It is hard not to get excited about theater when speaking the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's artistic director, Mark Clements. Clements is directing the opening production for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Quadracci Powerhouse season, ASSASSINS. During our conversation, I was struck by his honesty, enthusiasm, energy, and joy of theater.
Clements is an award winning international director having worked on over 100 productions throughout the United States and Europe. Given his history, I was curious as to what drew him to Milwaukee.
"I had run a theater in England for 10 years or so. I enjoyed the work, but was exhausted. After that, I was direct at theaters throughout Europe. I was lucky in that I could cherry pick work. I also spent a lot of time developing work. I loved that, because it was quite liberating in ways. I was enjoying that life. It was never my intention to become an artistic director again. I didn't rule out and knew that if I was going to do it again, it would be in America."
Clements discussed his fascination of American culture and playwrights. He named Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller plays as some of his favorites. Clements had heard about the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in the past and when he heard of the opportunity here, he through his "hat in the ring". Coming to meet with the board of the Rep "was a revelation". They had the same vision about the future of the theater that he had. Once he saw the theater, though, "I knew that was it". Clements began serving as Artistic director in 2010.
According to Clements, the Milwaukee theater community is somewhat different than some of the other cities he has worked, although "I'm still working it out a bit. It's hard to fully work it out". What interests Clements most, and what helped to shape the Milwaukee Rep's season for this year is bringing more diversity to their programming. They want to make it "theater for all" rather than a niche theatre. "We do all things. Milwaukee is an interesting city. I don't think that previously the programming had reflected the full diversity of our community". As such, the Rep has made a concerted effort to offer programs that "reflect our community in the best way we could." They did this by picking plays that would appeal to all sorts of people. Mountaintop, for example, is an Olivier award winning take on what happened on the last night of Martin Luther King Jr's life." This should appeal to a broad audience base.
The opening production, ASSASSINS is a musical satire about some of the men and women who have attempted to assassinate presidents of the United States (whether they were successful or not). It plays out with a carnival like atmosphere, telling stories of each assassin, sometimes interweaving the stories. Clements believes that good theater "provokes and is entertaining". Given the current political atmosphere and some of the gun related tragedies that have occurred in our country and our own back yard, Clements stands beside this choice. "I think the time to have the conversation is as things happen. Anything that promotes a discussion on how we make our society better is a good thing." This is "a quite prophetic piece and is quite a bit more poignant now, since 9/11." Given the election year, the lines "really pop", especially lines discussing differences in the political parties.
There are a number of challenges that can come from producing a Sondheim musical. "They are all quite difficult in different ways. MERILLY, WE ROLL ALONG is a challenging book because of the reverse chronological order. In PACIFIC OVERTURES, the music is incredibly challenging. ASSASSINS is not easy." "In some ways, though, it is a good show for people who don't like or don't think they like musical theater" due to the variety of music and the staging of the show. ASSASSINS does present some additional of technical challenges. "Technically, we're using a lot of quite complex automation in the show. Timing and perfecting that in time [to produce the show] and tying it with the script is tough. "The writing is like a roller coaster ride- you're not sure what will be coming around the corner. This is not a piece with a straight line narrative." This makes the show much more difficult to stage.