The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's move to its new home on Wisconsin Avenue frees up a large portion of the schedule for its former home, the Marcus Performing Arts Center, which sees that as an opportunity to bring in a host of new events.
Kendra Whitlock Ingram, president and chief executive officer of the Marcus Center, said the community can expect a new lineup of shows filling out the center’s calendar this fall, including modern contemporary dance, jazz, global music and more family programming.
Offering a new, diverse array of programming will put Marcus Center more in line with its peers nationally, which present arts and culture performances in addition to presenting Broadway shows and hosting opera and ballet performances, Whitlock Ingram said. The center is expected to announce its arts and culture series programming for the fall later next month.
MSO’s new home, the Bradley Symphony Center, opened to in-person performances earlier this month. The orchestra has wanted its own dedicated space for years due to scheduling challenges, particularly as the Marcus Center added Broadway shows to its lineup in recent years.
“I would joke that if there were 465 days in a year and two Decembers, the Marcus Center would be great, but that’s not the reality,” MSO executive director Mark Niehaus said.
Whitlock Ingram, who has previously held leadership roles with several symphony orchestras nationally, said she understands the need for an orchestra to have its own space.
“The symphony was in here a good chunk of the year, almost 50% of the time, and the majority of the time between what we consider our main indoor season, which is September to June,” she said. “With them moving to their own venue … that was a great advantage for them, and for us, it really gives the Marcus Center an opportunity to fill a gap in arts and culture programing that may have been missing in the Milwaukee market. … It’s a great opportunity for us, and it’s a great opportunity all around, really.”
The Marcus Center will welcome back audiences to its newly renovated Uihlein Hall next week for the first time in more than year, due to COVID-19. The Florentine Opera Company is the first group to perform in the space, with its production of “Little Mahagonny” on May 7.
The hall has all new seating, including a new configuration that added two main aisles for better accessibility, and new carpet, flooring and paint.
In addition to more room for navigation, Whitlock Ingram said the biggest difference patrons will notice in the spruced-up venue is the elimination of a lot points of contact.
“Touchless ticketing, distant seating – Uihlein Hall is a little over 2,100 seats, and with these first few performances back, we will be limiting capacity to 25%, so a lot of distance in between audience members,” she said.
If all goes according to plan – and public health measures allow – the days of limited-capacity shows will not be for long, however.
Whitlock Ingram stressed the importance of the community getting vaccinated, saying the viability of shows like the Broadway hit “Hamilton” depend on it.
“Our business model operates in a way where, to do a show like ‘Hamilton,’ we have to have 80% to 90% to 100% capacity in order to make the financials work,” she said. “And we can only do that if people are vaccinated and we start to bring down the case numbers."
The center’s Broadway season is scheduled to kick off with a run of “Hamilton” from Oct. 12-14, followed by “Jesus Christ Superstar” in November.
Whitlock Ingram said Marcus Center leaders are optimistic about the October start date, based on feedback from audience members and public health experts.
“The one thing we are hearing from patrons is that they are extremely anxious to get back to seeing live shows, but they’re also very concerned about health and safety,” she said. “So, we are strongly, strongly, deeply encouraging our audience members to get vaccinated.”
In the meantime, the center plans to “activate” its outdoor space with family programming throughout the summer, which Whitlock Ingram said could serve as a soft reintroduction of in-person performances for those who are more hesitant to gather indoors. The center will make use of its Peck Pavilion and adjacent great lawn space.
Behind the scenes, the Marcus Center is also working on internal goals to promote more diversity and inclusion within the organization. The center recently released a racial equity, diversity and inclusion action plan that sets targets for increasing diverse representation on its board, in its management, among its volunteers and in its programming.
Among the goals are reaching 50% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) board membership by 2025 (up from 35%); 40% BIPOC management by 2028 (up from 25%); and committing to 30% of its Marcus Center Presents annual programming representing nationally and internationally celebrated BIPOC artists.
"Our board (said), 'Let's really determine who's not feeling a sense of belonging at the Marcus Center. Where is the representation not matching what Milwaukee County ethnic and racial diversity looks like? That really drove a lot of our targets," Whitlock Ingram said.