By David Doll   Published Jan 19, 2001 at 12:38 AM

If you go to the theater in Milwaukee, sooner or later you will see a trim, almost slight, actor who holds your attention when performing. C. Michael Wright is a significant figure in Milwaukee theater circles. He began his professional career in New York where he spent 12 years as an actor.

After the usual problems with 1,200 Equity actors available for every part, his talent and persistence paid off with "Master Harold and the Boys" by Athol Fugard. He was the stand-in for one of the major characters and took over the role in the touring company. He traveled with the show during the early '80s and played Milwaukee.

When he settled back in New York, he began to notice what a grim place the Big Apple can be. The hunt for acting roles was still dog eat dog and the cost of living boggled the mind. He began to get offers to reprise his role in "Master Harold." Having been favorably impressed with Milwaukee while on tour, he accepted an offer from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater which was then located in the Todd Wehr Theater of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Wright began to reflect on the contrast between life in New York and life in Milwaukee. He began to feel burnt out and feel the loneliness of a big city. He found the air too enriched with diesel fuel and the cold wasn't just a matter of climate. He began auditioning for roles out of town.

"I was offered two roles with the Skylight Opera Company. I thought how impressed I was with Milwaukee and took the plunge. This year marks my twelfth year in Milwaukee," says Wright during a break from rehearsals.

In his 12 years in Milwaukee, Wright has enjoyed acting with several companies.

" I have been able to do so much more in Milwaukee. In New York, one has to concentrate on one thing in the theater."

In the more relaxed atmosphere of the Athens of the West, theater people are an extended family. While casting is still done in New York, Milwaukee theaters cast from among the resident pool of talent when possible.

"We get a chance to try our hands at theatrical work apart from acting," observes Wright, who had a hand in building the Off-Broadway Theatre. "I feel so much more fulfilled and well-rounded in Milwaukee than was possible in New York."

Indeed, in Milwaukee, Wright has played many roles in productions with various companies. He has also directed a number of productions and has had the opportunity to share his talent and training with students at Marquette University.

"I've been able to act, direct, teach and paint here in Milwaukee, and now I am on the staff of Next Act Theatre. In New York, this sort of thing is unheard of, but in Milwaukee, opportunities abound," Wright says.

New York's loss has definitely been Milwaukee's gain. While aspiring local actors will still want to try to prove themselves in the Big Apple and Hollywood, more and more established actors are beginning to appreciate the warmth and supportive talent to be found here in Milwaukee. The next step in solidifying Milwaukee's place in the theater world will be when talents nourished and trained in Milwaukee will return to their roots to maintain their career on their native ground.