Tom Strini
State of the Milwaukee Arts

The Milwaukee Rep

Mark Clements aims to provoke and have a good time doing it in the Milwaukee Rep's 2012-13 season.

By - Jul 19th, 2012 02:06 pm
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Mark Clements. Dan Bishop photo for the Milwaukee Rep.

“We’re on a roll, right now,” Mark Clements said, “and we think we’ll maintain that momentum.”

Clements referred, of course, to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, which appointed him artistic director before the 2010-11 season. The Rep did very well at the box office in that first season, and it did even better in 2011-12. To Kill a Mockingbird drew 32,813, more people that any show in the Rep’s history. Lombardi brought in $1,048,206, which tops in Rep history, except A Christmas Carol.

Clements, more than most artistic directors, pays close attention to the business side. He chats up the telemarketers to find out what shows are generating the most interest. His first question every day during the season is: How did we do last night?

“I want people at our shows,” he said. “When we hit our target, that’s a big, exciting moment.”

Still, box office doesn’t dictate everything.

“I want to challenge the audience,” Clements said, “and the audience wants to be challenged. They want the hot debate.”

Over the last two seasons and in the coming one, Clements has scheduled plenty of titles that aren’t obvious, easy sells. Last season, he wasn’t so sure about Next to Normal.

“It was risky — a rock musical about bipolar disorder?” Clements asked, rhetorically. But the show was good and well-received. When patrons trust a company on a risky play, buy tickets and then feel risk rewarded, that builds more trust and justifies Clements’ expectation of momentum into his third season.

Another off-the-path musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, might be 2011-12’s Next to Normal. A tuneful musical about people who tried, and sometimes managed to, assassinate presidents? Not the easiest sell.

“The good thing about being artistic director is that I get to choose plays that are meaningful to society,” Clements said. “This season, we’re really upping our game.”

Assassins is partly about the Second Amendment and how easy it is for lunatics to get guns.

“I told the designer that it should be set in the waiting room to hell,” Clements said. “One of the songs goes, ‘All you have to do is pull your little finger, and you can change the world.’ A play that frightens the shit out of people is not such a bad thing.”

Three plays on the 2012-13 season have something to do with race issues. Mountaintop, by Memphis native Katori Hall, takes us into Martin Luther King’s motel room the night before his assassination.

“I saw it on the penultimate night of its run on Broadway,” Clements said. “I was one of about four white guys in the audience. The vibe in that theater…”

Clements was reluctant to speak further about this play, which has more comedy between King’s character and a pretty chamber maid than you might expect. The play turns on a surprise; Clements doesn’t want to spoil the coup de théâtre. (Amazingly, all the reviews I read also respected the surprise.)

The Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse season will end with Bruce Norris’ 2009 Clybourne Park and Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, staged consecutively. Raisin, an iconic American play, tells of a black family’s struggle to move into a home in an all-white suburb. Norris’ ironic comedy leaps ahead half a century. The suburb has turned all black; a white family is moving in; the established families fear gentrification. Clements will direct the Clybourne Park production, which will move on to the Arizona Theater Company when it closes here.

“They’re very different plays with very different feelings,” Clements said. “There’s something powerful about running them back to back, and that was a cornerstone of our planning. Bruce Norris is keen to talk with directors before he licenses the play, and we talked a good deal. It’s a button-pushing play, and complex in the way it treats race, class and political correctness. It’s a smart play, and a very funny play. It makes you go hmmm… at the end. Two hours later, you go ‘Oh my god!'”

Religion and science have been butting heads since Galileo’s day, at least. They still are, especially in America and especially in Kansas. Playwright Catherine Trieschmann lives there, in Fort Hays. She set How the World Began in a fictional Kansas town rather like it. The plot: a newly arrived science teacher makes a casual remark about bonehead Christian denial of scientific reality. Christian student won’t let it go. Rancor and comedy ensue, but not quite in the way of the liberal satire you might expect.

“You have two extremes — there’s your drama,” Clements said. “For me, the play’s about tolerance. We don’t allow for debate anymore.

“A lot of us in the theater are embarrassed by religion. I consider myself a spiritual man, not a religious one, but it’s important to be respectful and honor the beliefs of others. The play examines those areas.”

In one of Clements’ favorite scenes, at a particularly heated moment the legal guardian of the offended student brings in a lemon meringue pie. Even in the midst of existential debate, you can still show some hospitality.

The other big, serious play of the season is The Diary of Anne Frank, in the original 1955 stage adaptation by Goodrich and Hackett.

“Have you ever been to that house in Amsterdam?” Clements asked. “There is still power in that story.”

The 2012-13 Rep season has plenty of weight, but also a good deal of fun. A lot of it will happen at the Stackner Cabaret. Once again, goofy guys will do goofy things there, in Gutenberg! The Musical! No, it’s not about the pioneering printer; it’s about some guys who think they can write a hit musical about him. Also at the Stackner, the Johnny Cash tribute Ring of Fire will reflect Clements’ growing affection for country music. The Blues in the Night revue, set among the down-and-out denizens of a Chicago bar in the 1930s, will survey the bluesy side of the American songbook. Higher-brow comedy will come to the Quadracci Powerhouse in a staging of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

And farther off the Rep’s beaten path: Mind Over Milwaukee, with mentalist Marc Salem.

“I wanted to put the cabaret back into the Stackner Cabaret,” Clements said. “I saw Marc Salem in the UK, where he did a show called Mind Games, and again in New York, in Mind Over Manhattan.

Clements thought that Salem would do Mind Games here, but Salem wanted to tailor his show to Milwaukee. He’s will spend some time here to get to know the city.

Clements, like Salem himself, emphasized that no magic or mind-reading is involved. Salem is a student of human behavior; he reads faces and body language. His new book is titled The Six Keys to Unlock and Empower Your Mind: Spot Liars & Cheats, Negotiate Any Deal to Your Advantage, Win at the Office, Influence Friends.

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The Milwaukee Rep’s “A Christmas Carol.” Michael Brosilow photo.

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Christopher Donahue will play Scrooge.

“The FBI brings him in to watch video and tell them whether someone’s lying,” Clements said. “You have to be careful. If you say ‘good show,’ he knows whether or not you mean it.”

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in the familiar version by Edward Morgan and Joseph Hanreddy, will have its usual holiday run at the Pabst Theater. But Jim Pickering, Scrooge to a generation of young theater-goers, is bowing out of the role. Guest actor Christopher Donahue will play the tightwad. Aaron Posner, who directed My Name Is Asher Lev and To Kill a Mockingbird at the Rep, will direct the Christmas staple.

“Jim’s done something like 450 performances as Scrooge,” Clements said. “He could use a little rest.”

In some ways, those new twists and the new Scrooge coming to Carol reflect the biggest change in thinking under Clements’ regime. He inherited a more or less full-time ensemble of 10 actors, which quickly came down to six. They still have plenty to do at the Rep, but…

“You see local actors on our stages all the time,” Clements said. “But the fundamental change is that I’m not choosing plays around six individuals, all of whom are all white and 40 and up,” Clements said. “We needed to refresh. I’m programming for the theater, as a producing organization. The Rep is the people’s theater of Milwaukee. It’s bigger than any individual, and I’m at the top of that list.”

Visit the Milwaukee Rep’s website to subscribe to the 2012-13 season. Insider tip: The Rep will host a one-day only sale on A Christmas Carol single tickets on Wednesday, July 25, at the lowest prices to be offered for the show. Call the Rep’s box office, 414 224-9490, after 9 a.m. on July 25, or order online; the discount code: Charles.

State of the Milwaukee Arts: Florentine Opera.

Don’t miss anything! Track the Milwaukee Rep and all of the city’s performing arts groups. Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s TCD Guide to 2012-13. Sponsored by the Florentine Opera.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Theater

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