By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Mar 22, 2014 at 11:36 AM

They’ve been working behind the scenes to make the Milwaukee Rep’s shows shine brightly. They’ve been understudies, rehearsing and waiting in the wings in case of emergency. They’ve briefly graced the stage as minor characters or ensemble members for Rep productions. After a season of work mostly out of the spotlight, however, the Rep interns are preparing to become the stars of their own show.

Now celebrating its fourth year of existence, "Rep Lab" – running March 28 through 31 – is a collection of 10 short plays, ranging from dramas to comedies to one called "27 Ways I Didn’t Say ‘Hi’ to Laurence Fishburne" – which is exactly what it sounds like. The short play festival features a 12-person acting ensemble comprised entirely of current Rep acting company interns, as well as two directing interns and many other design interns behind the scenes.

As noted by Rep literary coordinator Leda Hoffmann (and director of The Alchemist Theatre’s recent production of "The Chairs"), don’t let the word "intern" scare you.

"This is a professional Milwaukee Rep show," Hoffmann said. "It has a much smaller budget than all the other shows. It only runs for a single weekend. But within the budgetary constraints of that, we treat this like any other show. It gives interns a chance to practice the skills they’ve been doing, and I don’t necessarily want to say the word ‘practice.’ It’s a professional show; you have to bring it."

The Rep’s intern program is coming up on its 50th anniversary. "Rep Lab," however, is a fairly new element, brought over four years ago by Mark Clements in his first season as the theater’s artistic director.

"When Mark came here, he went, ‘We have some of the best emerging actors and directors in the country working here at the Rep; what can we do to showcase their work,’" Hoffmann recalled. "Out of that was born this idea of having a short play festival."

Just like Clements hoped, many acclaimed local actors and directors have emerged from "Rep Lab" and the program. For instance, Greta Wohlrabe, the star of the Rep’s 2013 production of "Venus in Fur," was an acting intern given the stage in "Rep Lab."

JC Clementz, a directing intern during the 2011-12 season, recently directed the Rep’s rendition of "Forever Plaid." Clementz still helps lead "Rep Lab" as a coordinator, director and producer along with Hoffmann, who was herself a Rep directing intern in the 2010-11 season, the first year of the short play festival.

"It’s a chance to have a project here for yourself," Hoffmann said. "They spend their whole year kind of following professional artists, and then with ‘Rep Lab,’ they get to do it themselves. Some of the acting interns get speaking roles during the season, but sometimes they just get non-speaking ensemble roles and understudying. So this is the first time they get to create a role from scratch."

For Hoffmann, she still remembers and carries the lessons she gained from her experience with "Rep Lab" as an intern to her current directorial projects.

"Directing a short play is a different thing all into itself," Hoffmann said. "If you only have five minutes, every single moment the picture you see should tell you the story of the play. I learned how to do that and think about stage picture. Every photo should be interesting to look at. I can apply that looking at the detail of a five to ten minute play in ‘Rep Lab’ and now apply that detail it to the full-length plays I do now."

Now that they’ve grown from intern participants to coordinators of "Rep Lab," Hoffmann and Clementz hope to continue creating more experiences and lifelong lessons like that. Part of that comes from the play selection. Hoffmann spent about two months last fall reading scripts for potential short plays. Some of those made it into this season’s "Rep Lab," while others were scripts they wanted to do in the past but were unable to until now.

One of those latter short plays is the "L.A. 8 AM," which Hoffmann is directing along with the Irish bank robbery short "Hamlet in Hiding." Part of what drew her to the two shows was the contrast between the comedy of "Hamelet in Hiding" with what Hoffmann sees as a more poignant, thoughtful piece.

"I think we have really good variety in this variation of ‘Rep Lab,’" Hoffmann said. "Some of them are really funny, and some of them are really touching. Some of them are really realistic, and some of them are really stylized. Some are longer; some are shorter. We kind of got that style right this year, and as we keep working, we’ll keep asking ourselves questions about what we want to look at."

Variety is good for the audience obviously, but in the eyes of "Rep Lab," it’s even better for the people on and behind the stage, hoping to show off their full range of skills on their journey from Rep intern to potential Milwaukee theater star. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.