Milwaukee Public Theatre closing after 45 years

Cites funding challenges

Photo: Milwaukee Public Theatre

Nonprofit outreach theater company Milwaukee Public Theatre is closing after 45 years, citing funding challenges.

Photo: Milwaukee Public Theatre

MPT plans to pass on some of its programs to other area performing arts groups, including Quasimondo Physical Theatre.

The company was founded as Friends Mime Theatre by Barbara Leigh and Michael Moynihan in 1974, and later changed its name to Milwaukee Public Theatre in 1991.

Leigh and Moynihan’s vision for the company was to put on shows that incorporate various art forms — including mime, circus, puppetry, music, dance and humor — and provide educational arts programming and events that are free to the public. Since its founding, MPT has presented more than 100 original productions and thousands of outreach events.

Leigh said MPT has struggled to find a sustainable funding source.

“There are very few grants/funding sources that will provide for infrastructure,” she said. “They mostly pay for projects, and often either require matching funds, or don’t pay for the project until it’s completed and they receive a full accounting about how the money was spent. And it’s often the same story with contracts. The result is a company’s reserves get depleted. And when your reserves get really low it becomes a Catch 22; you can’t afford to do the work.”

Over the years, MPT has received funding from the United Performing Arts Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, Wisconsin Humanities Council, Milwaukee County CAMPAC, the City of Milwaukee Arts Board, the Wisconsin Arts Board, along with private foundations including the Bader Philanthropies, Faye McBeath Foundation and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

“By 2019, it was becoming increasingly difficult for us to sustain the level of funding needed to provide all this programming because so many other arts organizations were doing what we were doing,” Leigh said.

As it prepares to close, the company has gifted all of its parade puppets and materials to Quasimondo Physical Theatre, which will carry on some of MPT’s parade and outreach events. Leigh also plans to work with Quasimodo and consult with other arts and community organizations.

One of MPT’s initiatives, Bembe Drum and Dance Youth Performance Ensemble, is seeking nonprofit status.

MPT will celebrate its final season with a “Passing the Torch” celebration Sunday at Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.