Bringing Good Things to Life: Rep Production Director Jared Clarkin

Jared Clarkin, Milwaukee Rep’s Production Director, has worked aboard the Queen Elizabeth II – overcoming the “very quaint” technology on an aging ocean liner to create magical lighting designs while sailing all over the world.

He’s worked in Argentina on an underwater puppet show involving a 1,000-gallon fish tank.

During a stint as an Associate Production Manager for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, it wouldn’t be uncommon for him to head to work Wednesday morning and only return to his apartment on Saturday.

And during the decade when he worked in New York before coming home to his native Wisconsin, he was the assistant project manager on a $3 million dollar construction project in Manhattan. 

But the biggest professional challenge this 42-year-old theater artist has faced thus far?

"A Christmas Carol," Clarkin told me, referring to the beast of countless moveable parts that the Rep stages each holiday season in the Pabst Theater.  “Just the scope and scale of Mark’s version of the show is bigger than anything I’d taken on before,” Clarkin continued, referring to the version of Carol that Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements adapted and which debuted at the Pabst in 2016.

Jared Clarkin, Production Director, on the job. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Fittingly, I spoke to Clarkin in the Pabst bar, as tech for this year’s production of A Christmas Carol rumbled along in the background.  The Pabst is where I’d met Clarkin three years ago, during the second day of load-in for the first edition of this latest Carol.  

I was there to interview him for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on what was, hands down, Milwaukee’s biggest theater story of 2016.  There was clearly way too much going on – regarding a project Clarkin had overseen and was charged with coordinating – for him to make time for me.  But make time he did, responding to my dumbest questions with a calm demeanor, comprehensive answers, and unfailing politeness.  

I was impressed.  But as I’ve since come to see, that’s just who Clarkin is. Competent.  Collected.  Courteous. 

While Clarkin has only been at Milwaukee Rep since 2014 – first as Production Manager and now as Production Director – there’s a reason his Rep colleagues voted him Company Member of the year last year.  

As Clements made clear to me during a recent text exchange, “Jared has an extraordinarily difficult, high-stress job during which he has to square designers’ aspirations with the realities of a budget and often relentless deadlines.  And yet he’s liked by everyone.  That’s no mean feat.” 

Coming Home to Wisconsin
Although Clarkin was born and raised in La Crosse and graduated from UW-LaCrosse, living in Milwaukee – or anywhere else in Wisconsin – simply wasn’t on his radar during the first decade of his professional career.

While Clarkin “had no connections and didn’t really know anybody” when he left for New York in his twenties, he’d quickly established himself once he’d moved there.  Having started as a master electrician, he’d taken on roles as a technical director and manager before serving as Production Manager at the New School for more than six years, moving on from there to his role in production management at Lincoln Center.  

With those gigs involving ocean liners and puppet-filled fish tanks thrown in for good measure.  

In short, Clarkin had gone from having “no idea that production management even existed as a career” to someone who’d arrived and thrived, in the theater capital of America.  Why leave?

“It was the birth of my daughter that prompted it,” Clarkin said, of 11-year-old Phinlee.  

It was 2008.  Theater was also filling up days and nights for Clarkin’s wife, Nancy, whom Clarkin had met at a summer stock company in Missouri where they’d both worked. 

“Nancy was working as a talent agent at the time, so she was seeing shows in the evening quite a bit.  I was working on these big industrial shows at Lincoln Center where I’d have days involving short breaks during which I’d kind of sleep at work.  It was a lot of hours, and I was looking to do something a bit more manageable and spend more time with the family.”

Jared Clarkin's daughter, Phinlee, dressed up as her Dad for Halloween.

While visiting his parents back home in Wisconsin during the summer of 2008, a friend mentioned that First Stage was looking for a Production Manager. 

“I never really thought I’d come back to Wisconsin,” Clarkin admitted.  “But I had a lot of friends in Milwaukee, and I had good conversations with First Stage’s Rob Goodman and Jeff Frank,” Clarkin said – referring, respectively, to the former and current First Stage Artistic Directors. 

He applied for and was offered the First Stage job, starting in October of 2008; Nancy, who is now the First Stage Development Director, began working there in the summer of 2010.  Phinlee, a young performer appearing in her second production of A Christmas Carol this year, has acted there.      

“We had the choice of either moving upstairs in our New York apartment to a two-bedroom unit or moving half way across the country,” Clarkin said.  “We ended up moving half way across the country.”

Clarkin would stay at First Stage for nearly five years, during a pivotal and exciting period in the company’s history involving huge leaps forward in areas of technology and design.  Covering First Stage during these years for the Journal-Sentinel, I was regularly blown away by the quality of the work.  An already-respected children’s theater company was morphing into a nationally renowned giant, right before our eyes.  

Clarkin played an integral role in making it happen, but he’d also “gotten to the point where I was getting kind of burned out.”  Trying something different, he became the Production Manager of the Milwaukee Ballet.  Less than a year later, a position that “could come along once in a life time” opened up: Milwaukee Rep was looking for a Production Manager. 

“I’d only been at the Ballet six months, and I was not really keen on moving again so quickly,” Clarkin said.  “But I really couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  When Milwaukee Rep job came up, I jumped at it.”  

He’s never looked back.

Making Magic Happen at Milwaukee Rep
As Rep Production Manager and then Production Director, Clarkin is the point person who coordinates among designers, artisans and technicians; he ensures that directors and designers’ ideas don’t get lost in translation as they’re brought to life.  He makes actors look good. 

“I oversee all of the technical elements that go into creating a production,” Clarkin said.  “I make sure that the sets, costumes, lights, sound – everything – come together in the way that they should over the course of the planning process.  

“It also means that I’m responsible for helping identify designers who a director might work with.  I schedule the initial concept meeting with the director and their creative team, and then take the process all the way through its realization on stage.  That’s multiple meetings, looking at designs as they come through, budgeting those designs while figuring out when to cut and where, making sure people are getting along and talking to one another.  

“It’s a little bit of everything.  It runs the gamut from dealing with the creative teams, all the way down to dealing with the technicians in the shops, as they take someone else’s vision and make it a reality.”

It also involves juggling multiple schedules; on the same day that Clarkin was speaking with me and overseeing tech for A Christmas Carol, he was also working on budgets for next season’s shows.

I asked him what an average workday looked like; Clarkin chuckled.  “There really is no average workday or workweek,” he replied.  “It really depends on what’s going on.”  Workweeks of 80-plus hours aren’t uncommon.

“I always joke that we had to cast Phinlee in A Christmas Carol so that I could spend some time with her,” Clarkin said.

After dropping his daughter off for school at Golda Meir around 7:00, Clarkin heads to work, arriving around 7:30.  “Most of the independent work that I do during the day happens before 9:00,” Clarkin said.  “Once people show up, I’m in a budget meeting or production meeting dealing with planning and things like that.  Or I’m taking a tour of the shops to make sure that people have the materials they need and that we’re on pace to get things built in a timely fashion.  I check in with rehearsals.  I talk to people about potential projects in the future.  If we’re in previews, there’ll be a show to see that night, with a note session afterward that goes to 10:30 or 11:00.”

No wonder Clarkin answered as he did, when I asked him what he’s learned from staging the new version of A Christmas Carol for the past four years.

“However much time you have, it’s not enough,” he replied.

And no wonder that when I asked Clarkin what he liked to do when he isn’t working, he mentioned outdoor activates like bicycling and camping.  

“We’re inside dark theaters for so much of our time,” he said.  “Any time that I can get out in the sun and just relax a bit is definitely a plus.”

The Clarkin family.

It Takes a Village
Not that Clarkin was complaining.  

With every reason to be tired, he was energized and upbeat.  Whether talking about past Rep productions (Junk was his favorite) or future Rep productions (he’s clearly excited about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which opens in the Stiemke in late January), Clarkin geeks out thinking about what gets made.

The thread running through all these comments involving Rep shows? 

Ensuring attention gets paid to the many others without whom, Clarkin insists, he couldn’t do what he does.

Talking about Junk, he singled out the “fantastic” design team.  

Talking about his Associate Production Manager Kaitlyn Anderson, who has been working with him for more than five years, he said, “I frankly couldn’t do the job without her.”  

Talking about A Christmas Carol, he credited the stagehands who “know exactly where things need to land” as indispensable in “making this show happen.”   A few minutes later, he similarly noted that A Christmas Carol would have never even left the planning stage without “the knowledge and love of craft of the entire Rep production department.” 

“Surrounding yourself with smart, talented people is the key,” Clarkin said.  “It really comes down to the people that I get to work with.  Day in and day out, that makes it worth showing up.”

What might he and Milwaukee Rep do next, with such a strong team and community?

“I hope we continue to build on the foundation that we’ve laid, in terms of the diversity of stories that can be told,” Clarkin said.  

 “We’re telling so many more stories now,” Clarkin continued.  “We’re not all the way there yet.  It’s still definitely a journey, as we try to get representation from everybody on stage.  But we’re taking steps in the right direction, and we’re continually trying to find ways to involve more people telling their stories.”

When they do, one can be sure that Clarkin will be there, facilitating the transition from page to stage so that those stories can come to life.

Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee-based writer and dramaturg. A theater reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 15 years, he served as the paper’s chief drama critic from 2009-18. He is currently a member of the Advisory Company for Forward Theater in Madison.