated. It’s all incremental. Changes happen one step at a time. There’s not really a favorite part because it’s all integrated. All of the parts are necessary. Some of the others are very satisfying because I’m able to witness it.

Sometimes, I just hear about an event and even though I’m not there because as you know I don’t live in Milwaukee, it’s still super satisfying and gratifying to hear from people that witness the event and got something out of it. To me, it’s all parts of a whole and sometimes the smaller moments, because it’s super impactful for the people that are there, we can’t dismiss those. It’s the little bits that happen every day that create change. I’m really hoping we build Nō Studios up and create more opportunities for that kind of collaboration. It kind of develops without our intervention and it creates a more healthy and holistic society.

Being John Ridley’s sister, how have you helped him in his vision in terms of art and the Nō Studios idea. How do you serve as a support system? What is your ultimate role at Nō Studios?

John has the vision. Obviously, he’s made the very critical financial investment and he’s able to attract resources to No Studios because he has a very robust network. However, John is extremely busy and doesn’t have the bandwidth to execute. There is a lot of operational and minutiae execution that has to happen in the manifestation of a project like this. My role is to make John’s vision a reality and take all of the necessary steps to do that. It’s a great collaboration. It’s one thing to have a vision. First, you have to have a vision. It’s not easy. A lot of people don’t have that, so John has fantastic vision, but it’s just a vision and it’s just a dream unless you manifest it.

So my job is to work with John on the vision and we do collaborate on the tweaking of the ideas and the strategy especially now that we’re four years into it. The other important piece of it is to execute. So, my job is to execute. It’s to understand the vision, be aligned on that, and be really clear on that, and that’s made a little bit easier because of my relationship with John.

The fact that we’re related, I think, saves us tons of time because we don’t have to work to understand each other. While John is off doing his job, many jobs, my job is to actually make sure his vision is realized. So, that’s the way we work together and it’s been fantastic. We’re both making a necessary contribution to the project and we’re doing it with many fewer people than I think would be necessary if we were total strangers.

Is there one thing that you want people to know about Nō Studios or would like to add?

I would just encourage people to check out our website. Because there is so much happening, and it changes so much. I think being linked to our website and subscribing to our Newsletter, which is even better because you get an alert every week, so I would encourage people to do that so that they can keep in touch.

Also, if people are on our website, what they can do is give us suggestions, so there are plenty of opportunities to connect with us, and say, “Hey, why don’t you do this or that,” or “Were you aware of this particular artist” and “can you celebrate them?” We’re actually in the process now of actually being more deliberate about going out into the community and soliciting ideas, information, and suggestions for events, so on and so forth. That would be the only other thing I would add is to encourage people to connect with us.

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