New Spaces for Milwaukee’s Expanding Arts Scene
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Three local performing arts groups will be getting new homes over the next two years. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Theatre, Quasimondo Physical Theatre and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra are all going the extra mile to offer outstanding amenities to patrons through these new venues.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Mainstage Theatre, Reopening March 2018
March 7 not only marked the opening of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s production of 12 Ophelias, but the reopening of the Mainstage Theatre after a fire destroyed the space last April. The fire was accidental and started in the scene shop, later spreading to the theater’s curtains and lighting equipment.
UWM hired Paul Davis Restoration & Remodeling to rebuild the space. Company representatives showed up the night of the fire to begin determining which materials could be cleaned and what would need to be replaced.
LeRoy Stoner, UWM’s theatre department chair, explains that in addition to redoing the floors, walls, and ventilation, changes were made to make the 50-year-old space more modern.
“One of the things that the reconstruction of the space allowed us to do was to provide better resources for handicap accessibility,” Stoner says. “The rules that were enforced at the time the theater was built are not the same rules that are enforced today. We were able to find ways to make some improvements, particularly with additional wheel chair seating and hand railings.”
Stoner says that the new theater has a similar design to Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse, the largest of the Rep’s three theaters. The Rep allowed UWM to perform its production of Arcadia last May in the Stiemke Studio, while set construction took place at Shorewood High School.
“We are very excited to get back into a new clean space with equipment that has been replaced and brought up to current technology,” Stoner says. “With the updated technology we can now teach new techniques to our students.”
UWM’s Mainstage Theatre took less than a year to rebuild. Photo Courtesy of UWM.
North Milwaukee Arthaus, Opening October 2018
Quasimondo Physical Theatre, not to be confused with Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, will be turning the former North Milwaukee Fire Station and Village Hall into its new home.
The new performance space will be called the North Milwaukee Arthaus, inspired by the area’s rich German roots. The two-story red brick building, with a 56-foot tower, was built in 1901 and is located on 5151 N. 35th St. Quasimondo plans to create a black box performance space, offices, and rehearsal hall on the second floor, with a scene shop, costume shop, café and gallery on the first floor.
“We want it (the Arthaus) to be a destination and promote arts and education on the Northside.” says Brian Rott, founder and producing artistic director of Quasimondo. “We found the building and we fell in love with it.”
Since 2012, Quasimondo has dedicated itself to making theatre that communicates in a shared physical language. The name derives from the word “quasi,” which means “sort of” and “mondo,” which means “world” in Italian. Rott says these two words together are meant to represent putting depictions of the world on stage.
Arthaus Rendering. Photo courtesy of Quasimondo Physical Theatre.
As far as people constantly confusing “Quasimondo” with “Quasimodo,” Rott says the association never bothers him.
“Quasimodo is this kind of grotesque underdog of sorts,” Rott says. “He’s a wonderful character in the book, despite being hideous and having a tortured up bringing. He kind of shows humanity at it’s most beautiful and most vicious. Since the book ends with him on a bell tower pouring hot oil onto the rioting crowd, when I saw that bell on this building I thought this might be the place.”
Rott explains that Quasimondo’s new home will help the troupe lay firm roots in Milwaukee and expand its programming and outreach.
“Space is really essential to making theatre and dance,” says Jenni Reinke, a founding member of Quasimondo who is leading the Arthaus project with Rott. “To have found this beautiful space that fits our needs is really a tremendous opportunity for companies like us.”
Milwaukee Symphony Center, Opening Fall 2020
The idea to convert Warner Grand Theatre into Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s new concert hall has been in talks since the 1990s, according to Mark Niehaus, MSO’s president and executive director.
“It’s beautiful and has all the charm of the theater from the 1930s,” Niehaus says.
MSO completed its acquisition of the theater on W. Wisconsin Ave. last December and anticipates a fall 2020 opening. Since MSO’s current concert space, the Marcus Center
for the Performing Arts, is in high demand by its resident groups along with national touring Broadway productions, this new space will allow MSO to control when they perform and secure guest performers farther in advance. MSO reports that having control over its own venue, along with new revenue streams from facility rental fees, catering and concessions, will drive increases in annual earned revenue by as much as 60 percent.
“Patron experience is going to be first class,” Niehaus explains. “You are going to have all of the comforts and amenities of the 21st century, along with the aesthetic. The lobby is Art Deco and the theater itself is just sort of a hopscotch of styles from the 1930s. It’s really the best of both worlds.”
Along with salvaging the old movie palace that hasn’t been used since 1995, MSO plans to add a number of community, education and collaboration spaces, ample lit and accessible parking options, along with easy curb-side drop off/pick up.
Milwaukee Symphony Center Rendering. Photo courtesy of MSO.
Niehaus adds that obtaining Warner Grand Theatre has two key benefits that go beyond the personal success of the symphony. These advantages are reinvigorating W. Wisconsin Ave. and saving a historic building.
“Like many Midwest cities, we saw that in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, people went out to the suburbs, and many downtown areas sort of failed in a way,” Niehaus says. “This stretch between 2nd and 5th St. on W. Wisconsin Ave. still could use a shot in the arm for economic redevelopment. Our project does that unbelievably well when you figure you will have 6,000 to 10,000 people a week going to concerts. That changes the complete depth of the neighborhood.”