By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jul 12, 2012 at 5:34 AM

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 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 Without her help and expertise, I would have been illustrating my columns with stick men drawn in crayon.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.