Milwaukee Rep founder Mary John dies

Mary John. Photo from Milwaukee Rep.
Mary John. Photo from Milwaukee Rep.

Last updated on March 10th, 2022 at 11:34 am

Mary John, the founder of Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, has died. She was 96.

Born in Green Bay, John created a plan and led the effort to create a professional theater for Milwaukee. In 1954 she established Drama Inc., now known as Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

John was part of a growing regional theater movement in the United States at the time, which was led in large part by women. She felt Milwaukee needed a theater to allow the performing arts to thrive in the community.

On January 25, 1955 at the opening night of the Fred Miller Theater she wrote in the program: “Drama Inc. was established by 3,000 Milwaukeeans joined together, not for the glory of any individual or for the exploitation of the public, but for the purpose of bring a permanent professional theater to Milwaukee. We have combined energy, talent and money to create an art form, just as the painter joins the canvas, brush and color, expecting to communicate and find beauty. We hope that each performance will provide enjoyable participation for you, make lasting impressions and give your life a little more pleasure and meaning. If that happens, then the effort will have been amply rewarded, and the Fred Miller Theatre will carry a warmness worthy of its namesake.”

John was managing director for Drama Inc. and also founded the School of Professional Arts which operated in conjunction with the theater and provided the accredited speech and theatre program for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

She moved to New York in 1959 and received her Ph.D. from New York University in theatre and speech and went on to produce several Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals.

“We send our deepest condolences to Mary’s family and hope her meaningful legacy gives them solace,” said Milwaukee Rep artistic director Mark Clements.  “It’s hard to put into words the impact she has left us.  Her vision and fortitude to create a professional theater in Milwaukee has changed the scope of the city and given so many an artistic home.  We carry her vision and know that if not for her and the generous support of the community we wouldn’t have the opportunity to create thought provoking and entertaining work for the past 68 years.”

Click here to see a video interview with Mary John.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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