What Is the Milwaukee Theater District?

Many of downtown Milwaukee’s theater organizations are coming together.

A group of performing arts and live entertainment organizations, along with other supporting entities, have united to launch the Milwaukee Theater District. The district’s goal is to place Milwaukee in the regional and national spotlight. Through strategic campaigns, the Milwaukee Theater District will look to add momentum to Milwaukee’s cultural scene following the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Milwaukee Theater District wants to grow attendance at participating venues, raise awareness of Milwaukee’s performing arts and live entertainment scene, increase community engagement through events promoting the district and supporting groups and increase the vibrancy of the district through cohesive branding and collaboration.

“There is something special happening right here in the center of our city. It involves creativity, beauty and emotion,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said during an event at the Riverside Theater on Wednesday afternoon. “It also involves a lot of energy. What we have here at the center of our city is a center of culture that deserves a lot more appreciation.”

The groups that make up the Milwaukee Theater District add considerable vitality to Milwaukee, he added.

“I want people near and far to appreciate what a fantastic resource that we have right here in this city,” Johnson said.


 

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Milwaukee Theater District venues include the Bradley Symphony Center, Marcus Performing Arts Center, Wisconsin Center District, Miller High Life Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Pabst Theater, Pabst Theater Group, Riverside Theater, Sunstone Studios MKE, the ARC Theatre at the Saint Kate Hotel and the Turner Hall Ballroom.

The district’s performance groups include Black Arts MKE, First Stage, Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Ballet and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The district is also supported by the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District #21, United Performing Arts Fund and Visit Milwaukee, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

“With our city’s entertainment venues recovering at a speed that barely seemed possible even 12 months ago, we at the Marcus Corporation applaud and cheer this thriving performing arts scene,” Marcus Hotels and Resorts Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Flack said. “The Milwaukee Theater District deserves to have its own name and identity, reflective of the unique experience it offers and the economic impact it provides the entire city.”

With 15,000 theater seats and a combined 2,100 annual performances that attract 2 million attendees each year, the Milwaukee Theater District is a core part of Milwaukee’s larger entertainment industry that generates an estimated $400 million in visitor spending annually, according to research organization Tourism Economics.

The Milwaukee Theater District also employs more than 1,000 Milwaukeeans and even more volunteers, the groups noted.

Theater District; Photo by Rich Rovito

Although the district has no formal borders, participating venues are clustered in the heart of Downtown. Through advocacy and collaborative marketing campaigns, the Milwaukee Theater District seeks to increase visitors to the city, stoke local pride and enhance the city’s reputation as a top-tier arts and cultural destination.

“We hope to raise the awareness of what we already know. That the theater district is critical to the success of Downtown businesses, the future of Southeastern Wisconsin and perhaps most pressing our rebound from the effects of COVID-19,” Milwaukee Repertory Theater Executive Director Chad Bauman said.

“Through collaborative marketing and advocacy, we are going to focus our voices on educating the public on the vital role we play.”

Bauman noted that public support for arts and culture at the state level in Wisconsin is the lowest in the country but that the private sector continues to make significant investments in many of the Milwaukee Theater District’s member organizations.

“In Milwaukee, we sometimes have this inferiority complex,” Bauman Said. “We’re afraid to own things and talk about how great they are because we don’t want someone to think that we are uppity. We’re very humble in Milwaukee. It’s time to stop being humble. We have all these incredible assets and we punch above our weight in Milwaukee. I’m so thrilled we are putting a stamp on it with the Theater District in order to illuminate what we already have.”

Groups large and small need to be included in the effort, said Amber Regan, executive director of Sunstone Studios, a small, independent theater that occupies a storefront space in the district.

“We want to let everyone know how great it is here,” she said. “The hard work of these spaces and Visit Milwaukee toward making this Theater District designation happen in a lovely and beautiful way is truly a commitment to provide and continue quality theater in Milwaukee. We still have so much work to do to make art a truly accessible and equitable in this city and across the country, but with a designation like this, where we are declaring a zone of the city where those sorts of experiences will bring us together, is incredibly important.”

Advertising for the Milwaukee Theater District began on Wednesday and will appear on multiple digital mediums within a six-hour drive of the city. Local awareness will be generated through a variety of measures, including skywalk advertising.

To support the effort, the Milwaukee Theater District Pass will allow patrons to check into participating theaters and redeem deals on select pre- and post-show favorites.

The Milwaukee Theater District will also sponsor two upcoming skating events the promote Broadway shows at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. The first will take place on Jan. 20 at Red Arrow Park and feature songs from the Broadway musical “Hairspray.” A subsequent event will be held Feb. 18, also at Red Arrow Park, with the music of “Frozen” being featured.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.