After 27 years as the Boulevard Ensemble Studio’s founder, artistic director, box office manager, janitor and just about everything else, Mark Bucher says he’s ready for his life’s third act.
The voluble Bucher is bowing out and moving on. That’s sure to shock the many Bay View fans who consider the Boulevard as permanent a neighborhood fixture as the tattoo parlors.
Bucher says he’s selling the building at 2250 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., and he plans to become an “itinerant director,” producing small-scale works and readings at varying locations. Mounting full-scale productions for several weeks is no longer a financially feasible business model for a black-box theater, he says.
Moreover, Bucher, who’s in his 50s, says he no longer has the stamina to work seven-day weeks, 16-hour days and shovel snow off the theater’s flat roof. He cringes at all the new-fangled hoops a theater manager has to jump through these days in order to draw an audience.
“To run an arts institution today, you have to have a full-time person just to do social media!” he exclaims.
Bucher, an out gay man with an outsized personality, says parting is sweet sorrow. But while letting go isn’t easy, he envisions a simpler future that’s more accommodating to a man his age.
“I would like to guest direct (for other companies),” Bucher says. “I would like to continue teaching acting. I’ve been doing more acting, and I’d like to do more guest appearances. And I’d like to travel.”
Bucher says the Boulevard has been a victim of its own success. When he founded the theater, the neighborhood was a very different place than it is today.
“It was sort of an urban wilderness,” he remembers. “There was the Big Beer Bar, a Salvation Army re-sale shop, and a decrepit George Webb that was on its way out.”
The Boulevard is widely credited with helping to transform the run-down neighborhood into the hip, thriving entertainment district that it’s become.
“A theater company can serve as a magnet for other businesses, because it increases pedestrian traffic and activity, which improves general safety in the neighborhood,” Bucher explains.
That’s exactly what happened after the Boulevard raised its metaphorical curtain. Café LuLu opened across the street, followed by other restaurants and bars. Property values rose.
But the revitalization did not take the form that Bucher had envisioned. Schwartz Bookshop closed, as did a nearby art gallery. Those storefronts and others were replaced by “bars, bars, bars – and guess what? More bars!” Bucher says, laughing.
“We’ve experienced a de-evolution,” he says. “The street has morphed into a very youth-oriented party culture. It no longer wants me. Our audience is aging and I’m aging.”
Bucher says the young people who’ve made Bay View so hip are not theatergoers. As an example, he recalls a conversation with a young woman who lived across the street from the theater. She told Bucher how much she loved the Boulevard, and he asked her which productions she’d seen.
“She’d never actually seen a performance, because she didn’t like live theater,” he says. But she expressed her appreciation that the theater had made the neighborhood safer.
Bucher has earned praise for his role as an urban pioneer as well as his theatrical achievements. He’s received numerous honors from the mayor’s office and was named “Outstanding Artist of the Year” by the Milwaukee Arts Board.
Through the Boulevard, Bucher has provided training and mentoring to talented young men and women who have gone on to become key players in the city’s burgeoning arts scene.
Unlike the artistic directors of most small theater companies, Bucher has taken on some of the classical theater canon, including works by Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Moliere and George Bernard Shaw. He’s provided exposure to these classics for about $20 a ticket while giving new actors a chance to participate in the timeless works.
“We do select challenging and thoughtful material,” he says. “But we’re living in the dim ages. When was the last time someone told you what book they were reading?”
Then he smiles. “As I like to say about myself, somebody’s got to be the vinegar in the salad dressing,” he says.
True to form, Bucher is not leaving without a swan song – or, in this case, a play. He’s directing Joe DiPietro’s comedy “The Last Romance,” which runs through March 3. The playwright is best known for penning the book of the hit musical “Memphis.”
Although he says it’s strictly coincidental, “The Last Romance” reflects many of the issues that Bucher is facing.
“It deals very effectively with end-of-life and aging issues,” Bucher says. “It’s a well-constructed, solidly crafted play about the romance of an elderly widower who meets a mysterious female stranger and falls in love with her over the objections of his sister.”
Another character in the play is the widower’s younger self, who presents a counterpoint to the older man that the widower has become. “The play examines the widower’s challenge of letting go of his youthful self,” Bucher says. “It’s about reconciling where you are with where you’ve been.”
And that, he says, is exactly what he’s in the process of doing.