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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Writer and director Aaron Posner has become a presence in state theater since Mark Clements first brought him to the Rep in the fall of 2010. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Rep)

Aaron Posner returns to the Rep after his stunning debut

When Mark Clements came to Milwaukee to be artistic director of the Rep, he brought musicals, a charming British accent and Aaron Posner.

A writer and director, Posner was responsible for the Rep's stunning production of "My Name is Asher Lev" in the Stiemke Theater in the fall of 2010. It was the high point of Clements' impressive inaugural season.

Posner adapted Chaim Potok's trenchant novel about the drives and stresses that affect artists, and he directed his muscular script with a spare beauty and an acute visual sensibility. It was simply splendid.

Now Posner is back at the Rep, staging "To Kill a Mockingbird," which opens in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater Feb. 3. But that's not all.

Clements' introduction of his good friend to Milwaukee theater audiences with "Asher Lev" was the beginning of a growing presence for Posner in Wisconsin. He staged a richly detailed and emotionally vivid production of "The Glass Menagerie" at the American Players Theatre last summer. Posner and the APT had been discussing possible directing projects for several years, and it was coincidental that his first production there came on the heels of his Rep triumph.

"Over the last two years, I feel like I have fallen into the Wisconsin treasure trove of acting talent," the writer-director recently said before a rehearsal of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Posner isn't just being polite. Within the past year he has taken APT actors Darragh Kennan and Sarah Day with him to do "The Comedy of Errors" at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Kennan) and a new Ken Ludwig farce at the Cleveland Play House (Day).

Back in Milwaukee, In Tandem Theatre is getting in on the Posner party March 2 when it opens a production of his adaptation of another Potok novel, "The Chosen."

There is an irony here. Posner had never worked or been produced in the state before Clements brought him here in 2010, but the writer and director was born in Madison, where his father taught psychology at UW. The family moved to Oregon when young Aaron was a toddler.

Posner does not direct cookie cutter productions. His shows reflect a definite style and vision for the play he is staging.

"A lot of what I am trying to do is reveal by subtraction, not addition," he explained. "I start from asking, why not nothing, why not a bare stage? Why not have the actors wear their own clothes?"

He builds from there. "I wind up with a huge, beautiful, expensive version of a bare stage. It all comes down to the primacy of the story."

Posner talks about going deep into stories, and he seeks actors capable of showing nuance and complexity. "You need an underlying integrity and authenticity in relationships," he said.

To achieve that he speaks of courage and generosity, two words we don't automatically associate with acting on a stage. Generosity refers to actors agreeing to reveal themselves in their work.

"They have to be willing to put themselves on the line," Posner said. "That takes courage."

The stage version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is based on Harper Lee's classic 52-year-old novel. Most people have seen the 1962 Oscar-winning film adaptation, but Christopher Sergel's 1990 theatrical adaptation is not as widely known. Posner watched the movie twice before beginning rehearsals.

"The movie is excellent, but it is of its time," he said. "I find it lacking in complexity at times.

"I think there is more richness to the story. We are trying to reveal more about the people and the story."

Clements and Posner became friends when they were both working in Philadelphia. Posner was a co-founder and artistic director of the Arden Theatre Company there. He also did a stint as artistic director of the Two Rivers Theater Company in New Jersey, and he now guest directs around the country.

"Aaron is a great storyteller," Clements says. "He has a passion and skill for serving the narrative well and making the emotional connections between characters very strong. He is quite meticulous about making sure that every line is emotionally mined to the fullest extent for the benefit of the audience."

Name Change for the Skylight

The Skylight Opera Theatre, which at various times in its life has also called itself the Skylight Theatre, Skylight Comic Opera and The Skylight, is changing its name next week to the Skylight Music Theatre. The switch reflects the fact that the Skylight is producing fewer operas and more book musicals and revues.

This season the company is mounting only one opera. "Our current trend of only one opera is not our goal artistically, but is more a response to the current challenging economic environment," managing director Amy S. Jensen explained in a statement.

"Every season we look at the mix artistically and financially and strive to plan the most interesting and entertaining season possible. Skylight remains committed to keeping opera in its repertoire."

Jensen added that the Skylight is the only company in the country that offers such a wide range of music theater.


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