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Theater for Everyone

Aug. 12, 2009
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When Milwaukee Public Theatre artistic director Barbara Leighco-founded the company with Michael John Moynihan 35 years ago, the performing arts scene in Milwaukee looked considerably different than it does now. Back then, most of the arts revolved around the symphony, the opera and the ballet. The United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) had almost no other member groups. In recent years, there has been an explosion in small and medium-sized theater. UPAF now has 36 member groups. Barbara Leigh has been with Milwaukee Public Theatre through it all, maintaining a highly active schedule for well over a quarter century.

The Milwaukee Public Theatre (MPT) has been around for 3 and a half decades. In that time many other arts groups have started and vanished. To what do you attribute MPT’s longevity?

When Michael John Moynihan and I started the company it was called Friends Mime Theatre, and it was based on the idea of friendship, between us as partners, with the other people we work with and with the community. As children of the ’60s, we also saw it as an opportunity to address issues of communication and social concern in as many ways as we could think of—to save the world of course … And we wanted to reach “the other 98%”—the people who, it was estimated, don’t go to the theater. The result has been an outreach company whose work is free to as many people as possible, of all ages, cultures and abilities (usually around 100,000 people yearly) that continues in the tradition of collaboration, that moves with the times with endless ideas for relevant themes in the creation of eclectic and exciting theater works. Oh, and then there’s the fact that we’ve never been in the red …We only spend what we have. And we work in comedy, which helps a lot!

In your first five years establishing MPT, did you ever think that it would be something you’d be doing for the next 30 years of your life?

Actually, it sneaked up on me. There was one point when I considered quitting. When Mike left the company in 1995, several years after I had become partially paralyzed in an auto accident, I had to decide if I wanted to hold all the reins and try to keep it going, or just let it die. And I thought, “What have I got to lose? I’ll try it!” And it’s been endlessly challenging, and exciting.

How do you see MPT changing to meet the challenges of a changing Milwaukee in the next 35 years?

Fortunately, the ability to change is built into our DNA. There’s a growing number of boomers who will be retiring soon, if they can afford to. And our theater is already developing projects like “StoryBridge”—elder storytellers working with children to increase literacy. MPT works with wonderful artists from all arts disciplines who have great ideas and talents. As long as we continue to stay relevant with high quality work, humility, passion, practicality and a sense of humor, who knows what might be possible?

Photo by Amelia Cofarro


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