Get to Know Our Host for the 2019 Footlights People’s Choice Awards: Comedian and Producer Matt Kemple
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Matt Kemple presenting at the inaugural Footlights Awards. Photo by Anne Kenny.
Matt Kemple is a true DIY kind of guy. After graduating from St. Norbert College, as the only theater major in the class of 2002, he thought he was destined to be an actor.
Today, his job titles include executive producer and founder of Milwaukee Comedy and the Milwaukee Comedy Festival, manager and founder of the Underground Collaborative, and co-producer and founder of the Milwaukee Fringe Festival, a performing and visual arts extravaganza that began in 2016.
He will also be the host for the third annual Footlights Peoples Choice Awards, which will be held Saturday, June 22 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts.
“I’m one of those people where if I see something that should exist, I make it exist," Kemple says. “Milwaukee kind of just has this vibe of people that won’t necessarily do it for you, but they will be like, ‘yea you should totally do that.’ I don’t think other cities are necessarily as supportive.”
Milwaukee Fringe Team left to right: Tom Grabow, Katie Rhyme, John Schneider, Eric Engelbert, Karen Raymond and Matt Kemple. Photo via Milwaukee Fringe Festival.
Kemple’s path to becoming an actor began to verge when he started to work on set building and lighting design in his home state of Ohio post-graduation. He says this experience helped him understand all the different facets of theater, which then snowballed into producing.
“I realized I could still get that feeling I got from being on stage and acting, sometimes even more so, from standing on the sidelines and putting something together,” he says.
Shortly after moving to Milwaukee, Kemple helped start Pink Banana Theatre Company, a nonprofit dedicated to providing professional opportunities to emerging artists. Kemple explains that due to the lack of small independent theater happening in Milwaukee at the time, recent theater graduates from area colleges were having trouble finding opportunities.
“You couldn’t get jobs with the larger, more professional companies unless you had non-professional experience,” Kemple explains. “It was sort of this Catch-22. This company was created out of a void and a need for people to get more experience.”
Although the company disbanded in 2015, Pink Banana produced hundreds of one acts by local writers and two full-length shows a year. Pink Banana’s shows were targeted towards audiences in their late teens and early 20s.
“Looking back, we didn’t really think much of it, but we gave a lot of opportunities for people to create new work,” Kemple says. “You could really push the limits in tiny black box spaces. We put things up with extension cords and no resources, but you can do some really raw theater and some cool stuff came out of that.”
Since Pink Banana lacked funds to rent spaces, company members commonly hosted rehearsals in their living rooms and performed in warehouses and storefronts. Finally, Kemple founded the Underground Collaborative in 2012, an event venue in the lower level of the Grand Avenue Mall. Today, the space features a theater, art gallery, administrative offices and rehearsal studios.
A packed house at the Underground Collaborative. Photo via ucmke.com
John Schneider, one of the co-founders of the Milwaukee Fringe Festival with Kemple, describes the Underground Collaborative as a vital hub for artists who work outside Milwaukee’s larger institutions.
“Matt is an incredibly hard-working, big-hearted visionary, deeply devoted to Milwaukee’s comedy and fringe arts scenes,” Schneider says. “ His role in the growth and development of comedy and new, experimental art in Milwaukee continues to be invaluable.”
Kemple’s love for comedy stemmed from his theater background and playing improv games in college. Celebrating its 14th year in August 2019, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival was originally called the Sketch and Improv Festival. The name changed to what it is now in 2007 after stand up comedy got added to the lineup.
Matt Kemple at Milwaukee Comedy's Keg Stand Up at Lakefront Brewery. Photo via Milwaukee Comedy.
Today, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival is the largest multi-day comedy event in the state of Wisconsin. Along with local talent, the festival features comedians from across the country including New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle and Philadelphia, as well as Toronto, Alberta and Vancouver, Canada.
“Comedy is really selfish because I just love laughing,” Kemple says. “It’s a really great way to laugh all the time if you are putting on shows all the time.”
Although the festival is the largest event Milwaukee Comedy hosts, Kemple ensures Milwaukeeans still have places to laugh year-round. Kemple and his crew at Milwaukee Comedy recently doubled the amount of shows they will produce each month from five or six, to ten or 12. Along with regional and national headliners at the Underground Collaborative, Milwaukee Comedy also hosts Keg Stand Up at Lakefront Brewery and Subjective: A Comedic Showing at Var Gallery and Studios.
“I really try and create something that’s unique and special because people are literally paying money because they want to feel better,” Kemple explains. “To bring a group together where they are happy, laughing and having fun, that to me is the most amazing feeling in the world.”
About the Awards
The Footlights People’s Choice Awards honors outstanding performances from the Greater Milwaukee area, recognizing both professional and non-professional artists and companies.
Nominations and voting are open to the public at Footlights.com, with nominations running through March 31. Once nominations are finalized, voting will run from April 1 - 30. Performances from April 1, 2018 through March 31, 2019 qualify for nominations.