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Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s 40th Year

Opening the season with an old favorite, ‘Master Class’

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“Don’t lose sight of the seeds but keep pushing forward,” says Artistic Director C. Michael Wright of his goals for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s 40th season. “If you celebrate the past and embrace the future, the present will take care of itself.”

That modest, hard-working approach, respectful of tradition yet ready to take the next step, seems very much in keeping with the historical character of MCT. It was founded in 1975 by Ruth Schudson and the late Montgomery Davis as simply, unpretentiously, a theater for actors and audiences who love good playwriting. There must be wisdom in that approach. It’s a remarkable achievement for a small theater to reach 40 years (and counting).

One way to celebrate the past is to study it, to learn how art operates to identify and influence the culture in which it lives. One way to embrace the future is to fearlessly open the doors to the next generation of theater makers in your neighborhood. Wright, who took the job nine years ago and helped to steer the organization through a life-threatening financial crisis, has become a model of action on both fronts. Managing Director Kirsten Mulvey seems a perfect partner, characterizing their work as that of building many families among audience members and artists.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that the title of MCT’s 40th Season, “Something Old, Borrowed and New,” refers to a wedding.

The season opens this week with “something old,” a new production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class (1995). Actress Angela Iannone plays the opera legend Maria Callas, a role she premiered at MCT in 1999 to acclaim and has subsequently made her own in performances with Madison Rep, Kansas City Rep and Light Opera Oklahoma. The remainder of the cast is new, as is the directing team: Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Jill Anna Ponasik and Carroll University’s James Zager. The show, which runs Aug. 7-24, includes opera, dialogue and monologue and fits perfectly in the Cabot Theatre, the mini-jewel-box opera house of MCT’s Broadway Theatre Center home.

About the script, Wright says, “It’s a wonderful comment on the life of an artist and it’s also about teaching, passing the baton, nurturing the next generation, as we’re doing at MCT.”

Iannone teaches theater at UW-Whitewater and Zager heads the department at Carroll. Wright has developed a rich, multifaceted relationship with area colleges over several seasons. MCT’s most recent production, Lend Me A Tenor, prominently featured Marquette theater students, faculty and alumni as actors and designers. “We’d always had internships,” Wright explained, “but we learned that we needed to beat down the doors to let young people know there are real arenas outside the campus where they can grow, work and network. Now we have students onstage, back stage, as actors, designers, stage managers, technicians, and in training as administrators and educators. If I had to choose my legacy, it would be in nurturing anyone who is interested in theater as an art form, anyone who has a strong love and need for theater.”

As for playwrights, Wright created the Young Playwrights Festival of Milwaukee high school student work and the Montgomery Davis Play Development Series for adult Wisconsin writers.  Actress Marcy Kearns heads MCT’s high school residency program. Each residency includes a playwriting competition. Every two years, three winning scripts are fully produced by MCT in the Studio Theatre. The Play Development Series presents a script-in-hand staging of a new Wisconsin play each fall and spring. Both programs offer additional opportunities for actors, directors and designers.

“Process is really important to me,” Wright says of these programs. “We create a safe environment where risks can be taken, an environment of love and generosity. That’s where good art gets created—not out of chaos.” In hiring, Wright is committed to the “M” in MCT. “If they’re not from Milwaukee,” Wrights says, “they’re from Wisconsin. The talent pool here is pretty vast.”

The other “something old” this season is The Complete Works of Wm. Shakespeare (abridged) (revised). Like Master Class, it’s a new production rather than a reconstruction of an earlier (2001) hit. Ray Jivoff directs a cast of four UW-Whitewater alums who are rock musicians as well as comic actors.

“Something Borrowed” refers to the final installment of Illinois playwright Margaret Raether’s nationally acclaimed trilogy of P.G. Wodehouse adaptations. Jeeves Takes A Bow has the lead characters in NYC and tangled with a Broadway show. Tami Workentin directs.

What’s “new” remains rooted in good playwriting. The Good Father, a contemporary Irish love story, will feature Milwaukee actors Laura Gray and Jonathan Wainwright as lovers against all odds. The Train Driver is a recent, soul-rending drama by the towering South African playwright Athol Fugard. Wright, Fugard’s friend, will direct these two Milwaukee premieres.

Master Class runs Aug. 7-24, at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com for information on the many related events.