When Milwaukee Repertory Theater Artistic Director Mark Clements returned from his Cancun vacation on March 5, he had no idea that the remainder of his season was in jeopardy. “There were a few people wearing masks, but it wasn’t a big thing,” Clements says. “Then it became day by day more incrementally serious.” Just over a week later, the theater company shut down its performances. Three days after that employees began transitioning to remote work.
The Rep had hoped to reintroduce live theater Dec. 1-24 with Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, a one-man show written by playwright, actor and director Tom Mula and directed by Clements. (And, incidentally, we’d originally hoped this story would document the measures they took to do just that.) But the theater felt compelled to cancel the show less than a month before opening night amid a raging coronavirus and new restrictions.
Months beforehand, the Rep had developed a detailed safety plan and submitted it to its union partners in order to alleviate potential concerns among the actors, designers and stagehands.
Precautions included reducing capacity to 180 people in the 720-seat Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, requiring masks, increasing cleaning and regularly testing employees and actors. It also invested in equipment and upgraded all the air filters in the building. And it hosted a webinar to tell the public about the safety protocols.
Not long after that webinar, though, the state’s coronavirus caseload surged. On Oct. 31, the Milwaukee Health Department released a new set of restrictions, capping indoor event attendance at 10 people. And on Nov. 4, the Rep officially canceled the in-person performance.
“It was a decision that made itself,” Rep Executive Director Chad Bauman says. “There’s only one variable that we couldn’t control for, and that was the spread of the virus in our community.” Bauman also adds that, while he understands the need for greater restrictions, he feels that those restrictions haven’t been applied to all businesses equally, noting that bars and restaurants can still operate at 25% capacity. “We can only invite 10 people into our 720-seat theater, but our small bar and cabaret operation can hold 45.”
A spokesman for the city Health Department, Jeff Fleming, notes that those bars and restaurants are only able to open their doors to diners if they have special safety plans that have been approved by local officials in place. He also says that the department’s acting commissioner, Marlaina Jackson, is open to reviewing plans submitted by performing arts venues as well, and to potentially opening up venue capacities more in the future.
Does that mean that the Rep may still be able to welcome audiences to its theater this month? Bauman says that the theater likely won’t be able to reverse course again, now that it’s officially decided to cancel. But the Rep will be releasing a recording of the show that audiences around the world can watch.
And while times may be tough now, Clements remains optimistic overall. “I actually feel that there will perhaps be a renaissance period for the arts when we can come back and it’s safe to do so,” he says.