Milwaukee Rep pushes back start of season, prepares for audiences’ return

Plans to limit theater capacity during shows

Milwaukee Rep executive director Chad Bauman. Credit: Lila Aryan
Milwaukee Rep executive director Chad Bauman. Credit: Lila Aryan

Last updated on May 12th, 2020 at 01:56 pm

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater is delaying the start of its 2020-’21 season by two months due to the coronavirus.

Leaders say the plan will give the Rep more time to prepare to host audiences again, while still accommodating a full 12-show season.

The season is now set to begin Oct. 30 and will play through June 27, 2021.

“We’re just trying to buy some time to make sure our theaters are safe and able to welcome back people safely,” said executive director Chad Bauman. “… Our thinking was that, as much as we’d like to say we’re in control of our own plan, I think we all realize that COVID-19 is in control. So we’re buying as much time as possible to see if there is a therapeutic advance or if a vaccine becomes available or other ways to make our audiences more comfortable.” 

So far, 10,000 subscribers have renewed their subscriptions for the Rep’s ’20-’21 season, which has allowed the organization to keep 100 staff and artists employed during the pandemic, Bauman said.

When audiences do return to its theaters, it will look different, Bauman said. The Rep may limit capacities of its theaters to allow for physical distancing, with priority going to subscribers, Bauman said. The Rep also plans to enhance cleaning and sanitization measures, including adding hand sanitizer stations, extending intermissions to mitigate crowding, and using paperless tickets.

Modifying the ‘20-’21 season has brought other logistical challenges. Many artists that were previously available for fall productions have ended up rebooking canceled spring productions because of the coronavirus, Bauman said. 

“That made artist availability complicated,” Bauman said. “Any given year, we employ up to 500 artists, so when you’re dealing with that many artists, it becomes very complex.”

“I’ve been in this career for 20 years, it has probably been the most challenging of my career,” he added. “I think the most challenging thing is there is no playbook for this. You have to go back to the Spanish flu in 1918 to really see anything that’s comparable. We’re trying to make critical decisions in a fast amount of time. And our teams are spread out all over the city while we’re making remote decisions.” 

The Rep has canceled three off-subscription plays and substituted three previously-announced plays. The company’s annual production of A Christmas Carol will continue as planned at the Pabst Theater. A full schedule is available here.

Limiting ticket sales is expected to decrease revenue by at least $2 million, Bauman said. The organization has revised its budget from $14 million to $12 million to reflect that loss.

As it prepares for the upcoming season, the Rep finds itself in a different position than it did just a few months ago, when it announced its plans for a 30,000-square-foot expansion and renovation of the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex in downtown Milwaukee.

“That was just eight weeks ago, so there is a feeling of whiplash,” Bauman said. “We had a rapidly expanding company and now we have, at least in the short-term, a contracting company because of the virus measures.” 

Bauman said the Rep still has a “viable business strategy” and expects the expansion will still come to fruition.

He also expects arts and culture will play a role in helping people emerge from the quarantine. 

“Theater and cultural organizations will help ease society back to that normalcy that we’ve all been craving,” he said. ”At this point, we’ve all been quarantined in our houses for eight weeks, we’re desperate for human connection and being able to gather in spaces again.” 

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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.

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