In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Joe Hanreddy is leaving the Milwaukee Rep after 17 years as its artistic director. (PHOTO: John Nienhuis)

Hanreddy's Rep and Milwaukee were an ideal match

Artistic directors of major regional theater companies come with egos of all shapes and sizes.

Some want to be noticed. They put their signatures on productions with personal concepts and spins.

Some want to be stars. They are looking to sweep into New York with grand productions they start in their home cities.

Some are simply ambitious. They climb the ladder from job to job until they are working with the hot playwrights of the moment and directing on Broadway.

During the 17 years he was artistic director of the Milwaukee Rep, Joe Hanreddy was none of those. Modest to the point of being self-effacing, the California native has no problem admitting he was a little fuzzy about Wisconsin's exact location in the Midwest before he moved to the state in 1986 to become the artistic director of the now closed Madison Rep.

After seven years in Mad City, Hanreddy moved 80 miles east to the Milwaukee Rep job. As he now cleans out his glass office overlooking Wells Street to make room for incoming artistic director Mark Clements, it is clear how ideal a match Hanreddy and Wisconsin have been.

Unpretentious and unimpressed by fluff and flash, the artistic director has been very content to maintain a low profile while striving for a high level of creative excellence. The Rep during the Hanreddy era has reflected the community with its attitude and focus on no-nonsense, meat and potatoes theater.

From the moment Hanreddy arrived in Milwaukee, he emphasized his eagerness to build an exceptional resident acting company. That is no longer common in American regional theater, but he established it as the core value of his tenure, and the artistic director reveled in the collaborative process made possible by maintaining a stable team of fellow artists.

Hanreddy's artistic management was shaped by a small theater company he co-founded and ran in Santa Barbara, Calif., before moving to Wisconsin. He spoke to that in discussing his philosophy of leading the Rep.

"I wanted to run a big theater like we ran that small theater -- on collective ownership. I didn't know if that was possible. It's sort of an Utopian notion.

"But we were able to do it because people of great accomplishment were willing to embrace it."

The move down I-94 from the Madison Rep to the Milwaukee Rep was a considerable adjustment for Hanreddy. Madison produced shows in only a single theater. Milwaukee mounts productions in four venues, including the Pabst Theater for the annual staging of "A Christmas Carol."

"In Milwaukee, we had three parallel subscription seasons," he noted.

At the height of the season, the Milwaukee Rep's Baker Theater Complex resembles a railroad station, with multiple shows often opening in a short time span, and patrons scurrying through the Milwaukee Center rotunda to get to their seats. That is a sharp contrast with Hanreddy's experience in Madison, where several weeks would elapse between one production closing and the next beginning rehearsals.

"I loved it over there," the artistic director said of the Madison Rep, which went out of business slightly more than a year ago. "It was my first experience with a Midwestern community and its support of an organization."

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