My exit interview
Having spent the last 32 years watching theatrical characters make their exits, you would expect me to know how to get off my own stage. I'm retiring from journalism this week.
No more deadlines and fewer opening nights. As of tomorrow, I am just another guy in the audience with an opinion, but right now I am trying to sum up more than three decades of being a theater critic in Milwaukee.
How to get my arms around the several thousand productions I have reviewed and the staggering amount of theatrical talent that has been on display in this state? I am awe struck and humbled as I think of the army of actors, directors, designers, composers and administrators who have made Wisconsin truly one of the best places to see – and review – theater in the U.S.
I fear most of us here don't understand that the theatrical landscape in the state has been and continues to be special. Few other places in the country have it this good.
Unsure how to do justice to that in a final column, I am taking the simple route, the do-it-yourself interview. Here goes.
You have spent half of your life being a theater critic. Would you have rather done anything else?
Nope. Foreign policy wonk also appeals to me – really – but I consider myself incredibly lucky to have fallen, mostly by accident, into a job that is so emotionally and intellectually rewarding.
Theater is about everything in life. If you are without a spiritual home, it can be your church. If you are struggling with personal issues, it can be your therapist.
If you feel socially and/or politically isolated, it can provide a sense of community. And of course, theater can give you a darn good time.
Whom do you admire in Wisconsin professional theater?
Many. We get to see a broad buffet of theater here because others make personal sacrifices and work harder than you or I ever will.
Eighty-hour weeks are not rare. Neither is risking personal financial health and being compensated at a level well below ability and accomplishment.
C. Michael Wright of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Amy S. Jensen of the Skylight Music Theatre, Chris and Jane Flieller of In Tandem Theatre, David Cecsarini and Charles Kakuk of Next Act Theatre, Dale Gutzman of Off the Wall Theatre. Their commitment is exceptional. They pour their lives into their companies and are the true stage heroes of Milwaukee.
Do you have a favorite play?
George Bernard Shaw's "Candida." Shaw was an early feminist, and in that play he distills the male-female dynamic found in the range of relationships from puppy love to marriage.
I was fortunate to review two brilliant productions of "Candida" over the years. Marie Mathay played the title role for the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in 1984, and Susan Angelo starred in the American Players Theatre staging in 2005. Wish I had those productions on tape.
What is your take on the current state of Milwaukee theater?
Audiences are changing, seeking experiences, not just another night in the theater. Our local companies have to be very careful to not become routine and predictable.
The Milwaukee Rep's board was prescient in 2009 when it decided to retool the company a bit and hired an Englishman unknown in these parts, Mark Clements, to be its new artistic director. Clements has introduced musicals to the main stage Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, and anyone who saw his production of "Next to Normal" last season understands the value of that. He has also brought a vibrant theatricality and slightly different esthetic to the state's largest theater company.
Milwaukee's second tier of professional stage companies – the Chamber Theatre, Next Act, In Tandem and Renaissance Theaterworks – has matured into middle age, and while those groups continue to produce at a high level, a certain sameness has settled in. If they all mounted their shows in the same venue, I would guess that audiences would not be able to distinguish the work of one company from another.
It would be healthy for them to develop stronger, more individual personalities.
Isn't it interesting that the stage troupe with the most distinct identity in the city is only three years old? Youngblood Theatre Company makes bold choices in its play selection and doesn't confine itself to traditional performance spaces.
Site specific productions offer audiences those experiences I previously mentioned. Youngblood has had some great successes with shows mounted in warehouses and on a historic urban farm.
Professional pub theater. We haven't had any since Cecilia's Pub in Walker's Point closed more than 10 years ago. One of my best nights as a theater critic was spent there seeing the Belfast-based actress Maggie Cronin doing her single-actor show "A Most Notorious Woman."
The relaxed and intimate atmosphere of a theater-friendly saloon is a mighty fine way to see a play. Milwaukee theater needs to occasionally escape those dark boxes with seats in neat rows and experiment with other venues.
Funky is better than stodgy.
Did your editors ever try to influence what you wrote? Were you ever told to go easy on a show or an actor?
No. Not once over 32 years did anyone at the Milwaukee Journal, Journal Sentinel or OnMilwaukee.com ever suggest what my opinion should be.
Anything else you want to say?
Yeah. I owe a debt of gratitude to Barb Tabak for being my photo editor and occasional photographer during my three years here at OnMilwaukee.com. Without her help and expertise, I would have been illustrating my columns with stick men drawn in crayon.
If we can't talk you out of retiring as a journalist, at least tell us you're not retiring from writing. I want to continue to look forward to reading anything you wrote, whether in a newspaper, magazine, online blog or wherever. I'd look forward to reading an article, essay or even a book if it was written by you. How about a podcast like the one you did with Jim Higgins a few years ago at the Journal Sentinel? Anything... Damnit, throw us a bone, at least!
I SAW Next To Normal, the Rep's production. IT, EASILY, WAS THE WORST PLAY I HAVE EVER SEEN AND I HAVE SEEN SCORES OF PLAYS OVER THE DECADES. What a sad excuse for an "entertainment" It is awful, horrible, terrible "so called" entertainment. So depressing, i wanted to walk out as many did at the first intermission. I stayed, hoping the second act f would be better. It was not. The rep MUST chose plays that are, truly, entertaining--and not depressing. I had season tickets and trusted the Rep in their play selections. Sure was wrong there.( Another story, but their opening play about the Lunts was very badly written and the Rep should have passed on it, as well. ) A friend saw the play with me--he has the same mental conditions as the lead character but he takes medicine for the problem. He was EXTREMELY upset in seeing this play and wishes he had stayed home. The problem was we had no idea what this play was about. The Rep MUST do much better in selecting their plays--2 bad misses last season. And the "so-called" set was a mumble-jumble mess of metal pipes which added no value to the production. Many of the pipes were not used or barely used. A friend saw this play in Chicago last year and said a REAL traditional set was used there. The Rep should have done the same. Plus, this was their Christmas season production. How sad. Jerry Johnson
Quite a career, Damien. But I still can't believe you panned Pink Floyd's concert back in the 70's when you were at the Journal!
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