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"The Understudy" opens tomorrow night at the Renaissance Theaterworks' home at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Metoxen grows from student to director in "The Understudy"

Back when Mallory Metoxen was eighth grade, she decided that she wanted to be actress. And then she got her first lead role.

"I hated it," Metoxen recalled. "It was Vivian Bearing in 'Wit.' I was like, 'I don't like this. I like being a supporting role, and I don't know that acting is really my calling.' I went through kind of a little crisis."

Thanks to Metoxen's little crisis, she ended up getting whisked down a different career path: directing. Now, this Friday night, several years after her fateful experience with "Wit," she's about to take a giant leap forward that new path with her directorial debut, Renaissance Theaterworks' "The Understudy." The show runs through Feb. 9 at the Studio Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, located at 158 N. Broadway.

The production – a play within a play – follows three individuals and an unseen fourth attempting to put on one of Franz Kafka's undiscovered masterpieces. The three – an action star looking for Broadway legitimacy, a journeyman actor and a stage manager tasked with keeping the show together – come together for a putin rehearsal (a rehearsal for the understudy), where all of their misconceptions and attitudes about one another come to light.

The women in charge of Renaissance Theaterworks offered Metoxen the director position for "The Understudy" after putting together their schedule for the season. After Metoxen read the script, she was ready to make it her first professional directorial gig.

"I read it, and I was like, 'This is awesome. I love this. This is hilarious. I'm on,'" Mextoxen said. "What I love about it is that it's really funny, but it's also really heartwarming. It really explains why people who have a need to do their art continue to do it, no matter what."

It's a subject that deeply speaks to Metoxen, who's been interested and involved in theater since as long as she can remember. She commuted from Port Washington to Milwaukee High School of the Arts in the hopes of pursuing her dream of becoming an actress. Come junior year, however, the aspiring actress got her first lead role in "Wit," a big break that ended up breaking her and her dream. Luckily, as a part of MHSA's program, she had to do directing her senior year.

"I loved it," Metoxen said. "I love the process, and I feel like I'm pretty good at coming up with a vision in my head and hearing how stuff should sound. So I went into college knowing that I wanted to direct."

After high school, Metoxen headed off to Cardinal Stritch University where she learned more about the process and even did a fair amount of actual directing. About two and a half years ago, she got in with Renaissance Theaterworks, working in the office and house managing until she eventually asked Suzan Fete – one of the company's co-founders – if she could assistant direct her 2012 one-woman show "Neat." Fete said yes.

"I had a lot of fun working with her and just watching," Metoxen said. "She really listened to my ideas and saw value in them. That was great."

All of those experiences combined together to help prepare Metoxen for this moment: making her directorial debut. Of course, there's always more to learn and things to improve upon.

"I'm not as good at telling people what (I want) means," Metoxen said. "I can tell them how I think it feels a lot better than I can technically tell them things."

According to Metoxen, the crucial in-world educational experience shows the young director that Renaissance Theaterworks "practices what they preach." Since its inception in the '93-'94 season with "A Different Moon," Renaissance – Milwaukee's only women-founded, women-run theater company – has made it their mission to bring attention to gender parity in the theater world and focus on women's roles on and off the stage. Unfortunately, much like the film industry, the theater world is overwhelmingly dominated by male voices, a statistic that hasn't changed much over time.

"It's tough to get chances because of that," Metoxen said. "It's crazy how little women work in theater and how big of a boys club it is. The percentage of female playwrights produced in the U.S. has remained essentially unchanged for the past 100 years. In 1908, it was 12.8 percent, and now it's worse."

Renaissance hopes to change that. A large banner of similarly alarming statistics about the lack of gender parity in theater will be posted out in the lobby during "The Understudy." Metoxen has gotten into the act as well, spearheading Brink!, a brand new summer play development series that gathers scripts from female Midwestern playwrights. Metoxen hopes not only to shine a spotlight on female playwrights, but also to bring them into the process a bit as well.

"We are so disconnected from them," Metoxen said. "We're getting a script, and they're off wherever else in the world. We never work with them, but I'm hoping with Brink!, we can start showing these playwrights to their audience."

Between Brink! And her debut tomorrow night with "The Understudy," it's safe to say Metoxen has come a long way since "Wit."


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