the Rep’s Clements, Helsing Wolters
Everybody was happy at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s party at the Harley-Davidson Museum Monday night.
Mark Clements, the company’s incoming artistic director, expressed heartfelt gratitude to everyone in sight. He hugged the leather Harley jacket given to him by Patrick Smith, a Harley executive and a member of the Rep’s board. Clements, a long-time motorcyclist, seemed awestruck to be formally announcing his dream job at the hallowed monument to motorcycles. And he couldn’t get over the 200 or so smiling actors, production and administrative theater people, representatives of others arts groups, politicos and media types there to welcome him with hearty applause.
Outgoing artistic director Joseph Hanreddy sung his successor’s praises with zeal. Dawn Helsing Wolters, the company’s freshly installed managing director, beamed at her new co-leader. Board president John Kordsmeier couldn’t stop smiling.
The party at the Harley crowned and completed Clements’ whirlwind introductory seven days in Milwaukee. He’s heading back to Philadelphia to go back to work on his staging of Oliver! at the Walnut Street Theater. Clements will commute to Milwaukee in the interim and will move here permanently once the show is up and running.
Everyone was happy for good reason. In Clements, 48, they get an internationally known director with hundreds of productions in London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere on his resume. He has substantial administrative experience, particularly at the Derby Playhouse in London. (Clements, a Briton, became a permanent resident of the U.S. in 2007. Go here for his official bio and a brief video interview.) He came up as a stage manager and tech guy in British theaters, so he understands the backstage aspect.
Clements’ parents were actors and producers, so the theater is in his blood. He shows genuine enthusiasm for the Rep and for Milwaukee. And he arrived just in time for the company to avoid any gap in artistic leadership. Clements will take over officially when Hanreddy departs at the end of the current season, but Clements is already consulting with his staff about the Rep for 2o1o-2o11.
At the party, Clements said that he knew the moment he met Helsing Wolters that they would be friends. Their easy rapport during the interview supported that assertion.
Helsing Wolters came to Milwaukee just six weeks ago from Chicago’s vibrant theater scene. Clements has seen wild things happen in Europe, especially. Both see potential for the Rep to maintain its solid, middle-class audience while becoming the hippest thing around, at least in fits and starts.
“Our audience is similar to that of similar theaters across the country,” Helsing Wolters said. “They’re 45 to 55. There are 25 storefront theaters in Chicago, and younger people find them relevant. So, I know it can happen here.”
“I saw a production in Romania that young people were just clamoring to get in,” Clements said. “It was like a rock concert. We don’t often experience theater on that level here. I’ve gone to installations, where the audience has to go to a site and find the theater. I’m just struck by how they make theater relevant in different parts of the world. When people really want to go, issues like carpooling and babysitting and price go out the window.”
“Something that totally shakes up a theater for a while can be a good thing,” Clements said.
Since the Rep has main stage, a cabaret and black box theaters and access to the Pabst Theater, the two leaders see lots of room for experiment. As we talked, a hypothesis for a strategy seemed to be emerging: Get them in their 20s with edgy stuff, and bring them back in their 40s and 50s for more mainstream theater. That’s long-term thinking fit for the lumber and wine industries, but it would seem to make sense for an institutional theater.
In the here and now, both see promise in collaborations with other theater, music and dance groups around town.
“We want to see what we can do for others, not just what we can get out of it,” Clements said. “I’ve already met with Michael Pink (of the Milwaukee Ballet). And what about Edo (de Waart, MSO music director, also new this season)? And what can we do with the academies? We just want to open dialogues. We won’t know what the possibilities are until we open dialogues.”
Clements is not officially on the job yet and has been unofficially on the job for a mere seven days. So it was too early to start throwing around titles when it came to the 2010-’11 season. But he and Helsing Wolters were happy to discuss the philosophy behind the programming, though that too is evolving.
“We come with no baggage about the way things should be here,” Clements said. “We have lots of questions to ask.”
“We have so many seasoned collaborators,” Helsing Wolters said, referring to Rep staff. “We’ll be locked in a room together to see how a season could fit together.”
The fair number of musicals on Clements’ resume has raised eyebrows around town. In the past, the Rep has steered away from musicals for a lot of reasons, including the configuration of its main Powerhouse Theater, a thrust setup with no orchestra pit. Also, Rep musicals might be viewed as damaging competition for the Skylight Opera Theater, the Marcus Center’s Broadway Series and the touring musicals at the Milwaukee Theatre. I don’t expect “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!” to show up at the Rep any time soon, but Clements isn’t ruling out anything in the long term.
“There is a demand for musicals in Milwaukee, and we have to listen to that,” Helsing Wolters said.
“We have to assess what’s right for this theater, and that is up for grabs right now,” Clements said. “We don’t want to be a threat. We want mutual respect, not fear. But if another company in town does Hamlet, does that mean we can’t?”