As Mark Clements puts it, there are as many different ways for a new play to get to the stage as there are new plays. For Five Presidents, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s second mainstage world premiere this season, the story started years ago, before Clements even imagined he’d become the artistic director of The Rep.
Fifteen years ago, Clements (then artistic director at England’s Derby Theatre) made his first trip to Chicago and saw a new play by Chicagoan Rick Cleveland at Victory Gardens Theater, a company devoted entirely to presenting new work. Danny Bouncing was a comedy about out-of-work Los Angeles actors who take to “Jacuzzi hopping” at movie star homes, and Clements liked “its unique voice.” He decided to stage it at the Derby, and worked with Cleveland on that production. Clements recounted the story by phone from Tucson, where he is directing the world premiere production of Five Presidents at Arizona Theatre Company before it travels to Milwaukee this month.
Clements wasn’t the only one taken with Danny Bouncing. The script was Cleveland’s entree to a celebrated Hollywood writing and producing career, which has included work on “The West Wing,” “Six Feet Under,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Mad Men” and “House of Cards.”
Clements watched this success mostly from afar, but in 2009, just after accepting his new position with The Rep, he connected with Cleveland again through Martin McClendon, the original Chicago “Danny,” now a professor at Carthage College. “I got a call from Marty, and we spent some time catching up,” says Clements, “and then he told me, ‘I’ve got Rick Cleveland here.
We’re doing a new play of his and wondered if you’d like to come to see it. And if we could come to see you at your new home.’”
Cleveland floated the idea for Five Presidents then, and Clements gave it the green light on the spot. The idea, after all, was tantalizing, particularly from someone with a “West Wing” pedigree. The premise? In 1994, Richard Nixon’s funeral was attended by then-President Bill Clinton, and four former U.S. presidents. The project has already attracted a lot of interest, says Clements. Advance ticket sales are brisk, and a lunch event with Cleveland that was expected to draw about 80 guests was attended by more than 400 people. Clements isn’t surprised. “People naturally wonder what these five guys would say to each other,” he says. “It was a tricky political occasion.”
[mark]Five Presidents[/mark] (March 10-April 5). Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Quadracci Powerhouse. 108 E. Wells St., 414-224-9490, milwaukeerep.com.