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Milwaukee theater groups embrace LGBT audiences

As political climates have shifted decade by decade, the LGBT community has gone from a discriminated-against minority to a favored one to embrace, in some circles. In Milwaukee, one of those circles is the performing arts community, already seen as a stereotypical hub for queer artists and audiences.

Many of Milwaukee’s theaters are making their implicit ties explicit, with a variety of events and groups springing up that target LGBT audience members and allies. At Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Skylight Music Theatre, the Milwaukee Rep and the Florentine Opera, artistic administrators are reaching out through special LGBT pre-show receptions, community engagements and the themes of the productions themselves.

When Milwaukee Chamber Theatre mounted its debut show last season, Master Class, featuring Angela Iannone as the opera diva Maria Callas, the company offered an “LGBT Night Out,” according to producing artistic director C. Michael Wright. In an email interview, he said the event featured discounted tickets and a free pre-show reception. “The evening was very well attended and we plan to continue and expand upon (it) in our upcoming season,” Wright said.

MCT commonly builds its season around strong and diverse leading characters, including LGBT characters. The 2015–16 season includes a work about Elizabeth Bishop, the lesbian poet whose 30-year friendship with fellow poet Robert Lowell is the subject of Dear Elizabeth, opening in September.

Wright says the company was involved with the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin’s 30th-anniversary celebration last year, in which he directed a monologue scene featuring local actor Norman Moses. MCT also recently joined the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “We are hoping that this new partnership will lead to additional collaborations and ways to reach out to the LGBT community,” Wright says.

Other companies reach out to the community in other ways. Skylight Music Theatre has previously partnered with PrideFest Milwaukee on events, according to audience development manager Mara McGhee, as well as the chamber, the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center and Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Skylight’s “Be Out Night” offers discounted tickets for members of the LGBT community and a chance to mingle before the show. McGhee says the company paired “Be Out Nights” with three shows last year, and will do the same this year — for productions of My Fair Lady, Crowns and The Pirates of Penzance.

“Eventually, we hope to expand ‘Be Out Nights’ to more performances and continue to highlight LGBT issues,” McGhee said.

The Milwaukee Rep features its own LGBT events — the “Out and About” series. Started in conjunction with WiG, the series has proven to be incredibly popular, according to the Rep’s marketing manager, Joy Surber. 

“It’s a great evening. For $30, you get tickets to the show, drinks and appetizers,” Surber said. “We did three last year, but are expanding because of the demand.”

This year, the Rep will host four “Out and About” events — for its productions of Dreamgirls, The Mousetrap, The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith and The Invisible Hand.

One of the plays paired with an “Out and About” event last year, the world-premiere play after all the terrible things I do, provided the Milwaukee Rep with a larger-than-usual opportunity to promote awareness of bullied LGBT youth. 

Another leader in engaging LGBT audiences is the Florentine Opera. One of their major community efforts is the Florentine Camerata, an LGBT affinity group that organizes opera socials that provide education about upcoming works, as well as previews.

“Our camerata is very active, presenting opera parties one–two weeks before each opera opens,” says Richard Clark, the Florentine’s director of marketing and communications. “Our camerata focuses these events to raise awareness of opera in the LGBT community.”

In addition to hosting camerata events throughout the city, the Florentine will step up its community involvement this year by joining Milwaukee’s Pride parade for the first time, which Clark says is a way to emphasize the unity of the overlapping opera and LGBT communities.

MCT, the Skylight, the Rep and the Florentine are only four examples of the theater community’s embrace of LGBT audiences.

“It’s great to see how unified Milwaukee is becoming,” Clark says. “Less and less are communities being labeled for a certain characteristic but rather as a nice destination or an evening and weekend day out. It’s really great.”

That’s a sentiment McGhee echoes. “With each year, we see more and more opportunities for LGBT promotion,” McGhee says. “I would characterize Milwaukee as a welcoming community for LGBT (community members) and it’s great. We’re on the way to being a forerunner for LGBT-friendly cities and that is exciting.” 

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