The Rep's Mark Clements looks backward and forward
More than plays has been happening at the Milwaukee Rep this season. Audiences have been sizing up new artistic director Mark Clements, and he has been sizing up them.
Evidence is strong that they like each other, but as happens in all new relationships, there has been the occasional pothole.
Single ticket sales are the most compelling indication of how audiences are receiving Clements and the productions he is putting on the Rep's stages. Many of the shows have met or exceeded sales expectations, resulting in that category of box office revenue currently being $175,000 greater than budgeted.
Individual ticket figures for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" were at 80 percent of forecasted business before the show opened, and "The 39 Steps" reached 100 percent after its first weekend of performances. The season's first production, "Cabaret," was a huge box office hit. Interestingly, 46 percent of ticket buyers for the musical were seeing their first Rep show.
"It's gone better than we hoped for, and we hoped for a lot," the artistic director said during a chat in his office.
But not every Rep theatergoer has been appreciative of Clements' play selection and casting choices, and there have been some surprises for him. "I had some things to learn about the Midwest," he said. Clements is a Brit, and the bulk of his American theater experience has been in Philadelphia and New York.
He has found Milwaukee audiences to be much more conservative in their play content preferences than he expected. A strongly negative reaction to salty language particularly surprised him.
And he was startled by the tone of a few letters he received from unhappy customers. "Rude" is his description of the missives.
Looking on the bright side, the artistic director was gratified they cared enough to write. Indifference is the greatest artistic insult.
"I want to challenge the audience, but I am not setting out to offend people," he explained. "Time does not stand still. We have to produce plays that reflect the society we live in."
Clements has also taken some criticism for not casting the familiar members of the Rep's longstanding resident acting company as frequently this season as they were under his predecessor in the past. He perceives the need to broaden the field of actors who work on the Rep's stages.
"There were few women in the acting company. There were no people of color. There was no one under the age of 40 in the company. We need to add to the company," he explained.
"Everything is not about me and the 10 resident actors."
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