Mary John, who founded the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, has died at 96. The news came Monday in a press release from the theater.
John was a driving force of artistic innovation in Milwaukee – The triumph of her career was founding the city’s first professional theater, the Fred Miller Theatre, which she brought to life in 1954. The theatre was named for Frederick C. Miller, who was not only chairman of the Miller Brewing Company, but also the chair to the theatre’s fundraising campaign and a close friend.
The theatre was not her only endeavor, though. In conjunction with the Fred Miller Theatre, John founded the School of Professional Arts. Both fell under the umbrella of Drama, Inc. and contributed significantly to the speech and theatre program for University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Under John’s leadership, the theatre put on dozens of star-studded productions, bringing to Milwaukee household names like Geraldine Page, Betty White, Ethel Waters, Eva Le Gallienne and Edward Everett Horton. During her time as managing director, many of the productions she chose were written or produced by women during a time when this was not the norm.
Her work was part of a larger regional theatre movement, spearheaded largely by women that sought to create space for community-driven, professional theatre that was not dependent on commercial success, nor looked to New York City for influence.
John knew Milwaukee needed a theater to allow the arts to thrive. When she couldn’t find her place, she created it. On opening night of the Fred Miller Theater, she wrote in the program:
“Drama Inc. was established by three thousand Milwaukeeans joined together, not for the glory of any individual or for the exploitation of the public, but for the purpose of bringing a permanent professional theater to Milwaukee. We have combined energy, talent and money to create an art form, just as the painter joins the canvas, brush and color, expecting to communicate and find beauty. We hope that each performance will provide enjoyable participation for you, make lasting impressions and give your life a little more pleasure and meaning. If that happens, then the effort will have been amply rewarded, and the Fred Miller Theatre will carry a warmness worthy of its namesake.”
John’s vision for the arts in Milwaukee is enduring, and her 68 years of civic achievement will not be forgotten. Today, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin and the center of the city’s vibrant arts scene.
In his remarks on the community’s loss, Artistic Director Mark Clements said, “It’s hard to put into words the impact she has left us…We carry her vision and know that if not for her and the generous support of the community we wouldn’t have the opportunity to create thought provoking and entertaining work for the past 68 years.”