Wednesday, March 3, 2010

10 Questions with C. Michael Wright

Our question and answer series is back, this time with C. Michael Wright, producing artistic director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and actor in DUET FOR ONE. Since Michael wears two hats, he gets two sets of questions.

As Artistic Director
Michael Cotey, education assistant: For the folks at home, describe your main day-to-day function at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. How has that evolved since you've taken the position?

C. Michael Wright, artistic director and actor: My days can vary drastically, depending on what projects we’re in the middle of. Of course, much like everyone, a good portion of each day is devoted to generating and answering emails and phone calls. There's always a meeting or two with staff members, artists, production personnel, board members, donors and/or educators. There's generally some writing involved, newsletter articles, narrative for grant proposals, interview questions, speeches or just jotting down notes for the next meeting. There are always artistic decisions to make, scripts to choose, artists to hire or design presentations to respond to. There are always reports to review, budgets to study, marketing materials to react to and "Thank You" letters to sign. I'm a list-maker and a long-range planner. I do a lot of organizing and scheduling. My calendar is almost always open, and often I'll be looking at two or three years down the road. Of course, I'm constantly reading (and re-reading) lots of plays, but my office hours are so busy, I tend to do that in my "free time."

I also direct two shows a season and hope to continue acting in one on occasion. Once I'm in rehearsal, I try very hard to focus most of my energy on that particular production. That’s a little easier now that we have a solid staff and management structure in place.

MC: What makes a play right for MCT? Specifically, why was DUET FOR ONE chosen this season?

CMW: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre was founded by a group of actors that had a strong commitment to and an affinity for great literature. We’re still following that lead. I firmly believe that the word "chamber" in our organization’s name should be an integral part of our identity. Taking a cue from the world of music, I consider a "chamber piece" to be an intimate work presented by a small ensemble of highly-skilled players. The main focus should be on the power of the writing. Cast sizes don't always need to be minimal, but I don't ever want to lose sight of the “chamber” style. We’re story-tellers first and foremost; everything should stem from and revolve around the words and the story being told.

I always enjoy having a theme that threads through each season. Because this is our 35th Anniversary, the theme this year is “Celebrating Artists.” I really wanted to include a play about a musical artist and DUET FOR ONE just happens to be about a female violinist. It’s also a wonderful chamber piece for two actors, so it’s a perfect fit for MCT and for our current season.

MC: As a young artistic director myself, I am curious if it is difficult to wear the hats of both the artistic director and actor in a show at the same time. How does your administrative relationship with a production change when you are also an artist working inside it?

CMW: That’s a tough one. I’m still learning how to strike the right balance. I love theatre because it’s such a collaborative art form. I guess the answer is to make sure you surround yourself with people you trust and that you’re always clear (with yourself and with others) about what hat you’re wearing at any given time.

MC: Did you always have yourself and Jacque Troy in mind for this play, or was that an afterthought?

CMW: I’ve been itching to act again and I’m a big fan of Jacque’s work. DUET FOR ONE has been on my shelf for at least twelve years, just waiting for the right moment. Once we started planning this season, I pulled the script out and presented it to Jacque, hoping she’d be interested in doing it with me. Once she said “Yes,” I approached Paul Barnes about the possibility of directing us in it.

MC: Recently you've announced that you'll make a greater push to mentoring the next generation of Milwaukee theater artists, beginning with the collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on PICNIC. What's the next step in this plan and why do you feel it is important for the theater community?

CMW: I fear that as a society, we are losing sight of the importance and power of communal events, like theatre-going. Really good theatre can be magical, healing, even life-altering. I feel very strongly that we need to actively target and nurture the next generation of not only theatre artists, but theatre administrators and theatre patrons as well. We have a solid internship program in place, but I wanted to enhance that with a strongly-focused collaboration with an area university once a season. It’s an opportunity to get more options and scope into our mentoring process.

Our next university collaboration will be in spring of 2011, when we produce THE LION IN WINTER with Marquette, and we’ve already begun serious talks with UW-Parkside for a project in 2012.

As an Actor
MC: This is your first onstage role in FOUR years. What kept you from the stage for that time? What has brought you back now?

CMW: When I was first hired here, MCT had a large deficit, the debt was growing substantially each day and the budget couldn’t support the staff size we had at the time. I quickly realized that turning the organization around was going to require a lot of extra time on my part and very specific focus and attention, so I put my acting career on hold for awhile.

The company is in a much healthier place now; we’re definitely on more stable ground. I’m a little freer to focus my attention on the artistic side of things, which can now include diving into productions as an actor.

MC: Jacque Troy has described you as a mentor of hers many, many years ago. What have you learned from her while rehearsing DUET?

CMW: Gosh, where to begin. Jacque and I already had a very strong relationship established when we entered into this project. That bond has grown even stronger and deeper through the rehearsal process. She’s pretty fearless. And incredibly focused. This piece is very daunting for both of us, but I feel surprisingly at ease with her onstage at all times. I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned from Jacque is the power of trusting your partner implicitly.

And she operates a mean wheelchair…

MC: Your role as Dr. Feldmann requires an incredible amount of focus through listening. I think often listening on stage is taken for granted by young actors and audiences. Describe in your own words the role of listening as an actor, especially in regards to DUET.

CMW: Playing a psychiatrist is a terrific challenge for an actor; it really makes you test how still and economical you can be without completely disappearing.

An actor always attempts to be “in the moment,” alert, spontaneous and responsive. You need to believe that everything you say and hear is being spoken for the first time. So all good acting is listening and reacting, being available, taking the energy sent by your acting partner(s) and sending energy back.

MC: When you approach a script as an actor, how do you prepare yourself for the first day of rehearsal? For DUET, was there any research that you did in preparation.

CMW: A lot depends on the project, but I particularly enjoy watching films that relate to the specific time, place, or subject matter of the piece I’m about to work on. In the case of DUET, I watched a few films about Jacqueline Du Pre, on whose life the play is loosely based, as well as films with German characters, because Dr. Feldmann is German. Plus, I read and reread this script more times than I’ve ever read any script in my life. Because the language is so complex, I wanted the words to become second nature, to get them under my skin.

MC: Can you share a specific moment in rehearsal or in the process that surprised or excited you?

CMW: The moment that sticks in my mind right now actually involves a sound cue. There’s a moment in Act Two when the stakes get extremely high. Jacque and I have our eyes locked and the tension is very thick in the room. And then a clock chimes. When the sound cue for the clock played during our first technical run, the chime became part of the energy in the room. It was like a third party adding a wonderful new dimension to the dynamics, a tangible reminder that time is very important to these two people and their relationship. It’s become one of my favorite moments in the play.

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