Into the Light: Milwaukee Rep’s Redemptive 2020 Journey

By the time I saw Milwaukee Rep’s terrific production of Eclipsed, things were already getting weird.  It was Tuesday, March 10; the show had opened to critical acclaim four days earlier.  But the audience in the Quadracci Powerhouse was small and restive; elbow bumps had already replaced hugs, and people were instinctively practicing what we’d soon call “social distancing.”

“It was strange,” recalled Milwaukee Rep Production Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus, who stage managed Eclipsed.  “I both remember those days vividly and, paradoxically, think of them as all blurred together.  Everything was happening so fast.  We’d opened and were just getting into a groove when it became clear that COVID was coming to Wisconsin and would affect us.”

Three days later, Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman announced their painful decision to close the doors, canceling the remainder of the Eclipsed run as well as two more Milwaukee Rep shows then in rehearsal.  Concerned about employee and audience safety, Milwaukee Rep was among the first theater companies in Wisconsin to close.

But Milwaukee Rep simultaneously gave an early demonstration of the two characteristics that would consistently define its approach to the pandemic, culminating in its groundbreaking efforts to stage a live Christmas Carol: visionary foresight and abiding concern for its people.  The two were intimately related.

Foresight, first: Bauman had seen the pandemic coming before its irresistible march across the United States.  In February, he’d asked Milwaukee Rep’s Senior Leadership Team to prepare a continuity plan in the event that Milwaukee Rep had to move offsite.

Milwaukee Rep’s production of Eclipsed. Left to right: Matty Sangare, Sola Thompson and Jacqueline Nwabueze. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee Rep retained Chicago-based HMS Media to film Eclipsed.  It also opened negotiations with playwright Danai Gurira’s agent and with the unions representing Milwaukee Rep workers to ensure that a digital capture could be distributed.

The result: Milwaukee Rep was among the first theater companies in the country to offer a digital production to its patrons.

During the ensuing months, Milwaukee Rep would generate one of the nation’s most robust collections of original online content.

From Our Home to Your Home marquee.

There were newly commissioned plays and monologues as well as songs.  Conversations between Clements and theater artists all over the world.  Wellness workshops.  Spotlights on Milwaukee Rep designers.  And panels on topics ranging from past productions to theater’s role in tackling this country’s second pandemic: systemic racism and exclusion.

All of which helped sustain audience members and fans like yours truly during some of our darkest days.  But that wealth of digital content – nearly all of it offered for free – also reflected Milwaukee Rep’s steadfast commitment throughout this pandemic to its people.

People First
Milwaukee Rep’s focus on artists’ economic and physical well-being was evident from the beginning.

“It’s so hard to leave a show,” Carolus said of Eclipsed.  “But we were able to do it with so much support and kindness. Milwaukee Rep communicated with us, and that communication was from the leadership. The cast always knew what the plan was, and we felt that we mattered and were being taken care of.

“Milwaukee Rep made us feel good as artists; they made us feel we’d done all we could have done to tell this story. And the fact that they were able to preserve it on film was lovely. The particular humans in this cast felt attached to this story and wanted as many people as possible to see it. Milwaukee Rep transformed what could have been a bitter experience into something bittersweet.”

“I remember walking through the building on that last day and telling everyone not to worry,” Bauman said. “We wanted to keep people on payroll. And from the very first, we decided that people would come first.”   

During a year when so many theater companies have closed their doors or laid off most of their staff, Milwaukee Rep kept its people on payroll for the first three pandemic months, despite a jaw-dropping $6 million fall in revenue. And even though 80 percent of Milwaukee Rep’s budget is related to its personnel, it has tapped its cash reserves to keep two-thirds of its workforce employed through 2020, with plans for bringing more of its people back in the first half of 2021.

In December, Milwaukee Rep also launched a program to provide additional financial relief to struggling freelance theater artists who have worked at Milwaukee Rep or live in the Milwaukee Metro area. In announcing the program, Clements emphasized the importance of providing “assistance to the artists we cherish and need to support during this difficult time.”

But it was clear to both Clements and Bauman that this ongoing financial investment in its people wasn’t itself sufficient.

“Artists have to create,” Bauman noted during a late December phone conversation. “It’s how they relate to the world. They’re dying on the vine and they need to feel purposeful. It’s creating stress and mental health issues, even for artists we’re paying.

“And artists need to keep their skills sharp. Imagine if the Packers couldn’t even scrimmage for more than a year, and then tried to take the field. Artists similarly need the opportunity to hone their craft.”

Milwaukee Rep’s solution?

To quote from a memorable Milwaukee Rep production of a beloved musical, Bauman and Clements began dreaming the impossible dream.  In the midst of a pandemic shuttering theaters from coast to coast, they were determined to find a way to safely bring back live theater in 2020.

Being (A)live
The planning began in April.

“We came up with five or six different scenarios as to how our season would play out,” recalled Milwaukee Rep Production Manager Jared Clarkin, during an October interview for Madison’s Forward Theater podcast.  Staying live was always on the table.

After first pushing back the start of its planned season to November, Milwaukee Rep announced a complete season reset in late August: four live, small-cast shows in the first half of 2021. Recognizing that many patrons might not yet be comfortable attending in person, Milwaukee Rep announced that its season would simultaneously be offered virtually.

Milwaukee Rep also announced plans for a live production from the Quadracci Powerhouse stage of Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, a one-actor riff on Dickens’ original novella that’s told from the perspective of Scrooge’s onetime partner.

Longtime Milwaukee Rep Resident Company member Lee E. Ernst, who’d previously been tapped to be Scrooge for Milwaukee Rep’s 45th annual production of Dickens’ classic, would step into this new role instead. There’d be masks and smaller, socially distanced audiences. But the show would go on.

Milwaukee Rep’s production of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol.  Foreground: Lee E. Ernst, Background: Dan Kazemi. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Or so Milwaukee Rep hoped.

To pull off its planned holiday production, Milwaukee Rep would need the blessing of five distinct unions. One of them, Actors’ Equity, had only authorized a single indoor production in the United States since the pandemic began: a one-actor show in Massachusetts over the summer that wound up moving outside before it opened because of COVID-related restrictions.

In short, Milwaukee Rep was hoping to go where none had gone before.

Safety First
Consistent with its people-first approach, Milwaukee Rep made its case by demonstrating the breadth, depth, and sophistication of its commitment to safety.

With Clarkin as point person, Milwaukee Rep convened a panel of medical and safety experts.  It spoke with theater professionals across the country. It invested in new air filters and electrostatic cleaning technology, involving a mist that actually wraps around and clings to hard-to-reach areas. It installed touchless hand sanitizer stations and touch-free temperature checks.  It built Plexiglas shields to coordinate safe audience entry and movement while protecting actors and patrons.   

There were strict weekly testing protocols. Prescribed entry and exit points. A recalibrated performance schedule, allowing increased time to pump the building full of fresh air and deploy newly purchased electrostatic cleaners.

Director of Production Jared Clarkin sharing his insight and expertise during Milwaukee Rep’s Health and Safety Webinar.

All these protocols were summarized in a detailed COVID-19 Safety Plan published by Milwaukee Rep on its website. Clarkin refers to it as a “living document,” continually tweaked and revised to reflect ongoing conversations with Milwaukee Rep’s health experts and union partners. The collective goal: to ensure that theater artists would be as safe as audience members coming to see their work, at a maximum number of 180 patrons (i.e., 25% of capacity) per performance.

“Lee was masked during rehearsals until full run through,” Carolus said. “We sprayed costumes and wiped down surfaces. Anytime I handled something on stage, I would first ask Lee if it was OK; he was comfortable, as long as I’d washed my hands immediately beforehand.

(L-R) Actor Lee E. Ernst, Foley artist Dan Kazemi, Production Associate Kimberly Carolus and Director Mark Clements in rehearsal for Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol. Photo by Michael Imhoff.

“We coordinated schedules in the context of COVID tests. There was new paperwork; every day we were logging temperatures as well as tracking who was in the rehearsal room,” ensuring compliance with Milwaukee’s 10-person capacity limit. “We got rid of all communal things, including pencils and rehearsal snacks,” Carolus added.

“We also created a dedicated fitting room for Lee, rather than using the costume shop. Our costume designer and costume director were the only two allowed in, and they were tested before they could go in. They were decked out in full-on PPE: mask, face shield, gloves, gowns.”

Cumbersome? And, at a total cost of a quarter million dollars, expensive? Absolutely. But as Clarkin noted in summarizing Milwaukee Rep’s procedures, also well worth it. When I spoke with her in December, Carolus drove home why: “I felt safer in Milwaukee Rep's rehearsal hall than I did at the supermarket or my doctor’s office,” Carolus said.

The unions were similarly reassured.

“We have been very impressed with Milwaukee Rep,” noted United Scenic Artists National Business Agent Carl Mulert, in an early October webinar addressing Milwaukee Rep’s safety protocols. Milwaukee Rep “has taken into account all of these situations, and tried to address them,” Mulert continued, before praising Milwaukee Rep’s Safety Plan as “comprehensive” and the Milwaukee Rep itself for offering “straightforward and honest” answers to union questions.

In late September, Equity joined four other unions in green-lighting Milwaukee Rep’s holiday production, contingent on COVID numbers remaining steady. “Milwaukee Rep will be performing indoor theater while all of Chicago’s venues will either be closed or offering up only virtual or audio holiday entertainment,” noted Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones.  

In the Bleak Midwinter
Ultimately, it was not to be.

One week before Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol rehearsals were scheduled to begin in early November, the city of Milwaukee responded to dramatically rising COVID numbers in Wisconsin by restricting most public indoor gatherings to ten people. There was no exception for theaters, even though Milwaukee Rep’s plan fostered a much safer environment than one finds in supermarkets and bars, restaurants and malls.    

Milwaukee Rep duly announced that its production would be filmed by HMS Media instead of being staged live.

To date, only a single theater company in the League of Regional Theatres – the largest professional theater association of its kind in the United States, with members in 30 states and the District of Columbia – has staged a live, indoor performance.  In rural Vermont, where COVID numbers are much lower, Northern Stage mounted a live, one-person show in October.

Milwaukee Rep would have been next – and first to open in a major metropolitan market.

HMS Media recording Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol in Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse.

But there’s nevertheless reason to celebrate, and not just because the Milwaukee Rep’s filmed production is a stunning testament to the power of theater; bolstered by Foley artist Dan Kazemi, Ernst’s performance in this Clements-directed production emphasizes anew that less is often more. No glitzy special effect is ever as good as the imagination, which is why theater isn’t going anywhere, even as Netflix continues to gain market share.

Gorgeous and successful as Milwaukee Rep’s holiday production was, all that Milwaukee Rep did beforehand to make it happen is equally significant. The company’s investment in its people’s livelihood as well as its commitment to their safety offers a blueprint for how to move forward in 2021, when theaters in Milwaukee and elsewhere begin to build back better.

“We felt it was really important to push forward and try and set the bar for what the future of theater is going to look like” said Clarkin in late October, even as Milwaukee Rep’s hopes for a live production were being undone by Wisconsin’s COVID spike. “How do we operate and live in this new reality?”

Milwaukee Rep’s Safety Plan is part of the answer, as is the trust Milwaukee Rep has built among its people and with its unions through developing that Plan. But there’s more.

As has been true in so many conversations I’ve had with Bauman since his arrival in Milwaukee, he was passionate when I spoke with him about moving Milwaukee Rep toward a more inclusive model, in which every one of the organization’s departments is as diverse as the casts on Milwaukee Rep’s stages have now been for several years.

For her part, an upbeat Carolus hopes and believes that we’ll move forward with “more kindness, honesty, and compassion,” through which we “grant ourselves and others grace.”

If even Jacob Marley can find redemption, then why not?

Near the beginning and ending of Milwaukee Rep’s production, Ernst stares into the void, surveying the ghostly rows of empty seats in the Quadracci Powerhouse.

“May we all find our way Home,” Ernst pleads – speaking words that surely held special meaning for him, back on the stage in Milwaukee where he’d performed so brilliantly for decades. “May our lives bring joy and light to those around us,” Ernst continues.

Many years ago, I watched Ernst as Scrooge in a version of Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol that began in the dark, while the cast sang Christina Rossetti’s poem chronicling a bleak midwinter; then as now, that story concludes in radiant light.

In Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, Ernst’s Marley reaches his similarly redemptive moment after a pinprick of light helps him vanquish the darkness that has swallowed his life.

After watching Milwaukee Rep’s stirring, year-long efforts to bring such light to artists and audiences alike, who is to say that even in this bleakest of midwinters, such journeys into the light can’t still come true? As 2021 dawns, the better question might be: How can they not?

Milwaukee, December 27, 2020

The former chief drama critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee-based dramaturg and a member of the Advisory Company of artists for Forward Theater in Madison.