Support and Care for Artists during the Time of COVID

Early on, Milwaukee Rep articulated its top priority during COVID by saying “People are everything to us.” This is not to say we have not had to make difficult decisions, but to clarify that every decision we make will be viewed through the lens of a people first strategy.

Today, we announce a new effort focused on supporting freelance theatrical artists. While we know the pandemic has hit everyone in the field hard, perhaps the most vulnerable are freelance artists. Our Rep Rising Emergency Fund was established in part to help sustain our artists during this difficult time. As such, we are pleased to announce the establishment of the Milwaukee Rep Freelance Artist Relief Effort funded by private donations from our Rep Rising CampaignThe relief effort will  provide emergency awards up to $1,000 each to freelance theatrical artists. Awards will prioritize artists who have worked at Milwaukee Rep and reside in Southeastern Wisconsin and will be given through the lens of the theater’s commitment to equity, diversity & inclusion. To apply, please visit the Milwaukee Rep Freelance Artist Relief Effort web page.

This new effort builds upon several others. One of the most difficult challenges has been supporting artists while our theaters are closed. Our first initiative was Milwaukee Rep: From our Home to Your Home, a digital programming platform that commissioned new work, distributed online performances, developed virtual educational and engagement programs, and presented web-based seminars. This program has been responsible for 314 paid contracts, the majority BIPOC individuals, with generous funding from the Elizabeth Quadracci-Harned family and Donna & Donald Baumgartner. Programs have been viewed over a million times and can all be found on our website and social media platforms. To keep craftspeople employed, we also realigned the tremendous skills of our production shops to meet critical needs, most notably by producing nearly 20,000 pieces of personal protective equipment.

Nine months into this pandemic, Congressional programs such as extended unemployment are coming to an end leading to economic and public health crises. Many, including artists, are losing their health insurance in addition to means to support their families. As such, we need to advocate for a second wave of stimulus and support from our federal representatives. We’ve also learned a lot along the way.  This includes three simple, but very powerful lessons: 1) people need employment, 2) artists need to create, and 3) folks have a deep desire to contribute meaningfully. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, providing employment is critical to base needs, but in a world that is grappling with political division, healing from traumas, and yearning for connection, this is a moment built for artists. Artists respond to the world by creating. Their work will be our most meaningful contribution as we emerge from this crisis.

With that in mind, we shifted some focus toward fully producing again with Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, a classic holiday story built around redemption, forgiveness and joy. By producing a full production from scratch, we were able to fully utilize the talents of our shops, designers, performers and many other artists. With our robust COVID-19 safety plan, we also proved we could produce live and in-person safely. Over two months and with more than 50 people involved, we did not have a single case of COVID-19. Drs. Niedfeldt, Benjamin and Cassidy helped devise the strategy that kept us safe, while our team's dedication to safety won the day, allowing us to employ people safely doing the work they were born to do. Unfortunately, we had to cancel live performances due community spread. However, we released an on-demand, high-definition, multi-camera video capture of the performance. We also opened our video vault and released our 2016 production of A Christmas Carol for all to stream on-demand for free. More than 60,000 viewers combined have signed up to experience Milwaukee’s favorite holiday tradition. Many thanks to Wells Fargo, David Herro, Jay Franke, Richard & Jo Ann Beightol, Tom & Molly Duffey, Sandra & William Haack and the Saints Andrew & Mark Charitable Gift Trust for making it possible.

With vaccines, there is a bright light at the end of this dark tunnel. When we return to full production, we must ensure that our theater is a place that is welcoming and inspirational to all and that requires a continued commitment to our work in equity, diversity and inclusion. As centered in our 2019 strategic plan, we continue to evaluate our operations, policies and practices through an ED&I lens. We are coming to the end of our year-long work with the Kaleidoscope Group, which culminates in a strategic ED&I action plan. In coordination with a staff-led work plan initiated by Chief Diversity Officer Tammy Belton-Davis and a staff work group, we are making good progress toward ensuring our theater is a space where everyone has an opportunity to create their best work. Progress updates on ED&I can be located here.

Heading into 2021, perhaps the best way we can serve our community and our people is by working hand-in-hand with public health agencies as they rollout a massive, nationwide vaccination campaign. Unfortunately, there is a significant amount of misinformation circulating. We have committed to a science-based approach to this pandemic through the lens of doing what is best for our people and patrons. In the new year, we will continue that role by assisting municipal and state agencies in getting fact-based, critical information to our patrons and stakeholders. 

Thank you for your support. Please keep healthy and safe so that we can all celebrate in-person in 2021. At this moment of giving thanks, please know how thankful we are for you!

Chad and Mark