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The Rep's Mark Clements. (PHOTO: Dan Bishop)

Milwaukee Talks: The Rep's Mark Clements

Audio Podcast: The Rep's Mark Clements talks about theater misconceptions
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Mark Clements made his debut as the Artistic Director at Milwaukee Repertory Theater in fall 2010. From the beginning he's lived the "theater for all" mission and this season he's ready to get Milwaukee talking and thinking with several provocative productions.

Sure, he's an award-winning international theater director whose work has been seen in more than 100 major theaters throughout Europe and the United States but now he's a passionate Milwaukeean, a new Packers fan and, most importantly, a new father.

I caught up with Clements in office last week for this latest installment of "Milwaukee Talks."

OMC: What's the Mark Clements background? Two minutes of who are you.

MC: Well, I was born in London – East End of London, and I grew up in Southend-on-Sea, which is about 40 miles east of London. It's small, kind of on the Thames estuary, bridges the counties of Essex and Kent.

Grew up and went to school there, where my family – my mother's family – were from. I was born into a theatrical family. Parents were actors who then became producers. I had no desire to work in the theater whatsoever, because from my early childhood, they were hard-working, often out of work actors, so the industry didn't really hold much allure to me.

But when I started getting a bit older, when they were away, I began working summers at the equivalent to what Summer Stock would be here. I started having little holiday jobs.

So, as soon as I left school, I didn't go to college. I went straight into the theater because I got offered a job in stage management. My route is kind of interesting, kind of void of that higher element of education. Literally by the time most people are leaving higher education, I'd worked six years in the theater. At 29 years old, I was running my own theater. I don't even know how many productions – I've directed over 100 professional productions. I'm thinking the first one was probably 1988, or something like that.

So, I've done everything kind of way ahead of time. I was a stage manager, I was in the I was in the stage management for theater companies like Derby Playhouse. When I was like 22, I looked about 15, and so I'd be dealing with these big-ass, hairy-ass, dudes from Welsh National Opera, and I was fearless, you know? I wasn't taking that crap from any of them and they knew what I was doing and I knew my (stuff).

And then I became the company's stage manager at 21 years old, which is really young for that job. I didn't really want to go into directing even though my dad had been a director. It really did hold no allure. Rather, I was very much into soccer and motorcycling. I wanted to be a professional soccer player or a professional motocross cycle rider. I did both very well, but not well enough professionally. So, when I realized that I couldn't do those things at the level I wanted to do, you know – theater had just always been around. So, it was something I was just doing, but ... the transition of being a technician going into directing, that was a big shift for me, I guess.

I was mentored by a guy who gave me an opportunity. He was an actor. The artistic director was a wonderful actor, better actor than the director and I was directing him in things like "Long Day's Journey into Night" I was 24, you know, so it was crazy, but it was good grounding.

OMC: What did you know about Milwaukee before you arrived here?

MC: Well, I first came here only for a sort-of drunken weekend of Summerfest with friends from Chicago on a visit from England. My knowledge of America, really was from working on the East Coast and some of the West Coast. I directed a number of productions in New York, and a ton of productions in Philadelphia. So that was my entry-level – and I did that while I was running my theater in the UK.

I always enjoyed my time working in America and living in America, so that was my focus, and I thought that if the time comes up. So I was pretty OK with the American theater scene; who the major players were; what the interesting theaters were and if the situation arises where a theater crops up that I'm interested in, I'd throw my hat in the ring. That's kind of what happened when Milwaukee Rep came up. So, I knew of it and Milwaukee.

OMC: Has it met your expectations?

MC: It's exceeded it. Milwaukee has, too. Milwaukee is often quoted as one of those hidden gems, and I think it's great.

A lot of people come and work here, living in different parts of the country. They come in, and I don't know what they're expecting, but it's always – especially this time (summer) of year – it's like the city has two identities: a summer and a winter identity. Which I like both, actually. I just wish the winter wasn't quite as long, but it is what it is.

So I feel, also that this building setup here – when people who have done a lot in our industry come and visit this theater, they're like, "Geez, this place is unbelievable." I mean, this theater – our real estate is bigger than anything in Chicago. We've got more real estate than Goodman and Steppenwolf. Amazing facility.

OMC: If you had a magic wand, what's one thing you would change about the city or the area?

MC: If I could change anything about it, I would want to see it as a city was a little more integrated and less segregated. I'm more aware of that here than anywhere else I've ever lived. I know that Time magazine voted it as the No. 1 most segregated city in America, you know, which is a pretty grim tag. It's kind of hard, when you're first here, from my perspective to see that, but when you've lived here a little while you kind of understand it. I don't think it's exclusive to Milwaukee, but I do think it's particularly ... I've never lived anywhere where I'm more aware of that. So, you know, I can't wave a magic wand and undo 200 years of history, but I guess what we can do in our way, is we can make sure that our programming of this institution that all people are welcome and our program reflects the cultural mix that we have in this city, which I think is very, very important to me.

OMC: Do you have time for entertainment? Are there any TV shows you like to watch on the DVR?

MC: Yeah, well, the DVR in our house is usually maxed out. Kelly, my partner – she has her things that she likes, which are not the things I like, and her likewise with mine. So, I'm a MotoGP fanatic, so I watch a lot of GP and I watch a lot of other like sporty things.

I do watch primarily soccer, because I'm a big Arsenal fan. I have, though, gotten more and more into the Green Bay Packers. That game, I'm starting to sort of understand it a bit and I find myself, if I'm at an airport or anything, and Packers are playing, I'm definitely liking it. Baseball, not so much. I can't really acquaint myself with that game. I tried hard, but it's not happening.

TV shows, right now, absolutely hooked on "Breaking Bad." I love that show. I love everything about it. The acting, and the writing and the directing, and the fact that you can never predict it. I feel that my guilty TV pleasures are things like "Sons of Anarchy" and "Dexter," both of which start again soon. I'm looking forward to the new seasons. And then my really, really, really guilty pleasures are things like "Man vs. Food." I'm on a diet and I've lost 14 pounds in the last four weeks, so I'm kind of watching stuff and giving myself a break.

OMC: Are you a big reader?

MC: You know, I love reading, but this job really scoffers personal reading time, because the amount of scripts that I have to read, materials just in relation to the job really, and emails, and scripts, and reviews and things like that literally takes up any quality reading time. So for me, that is something that I will have to kind of do on vacation, and I'm usually so tired there that I fall asleep however the book is that I'm reading is. I'm by a pool and I've read four pages, and I'm done.

So, that is something that is a great regret in my life, actually. Because I've been doing this for such a long time and hard-core, that I've never really felt I've read as much as I'd like to read, and I feel that's definitely a regret. Maybe at a better time if that ever happens.

OMC: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about performing arts and theater, and then maybe some general tips for theater-goers? If somebody's never been to a show, how do you prepare?

MC: I would say, the general misconception about live arts, theater in particular, in the mainstream is that it's for a certain group of people, you know, a certain class of people. Class structure comes to play. That it's only for the intelligent – you have to be super intelligent to enjoy.

We had a board member join recently. He said, "I don't really know a lot about theater." I could see that he was intimidated by the thought of being on a board. Yet, the skills he brought to the table and his knowledge were important. Now he's seeing that that stuff's nothing to be worried about.

I think that's true often of the audience, often they're thinking, literally, "Do I have to put on a tuxedo to go?" I mean, there is that kind of thought. I feel that to some extent, our industry is responsible for perpetuating that and being elitist. I have spent most of my career trying to undo this. That is a big part of my mission here.

I hate theater snobs. I hate theater snobs more than anything. It just drives me crazy. It gets my back up. Our motto here, really, is theater for all, and it has been always.

It's wonderful when people come and say, "I had no idea. I've never seen a play before, and I've never seen a musical before. It's amazing."

I hear it all the time. Nearly daily when we're in the seasons. Somebody will say, "I had no idea. Now I'm going to come again." I think it's that feeling. From the outside there's a misconception that we, the actors, have a lot of money, you know? And if they're on TV, they must be, like, millionaires. If only. That percentage is so small.

OMC: If you're coming to The Rep for the first time or you're coming to the show for the first time?

MC: Be open minded. And, ask questions. Ask questions at the box office when you're booking your ticket. Be open to saying, "I've never been to a musical before – I've never been to a play before ... I'm thinking I would love to come to the theater, but I want to bring my family. Is this suitable? Is this something (they'd like)?

It's like food. I mean, when you're a kid, Chicken McNuggets are the best thing in the world. When you get older, you want to expand that, your culinary palate so you don't like vegetables much as a kid, and then you want to expand. Things change. I think that's true of art as well – like reading or movies, your tastes become more eclectic and broader (sometimes they don't, but for many people they do).

There's an entry level for seeing plays, like when we did "Othello" last year. We set it in a motorcycle gang culture. There were people who had never seen a Shakespeare before who were nervous, but they got the story and they were so pleased with themselves. But, I think part of it is in the execution.

I mean, if I, honestly, went and saw – I was taken with a school trip, I mean, obviously I was with the theater always, but I was taken on a school trip at about 13 or 14 years of age in the town that I grew up in at the local theater, we went to see "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It was the most boring, worst thing I'd ever seen. If that was the only experience that had ever been, I'd never set foot in the theater again. So I think it's one of those things where people go, "Should I go to the theater?" and I'll go, "Don't come and see that as a first experience – go and see that."

Ask questions if you've never been before, because you don't want to be put off. Come with an open mind, as well.

OMC: Why don't we talk a little about the upcoming season? Could you pick a couple things that you're most excited about?

MC: Sure. I mean, I'm kind of excited about all of it, but I'm very excited about the two shows that I'm directing. "Assassins," I think is probably one of the most talented casts I've ever worked with ever, and the piece is amazing, very timely, because it sort of deals with so many of the issues with young culture and politics, all in a really super, sort-of unusual, quite unique entertaining package. So, I'm kind of excited about that. That musical really pushes boundaries. I'm very excited about that.

I'm excited about "Clybourne Park," which I'm doing later in the year. This is a play, without a doubt, is one of the best plays that I've read in a long, long time. It won the Pulitzer Prize, Olivier Prize, Tony-Award winning play.

It's a riff on "Raisin in the Sun," and we really wanted to do that last year, but we couldn't the way the season fell out, with the costs and the way we wanted to do it, we couldn't do it together so we waited until this season so we could actually have a conversation about running those two plays side-by-side so that they can talk to one-another, and deal with, of course, so many of the issues we just talked about in Milwaukee – about segregation – not just in Milwaukee but in other cities, and have a conversation about – we work so hard at being politically correct.

Do we shoot ourselves in the foot as a result of being so? And I love the fact that it talks about these huge topics: race, gentrification, segregation, real estate, and political correctness. It manages to cover those topics really well for a two-hour period without giving you a lecture.

OMC: That should be great for the community and good for growing conversation.

MC: "Mountaintop," too, which has started rehearsals, is about Dr. Martin Luther King on the last night of his life. One of the best coup de theatres around. It's hard to talk about the play without giving it all away, but it's great.

OMC: If you could have a beer or coffee with anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?

MC: Bruce Springsteen. You know, I've seen Bruce a number of times over the years, and those concerts are always amazing. You know, he plays for 3 ½ hours. I love the music, and I love the spirit, even though sometimes it's a little corny. I love the fact, you know, what's that expression? Head in the clouds, feet on the ground, you know? I think Bruce Springsteen lives that kind of ... I love the fact he's really clear about his politics. He lives a good life; he enjoys his wealth in a sensible, smart way. He's not ashamed, and he's a great person at giving back. He's also not a person who's afraid to ... he lives by the creed. I was watching him the other night, actually in a concert in Hyde Park in London and, I was like, "yeah!"

I did see him in an Indian restaurant in London a few years ago – well, more than a few years ago – when he was playing a series of concerts, and we'd seen him, actually, and then we were like, having dinner at this Indian restaurant and he and the E-Street Band came in and I nearly frickin' passed out, so my friend and I, we said we were going to send a bottle of champagne to his table, but we never went over there because we didn't think that was cool.

So yeah, I'd love to sit down with Bruce and shoot the sh*t.

OMC: What's your definition of success?

MC: I guess success for The Rep, it's that I would leave it stronger than when I arrived, and that I would have a really good instinct that it would be here for at least another 50 years or beyond, doing what it does best.

For me, success ... you know, it's really interesting we were talking before this interview, and I think having had a child in this last year – that's redefined success in some ways. I feel the privilege of having a perfect little baby, you know. I feel rich.



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