Where We Are Now: The Milwaukee RepAugust 17th, 2010 |
Rehearsals were about to begin at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater when I sat down with managing director Dawn Helsing and artistic director Mark Clements. Helsing is in her 13th month as leader of the business side, and Clements is commencing his first season at the helm. The team showed some of the breathless excitement of bright students on the first day of a new school year.
“I’ve been going ’round and meeting people and doing interviews, which I like, but now I finally get a chance to show what I do,” Clements exclaimed. He’s directing Cabaret, the Powerhouse Theater opener and the first musical ever produced on the Rep’s biggest stage.
Cabaret has raised some eyebrows around town. The Marcus Center, the Milwaukee Theatre and the Skylight Opera all put on musicals regularly. Will musicals on the Rep’s main stage be too much of a good thing? Skylight artistic director Bill Theisen doesn’t seem to be objecting. He’s even appearing as Oliver Hardy in the American premiere of Tom McGrath’s Laurel and Hardy, at the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret.
“I was keen to do a musical if I thought there was a market for it,” said Clements, who was known for his deft hand with musical theater in his native England and elsewhere. “There is a market for it. Sales have been very strong for Cabaret. For me, it’s a little gift to be the first to put a musical on the main stage.”
Clements pointed out that both the Skylight and the Marcus put on Rent within 12 months and did just fine. He argues (sensibly, I think), that seeing the same musical as a traveling show in a big house is a very different experience that seeing it in an intimate theater. Clements says that the Rep will put its own spin on Cabaret. For one thing, the choreographer will be Michael Pink, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet.
“We’d be remiss in not doing musicals,” he said. “They’re a very important part of American theater.”
Clements, though British by birth, appears to be American by theatrical temperament.
“I’ve always been attracted to gritty American drama, the kind that bares the soul,” he said. “I’m much more Tennessee Williams than Noel Coward.”
It’s no accident that Clements will end his first season in his American house by directing Arthur Miller’s quintessentially American drama, Death of a Salesman.
“People have seen it and think they know it,” he said. “They claim it’s depressing. Saying that is like saying you know the ending of Titanic. The question is, what will Death of a Salesman be when we do it? Lee Ernst’s Willy Loman will be a very different character than Brian Dennehy’s.”
“I’ve been excited about this for months,” Helsing said. “People will be saying, ‘Oh, I know this play — whoa, wait a minute!’”
Helsing’s freshman year at the Rep was a tough one. The recession prompted unexpected cutbacks in the company’s UPAF allocation and crippled the Rep’s endowment.
“We started 2009-2010 with a $9.9 million budget and had to backpedal from that,” she said.
She trimmed a whopping $2 million without trimming programming. Staff suffered, of course, and a compressed season, with one show butting against the next, left no room to extend runs. But it worked; the Rep is ending its fiscal year with a surplus of about $40,000. Two big hit shows, Route 66 in the Stackner and Seven Keys to Slaughter Peak on the main stage, brought in a critical surge of revenue at the end of the season. The company is carrying no debt, but its cash reserves are low.
Joseph Hanreddy wrote and directed Seven Keys, which marked the end of his long tenure as artistic director. Hanreddy’s friendly parting and public endorsement of Clements made for an exceptionally smooth transition. Helsing feels at least some wind at the company’s back.
“The endowment has come back rather quickly,” she said. “For the first time in a while, we ended a season strong, and that was huge for us. It’s so critical to launch this season from a position of strength. We’re able to begin to restore a little — the budget is rising to $8.3 million — but we’re by no means flush. A lot is riding on this year.”
Helsing and Clements are trying to raise the profile of the Stackner Cabaret and the Stiemke Theater and the events they stage in them. They’ve always been perceived as somehow peripheral to the larger Powerhouse. New seats and a remodel of the Stiemke should help, but the biggest effort has been in re-engineering the subscription process. It now encourages subscribers to buy across venues as opposed to choosing one or another exclusively.
“We want people to see all our shows,” Clements said. “Some of the shows in the Stackner this year are narrative, they’re not all just revues. Shakespeare could happen in the Stiemke, which would be a very different take than in a big theater.”
Not that Clements disdains large-scale work. He’s directed Les Miserables, for example, with great success. And he’s frank about starting his tenure with a blockbuster in Cabaret, with a cast of 33.
“In this business — in any business — during hardship and recession, the boldest are often the ones who come through and survive,” Clements said. “We wanted to start with something big. We wanted a wow factor.”
Now Playing at The Rep: Hula Hoop Sha-Boop, a musical revue, at the Stacker Cabaret.