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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Milwaukee Rep's Mark Clements Chooses Passion Over Politics

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“I can't fake it. I'm not a politician,” says the Milwaukee Rep's Mark Clements, before adding that it might be better for his health and blood pressure if he were a politician. “One tries to be tactful and listen, and you have to be part of that. And I have to work hard at it sometimes.”

To be sure, with such a broad range of audience tastes, a more detached political view of the job might make it easier. Clements, who recently announced the lineup for his second season as artistic director of the Milwaukee Rep, speaks with a passion for theater that goes well beyond the typical, finely polished words one might expect from someone running one of Wisconsin's biggest arts organizations.

And Clements is tackling some of the political aspects of the job as well. Invariably, there will be people who disagree with his decisions. So he carefully weighs the costs and benefits of taking the company in different directions. For instance, concerns over harsh language in one show might be weighed against the possibility of expanding the overall audience base.

Clements can claim a number of victories over the course of the past season. Cabaret was a huge success that brought in a great deal of new business—more than 40% of Cabaret's single-ticket buyers were first-time attendees. Clements states that many of those who visited the Rep for the first time to see Cabaret returned for the one-woman show Bombshells.

Bombshells
, starring Caroline O'Connor, proved to be one of the shows that split opinions. Clements speaks of people giving genuine standing ovations at the end of the show, among other positives. “People were so divided,” Clements adds. “I had people hugging me in the back of the house and then people who were really offended by the word 'clitoris' … [some] people were furious.”

Clements says it is an interesting challenge to try new things that might not appeal to everyone.

“You always get a new window of opportunity in a new regime,” Clements says.

The trick is to capitalize on that opportunity and broaden the consumer base without alienating established patrons.

“Not everything we're putting on here would necessarily be what I would go and see on my taste,” Clements says, adding that there's nothing he would be ashamed of bringing to the stage. “My job is to choose a broad spectrum of work, which our audience will enjoy the experiences of.”

A Genuine Reaction

If Clements wants anything from an audience, it's a genuine reaction. After a recent trip to New York, he spoke with great enthusiasm of the amazing energy at a performance of American Idiot and a throng of people around Al Pacino after a performance of The Merchant of Venice. It's the type of energy that fascinates Clements, and the energy he wants to see with the Milwaukee Rep.

“I don't want to do mundane work. I don't want to do work that's just uncomfortable and across the board,” Clements says. “I want to do something that says something. And if we get it wrong sometimes, so be it. And we will hopefully get it right more often than we get it wrong.”

If Clements has learned anything from his inaugural season with the Rep, it's the importance of diversity in programming. The upcoming season features the ancient classic Othello, an adaptation of the 20th-century classic To Kill a Mockingbird and contemporary shows about Vince Lombardi and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

The Milwaukee Rep's Lombardi is a particularly interesting (and somewhat risky) choice. The drama recently finished its run on Broadway, and one would be hard-pressed to have a bad run of a play about Vince Lombardi in Wisconsin. On the other hand, this production follows a pre-Broadway staging of an earlier version of the same script by Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre. After David Cecsarini's memorable performance in the title role, will audiences accept Rep resident actor Lee Ernst in the same role?

Clements knows that questions like this, and other criticisms that undoubtedly will come his way, go with the territory. The decisions made on the top of a theater company the size of the Rep are never easy to make. But it's nice to know that there's someone who is making those decisions—right or wrong—from a deep, abiding passion for the stage.

Tickets for the Milwaukee Rep's 2011-2012 season are currently on sale. For more information, call the Rep sales office at 414-224-9490.

Russ Bickerstaff is the principal theater critic for the
Shepherd Express.