Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

Comparative Theatre Anatomy: Milwaukee vs. Ohio with Matt Kemple

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Ohio native Matt Kemple: the man who started the Milwaukee Sketch and Improv Festival is also producer for Pink Banana Theatre and the PR/Marketing Manager for Next Act Theatre. This puts him in an interesting place to see the local theatre scene on multiple levels. Being from Ohio gives him an interesting perspective on the relative quality of local theatre. Kemple and I talked backstage at the Off-Broadway Theatre last month.



Matt Kemple:
I think that when I was in Columbus, I started to understand everything that I had learned. I worked at the children’s theatre there . . . I’d picked up a lot of side projects. And I started to create theatre companies with some friends because there really just isn’t a scene there. There were two Equity companies when I was there, one of which really wasn’t an equity company. And it just sort of did one thing per year with the same people every year and they were Equity actors . . . I think they were from Chicago or somewhere . . . and the other one is Capco—the Contemporary American Theatre Company. And the rest is all semi professional, you get a small stipend sort of thing.

Me: And this is Columbus.

Matt Kemple: Yes.

Me: Cincinnati, I would imagine would be bigger.

Matt Kemple: A lot bigger, yeah. Cincinnati playhouse. And Cleveland—the Cleveland playhouse. But I was two and a half hours away from those places and never really knew about the scene at the time. So Columbus and college, I guess is really where I’d learned that you didn’t have what you needed to do.

There’s a certain level of theatre that you just have to be a part of. And when that doesn’t exit, you find ways to create that yourself. So at St. Norbert we created this organization known as the Genecians. We started that in my Sophomore year and by my senior year they made me the president. And we’d meet weekly and do 24 hour combat theatre-type things a lot and we’d done backstage touring of Broadway shows that came to the Weidner Center. It was a great way to be doing theatre in a way that was other that what the college was doing.

A lot of that kind of transferred over to Columbus. We were with this children’s theatre, which none of us wanted to be doing to a certain extent. And it’s not the kind of . . . it’s not like First Stage is here. First Stage is one of the top three children’s theatres in the world. And Columbus children’s theatre is maybe . . . they’re office is the same size s Next Act’s . . . but I was part of their touring program. We went all over the state of Ohio. It was a really good experience for me. I learned a lot. And so just starting to develop and create these organizations and being a part of every facet of it . . . figuring out how . . . having to be onstage and wonder--am I going to be able to exit the stage and run up the stairs to go and set-up the next sound cue for the next scene that I’m in. The other thing is—in Columbus, there was this huge community theatre scene. And that was it.

So there was this upside down pyramid where you have this huge amount of community theatre and the you have this smaller amount of semi-professional theatre and then you have this very small amount of professional theatre.

And here [in Milwaukee] it’s the exact opposite, we have a huge number of professional Equity companies with very high amounts of talent and it really impresses me and then we have this really nice sort of medium-sized theatre like Renaissance and Windfall and Boulevard, not that those are the same type of companies, but they’re sort of in a similar range. And there’s a large foundation of those. Pink Banana and a lot of the things that are going on at the Alchemist, the kind of fall in that range, too. And then you have this kind of smaller, community theatre aspect. And even the community theatre here is a step or two above what I was experiencing there [in Ohio] so . . . I saw all of this and I kept kind of visiting Milwaukee wondering where else I was going to move.



Me: So you knew people here?

Matt Kemple:
I did, from St. Norbert. Friends. And I kept visiting Milwaukee. And I wanted to move to Seattle or Chicago or LA or New York. I wanted to get out of Columbus. And I didn’t care when. I told my I was moving back home to Columbus just for a year until I figured out what I want to do. Three years went by. So I said, “that’s it: I’m going to choose a day and I’m going to move.” And I decided June 1st was the day I was going to move. April 15th I still hadn’t figured out where I was going.

Me: What year was this?

Matt Kemple: This was . . .uhh . . . I think this was 2004. And so I was here in Milwaukee talking to my friends and I was like, ”where should I move?” And they were like, “you should just move here.” And I kind of knew people here and I kind of knew my way around. And so I ended up moving here just on a whim. And as far as I’m concerned it’s the best thing I ever did. When I first moved here, I realized that I couldn’t find any of this theatre that I was looking for. You can find the Rep if you want, but that’s really about it. If you come here straight off the freeway not knowing anybody and you’re trying to find Milwaukee theatre, it’s really difficult to find. So I kind of made it my mission to contribute as much as I could to the theatre community here.

Tomorrow: Matt Kemple on Finding Milwaukee theatre, being there at the start of a dozen tiny theatre companies and more.

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