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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

Birthday at the Boulevard

25 years of daring theater

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Out for a long walk one night, Mark Bucher kept going and going until he found himself on a bleak stretch of South Kinnickinnic Avenue, among the ruins of a once-thriving business district in an obscure corner of town called Bay View. It was the mid-’80s and Bay View’s renaissance was still over a decade away.

“I saw this empty storefront,” recalls Bucher, who had already founded the Boulevard Ensemble theater company with a residency at a Riverwest coffeehouse, St. Michael’s Waiting Room. “It intrigued me. I thought it could be made into an affordable theater—and that the neighborhood could develop.”

The rest, as they say, is history still in the making. With its 2010-2011 season, the Boulevard Ensemble celebrates 25 years—24 of them in the modest, compact theater Bucher built at 2252 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. During his quarter-century as artistic director, Bucher has endeavored to balance provocation with entertainment while playing the role of urban pioneer. As decades passed, the Boulevard found itself in the center of a burgeoning business district with Stone Creek Coffee, Café LuLu, BYO Studio Lounge and Riviera Maya as neighbors. In that sense, the world gradually caught up with Bucher. In other respects, he feels the earth has lost ground.

By the time he stumbled into the future home of Boulevard Ensemble, the tireless Bucher had been waiting tables at Mader’s for 12 years.

“It’s about performance,” he says of his longtime waiting job. “It’s excellent training for running a theater—you learn charm, responsibility and multitasking.”

After juggling simultaneous theater courses at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette, Bucher became an acting intern at the Milwaukee Rep and performed with the now-defunct Clavis Theatre and Theatre X. The idea of managing his own three-ring theatrical circus appealed to Bucher, who wanted to tackle thematically ambitious plays—even if many of them were modest productions with small casts. During its early years, Boulevard presented Edward Albee, Edna O’Brien and Eric Bogosian along with Molire, Beckett, Shakespeare and Gogol.

The shoestrings on Bucher’s budget were tied so tightly they almost hurt. But the limitations only spurred him to run harder.

“I found wood and milk crates in the basement of the storefront,” he says. “My mother Annie sewed curtains and coverings.”

Despite being off the beaten trail, the Boulevard Ensemble attracted young actors and patrons as well. “Being a waiter taught me networking before the word was there,” Bucher explains. “I’d take my postcards to Mader’s and hand them out. Some of those people are still season subscribers. But the other reason for Boulevard’s success was the literary quality of our plays, which attracted the intelligentsia.”

At the time Bucher founded Boulevard, there were fewer theater groups in Milwaukee, and most were equity companies or community theaters. “Boulevard offered an opportunity for emerging actors to work on material not normally produced in Milwaukee,” he says.

Alas, many of those plays are seen even less now than a quarter-century ago. “What has changed in the last 25 years?” Bucher asks. “Art matters less. Commerce has gained ascendancy. I believe we’re living in the post-literate age. We’re living in stressful economic and political times. If it’s not the Dark Age, it’s the Dim Age. Twenty-five years ago you could see Pinter and Beckett on stage. Theater companies are much less willing to take chances now because Milwaukee won’t support them and the major media won’t get it.”

The Boulevard Theatre is still presenting intelligent plays with a flair for keeping audiences entertained—and doing it with modest means. “Some of our weaknesses are actually our strengths,” Bucher says. “The sheer physical and emotional intimacy of our theater is a strength. I know most of our customers by name. And where else is the artistic director at the front door saying ‘goodnight’ to the patrons?”

The Boulevard Ensemble’s 25th season continues with Savannah DisputationNov. 24-Jan. 9, 2011.