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A Theater for the Community

Off the Cuff with Waukesha Civic Theatre’s John Cramer

Mar. 7, 2017
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The Waukesha Civic Theatre, housed in a repurposed Art Deco cinema, was dark for much of the year when John Cramer took charge as managing artistic director. In the 14 years since his arrival, WCT’s building has seldom been empty. The company’s educational programs have become a fulltime year-round endeavor; an art gallery featuring local and student work has been installed; the theater has become a prime rental spot for other Waukesha County performing arts groups; and the building has become a functioning cinema again with a once-monthly movie series. But central to the facility is WCT’s own season of performances. Off the Cuff spoke with Cramer about his work and the company’s next production, Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations.

You were at Sunset Playhouse and doing theater elsewhere before coming to Waukesha Civic?

I started young. I always say it began in Mrs. Roberts’ second grade class when I directed and starred in my own one-act play. But for a long time I never thought it would be my career path. Actually, I thought I’d be a doctor. When I told my mother that I wanted to be in theater—a long silence followed. But my parents were supportive. I’ve had a good life in theater supporting myself and my family. You can’t ask for more than that. 

Medicine and acting, science and art—you’re one of those people who can access both their left and their right brains.

Waukesha Civic Theatre is a premiere community theater with a very small staff. It takes a lot of organizational skills! There are probably 80 different things we offer the community, between producing our own shows and presenting educational programs, primarily for students ages 4-18. We work with ACAP—the Adaptive Community Approach Program to create performances by people with disabilities. It was so inspiring! I didn’t know what to expect at first but I was blown away by what they did.

Are you filling a gap in arts education for area students?

Yes, we really are. We work with private and public schools whose administrators and teachers really see the value of our outreach programs to their student bodies. 

Our younger patrons are due in large part to our educational programs. We are building arts appreciation for the future, which builds this community as a whole by helping make it an appealing place to live. And we provide opportunities for community members of all ages to act. 

What is WCT’s mission as a theater company?

We’d like to be as diverse as possible. We have a core audience that likes what it likes, but we like to program as wide a range of plays as possible. Our submissions committee balances cost and cast size, makes sure there are acting opportunities for men and women. We try for a variety of periods—we don’t want a whole season of plays set in the 1940s or in the Middle Ages.

Tell me about 33 Variations.

It’s a risk for us—a new work not well known. Most of the time our successful shows are well-known titles—Oklahoma, Beauty and the Beast, The Diary of Anne Frank—that resonate with our audience. 

33 Variations is a play about Beethoven…

It’s structured with two casts—a modern cast and a Beethoven-era cast. The modern segments concern a musicologist, as she battles ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis], who is investigating the creative process behind Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The Beethoven segments show why and how Beethoven—who was going deaf—came to write 33 variations on a simple theme handed him by a music publisher. It’s considered one of his greatest works. Dustin Martin is directing—it’s his fifth or sixth production at WCT. He submitted the title—he’s really passionate about this show.

Waukesha Civic Theatre presents 33 Variations, March 10-26 at the Margaret Brate Bryant Civic Theatre Building, 264 W. Main St., Waukesha. For tickets call 262-547-0708 or visit waukeshacivictheatre.org

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