Both Members of this Theater Power Couple are Retiring as Artistic Directors

A pair of artistic directors are planning their next act together.

When C. Michael Wright and Ray Jivoff moved to Milwaukee in 1988, some of the city’s best theater companies were putting on plays in run-down warehouses. The companies didn’t have much money, but they had a lot of ambition, and they welcomed talented newcomers with open arms.

Both men found work as actors. Then as directors. And eventually as administrators. Wright worked for Next Act Theatre for eight years, before accepting a position as the artistic director of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in 2005. Jivoff took over the same role at Skylight Music Theatre in 2017, after working many years as its education director.

Now the two are ready to step down from their respective roles. Jivoff will be leaving Skylight at the end of the current season, and Wright will be leaving the Chamber Theatre a year from now.

What brought you to Milwaukee?

Wright: We met 36 years ago in San Francisco. I was touring with Master Harold and the Boys.

Jivoff: It’s set in South Africa in the 1950s. It’s about a 16-year-old white boy and two black men who worked at his family’s restaurant – played by James Earl Jones and Danny Glover. …. [Wright] had to spit in James Earl Jones’ face!

Wright: After the tour I was asked to keep playing the role at a few regional theaters. I’d turned 30 by then, though, and didn’t really want to keep playing a 16-year-old. So I just said yes to one of them: the Milwaukee Rep.

That was in 1984. Ray came to visit. He was still living in San Francisco then, and I was mostly living in New York. But the Rep kept bringing me back, once a year for four years, and each time Ray would come to visit, and we fell in love with Milwaukee.

What were some of the first roles you received after deciding to make the move?

Wright: I had a few offers from Skylight right away. I ended up doing six shows in a row there. Three the season we moved, and three the next season. Then they stopped hiring me and started hiring Ray. But I can’t fault them for that – I started teaching and directing.

Jivoff: My first acting gig here was with Theatre X [a now-shuttered experimental theater troupe that cast Willem Dafoe in some of his earliest roles]. It was located here, where the Broadway Theatre Center is now. There was a parking lot and a six-story warehouse – I was never sure whether they were leasing the space or just squatting in it, because it was pretty raw. But they were doing interesting shows.

What’s next for you?

Jivoff: I’m going to be performing in a show at the Northern Sky Theater [in Door County]. They’re in the process of building their own facility, and it’ll open this fall.

Wright: We bought a condo up in Sturgeon Bay about four years ago. There’s a booming theater scene in Door County – they have four professional theaters – and it’s our eventual goal to move up there permanently. We’re open to freelancing elsewhere, too, but we’re excited to move up there. We’ve also put aside money to go to Italy for our 40th anniversary.

“Curtain Call” appears in the May 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.