There’s a saying around the Milwaukee Rep that “the company is built on the backs of interns.” That sentiment might come off as a joke if the people saying it weren’t so appreciative, or acutely aware that it’s true.
For the past 50 years, the Rep’s intern program has been a vital part of the theater, recruiting developing actors, directors, technicians and designers to support the established artists in the public eye. Originally just a way to solve the need for understudies and ensemble members, as well as resident company members, the program has blossomed. It’s now considered one of the top programs for actors and directors in the country — although few outside the theater community even know it exists.
Rep interns have done more for Milwaukee than just support a single season, because they have a tendency to return or stick around. The Rep’s entire top level of artistic staff (except, humorously, artistic director Mark Clements himself) are alumni of the intern program. Many of the city’s most beloved actors have come to Milwaukee for the Rep internship and wound up either making their careers here or opening theater companies of their own.
But on a broader scale, the Rep’s 50 years of interns have built a nationwide network of theater artists devoted to hard work in the pursuit of their craft, be that in regional theater or on Broadway, and the program’s reputation of continued success has allowed the Rep to cultivate successive generations of artists, according to Brent Hazelton, the Rep’s associate artistic director and a former intern company director.
“If we’re not — as a regional theater — working with training programs to advance the careers of emerging professional actors, then it’s just not going to happen,” he says.
A Day In The Life
The essence of a Rep internship has remained structurally the same for the past 50 years. According to current intern company director JC Clementz (a directing intern in the 2011–12 season), each of the 10 to 15 acting and directing interns hired each year are assigned to the season’s plays based on where they best can be used and learn from the Rep’s staff and guest artists as the season progresses.
“I like to equate it to a residency, where doctors in their final years (of training) spend anywhere from a year to five years studying with specialists,” Clementz says. “These emerging artists and directors come here and they get the chance to study and participate — become fellows — with the professional artists who are working here.”
Acting interns are expected to serve as understudies on at least one production at any given moment, and may fill ensemble parts and occasionally principal roles as well. Directors serve as assistant directors on those productions. And that’s it — a focus that Hazelton says distinguishes the Rep’s program from many others.
“They don’t sort screws, we’re not hanging lights, they don’t clean the bathrooms or work in the box office,” he says. “It allows us to get a really high caliber of artists in here.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t work hard. If anything, an intern’s day is longer than that of an average actor or director. Weekday rehearsals run six to eight hours, starting between 10 a.m. and noon and ending between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and interns are expected to be present for much of that time, unless they aren’t on call for a scene. But they’re also required to attend three-hour understudy rehearsals before or after, and when acting interns are cast as ensemble members or principals, they may have to perform in a show after their regular rehearsal. To make things more complicated, interns may be rehearsing more than one show at a time, alternating between the two from day to day.
When not physically in the Rep’s complex, interns are provided with housing on the East Side by the company — a big step implemented in the ‘00s that has helped the company attract talented actors and directors who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford coming to town.
The modern definition of “intern” suggests the Rep’s interns are relative youngsters. But while some are fresh out of bachelor’s degree programs, Hazelton says the company pursues interns of all ages. It’s part of an overall commitment to searching for a diverse intern class.
“Our job is to serve what’s going on down there (on stage), and you can’t do that with a group of 22-year-old white kids. You need age diversity, you need racial diversity,” Hazelton explains.
The exact benefits of the program differ for actors and directors, but alumni of both disciplines say they’re grateful for the opportunity to work closely with professionals who understand their craft and are willing to share what they know.
“I think there are very few things more valuable than watching intimately and taking on the choices of top professional actors who have been working at their craft for years and years and years,” says Deborah Staples, a Rep intern in the 1990–91 season who later became a Rep resident company member and a staple of Wisconsin’s theater community.
“What separates one actor from another is the choices that they make,” she says. “A lot of young actors seem to not even know that there are choices to be made.”
For current intern Vallea Woodbury, who has several years’ experience under her belt already, it was feedback from other artists that benefited her the most. “Because of my position in the intern ensemble, I was able to walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, am I doing what you need, and is there something you think I should be doing different?’”
The directing internship is no different, according to Leda Hoffmann, the Rep’s literary coordinator and a directing intern in the 2010–11 season. In that year, she got to work with four directors: Aaron Posner on”My Name is Asher Lev,” Joe Hanreddy on “A Christmas Carol,” J.R. Sullivan on “The 39 Steps” and artistic director Clements on “Death of a Salesman.” Now, every time she walks into a rehearsal room, she says, she has memories of how all four handled the same sort of situation, which she can adapt and steal to fit any given moment.
Fifty years of interns
While the fundamental function of the intern company has stayed constant over the past five decades, some of the details have changed as the company has evolved and improved. While Clementz says there’s scarce material in the Rep’s archives about the earliest days of the program, he and the artistic team do know it began at the behest of Mary John, the founding managing director of the company in 1954, when it was still known as the Fred Miller Theatre. When the company changed its name in 1964, the intern program developed as a training program designed for pre-professional, non-Equity actors who could support the resident company.
By all accounts, it stayed much the same for the next few decades, growing in reputation as the years passed. By the time Staples applied to be an intern in the 1990–91 season, she says the Rep’s program had become one of the best in the country and her top pick when she applied to programs.
As good as the Rep’s internship program was then, it was about to start on the path to a big upgrade. Artistic director John Dillon stepped down shortly after Staples’ time as an intern, and his replacement Joe Hanreddy decided in the mid-‘90s to commit to expanding the program. Hazelton says one of the chief architects of that expansion was Sandy Ernst, who served as the intern company director for several years before he took over the program in 2003. Ernst was one of the first people to take a direct leadership role over the interns, and she was tasked with actively recruiting new interns each year.
The program needed that sort of shakeup because Staples, a California transplant, was the exception, not the rule. The Rep’s interns were largely pulled from schools and communities in Wisconsin and the Midwest, with regional diversity usually coming from graduate students required to have internships. The result, Hazelton says, was the intern company tended to consist of white 20-somethings financially able to move to Milwaukee for an unpaid apprenticeship.
“It didn’t make for the greatest group,” he says. “Not only do you put a group of people the same age and the same experience in the room and they all kill each other … but it just didn’t serve the theater very well.”
Hazelton was in the last cohort to work pro bono, in the 1999–2000 season. The next year, the Rep began providing interns with both housing and a stipend, and Hazelton says the company immediately saw an uptick in older and out-of-state actors. When he took on Ernst’s role, Hazelton made her network even bigger, tripling the number of relationships with schools nationwide in an effort to expand the company’s racial and ethnic diversity.
He also expanded the number of professional opportunities for interns outside of the Rep. Interns now have a number of audition opportunities built into their year, including an annual Chicago showcase at the end of the year, that expose them to artists from other cities. “The goal is not for interns to leave here with a job,” Hazelton says. “The goal is for interns to leave with a really strong set of personal connections, so that in that first year when they’re out on their own … (they) actually have a group of artistic directors and producers that they can connect with.”
So far, it’s working. Since 2003, about 90 percent of the intern company’s alumni are still working in theater, a number Clementz says is almost unheard of. Just at the Rep, as many as 10 percent of the roles in an average season go to former interns.
Clementz took over the program in 2013 and has continued to build on Hazelton’s success. He now travels to universities throughout the fall and winter, seeing nearly 400 in-person auditions by the end of February. Promising students get reminders to apply, joining the 250-odd applications that come in during the spring. By then, the Rep’s season is set, so he filters through those applications for actors and directors suited for the scheduled shows and makes offers to the best candidates.
There’s a big difference between the interns Clementz hires now and the ones Hazelton hired 10 years ago, though — and it all has to do with Mark Clements.
A program evolves
The big shift in quality for the intern company came around 2004. At that point, Hazelton says, Hanreddy was able to select shows for the season with the intern company in mind, knowing there would be an acceptable baseline of talent. “It stopped being about ‘making do with whatever I’m given’ and more about ‘I can do this play now because we’ll have interns who can handle the responsibilities,’” Hazelton says.
But Clements’ arrival in 2010 brought changes to the Rep, and the aftershocks would change the purpose and composition of the intern company too. Clements brought an increased focus on musical theater to the company, staging an annual musical in the Quadracci Powerhouse and emphasizing Stackner Cabaret shows that feature multi-talented actor/singer/instrumentalists. A few years later, in 2012, Clements dissolved the resident acting company, rolling its remaining members into a new team of associate artists that also includes directors, writers, musicians and designers.
The first change only altered the type of interns Hazelton, and later Clementz, would need to recruit. Under Hanreddy, the Rep had been a text-based program, where the goal was to find good actors who could speak well and deliver captivating performances. On top of that, interns must now have experience in singing, dancing or playing instruments, further narrowing the pool and raising the talent bar.
The second — eliminating the resident company — has forced a new evolutionary direction altogether. “In the early ‘00s,” Hazelton says, “that was going to be our way to diversify the resident acting company: to bring people in through the intern program, keep them around for a few years in an apprentice capacity, and move them into the company that way.”
Without that resident company, the emphasis is on diversity of education — learning from every artist, local and otherwise, who passes through the theater, at the expense of those deeper relationships former interns could build with residents.
“One of the values and advantages of the program has always been the ability to be mentored by professional artists. And that mentorship still exists, but it’s a different sort of mentorship,” Hazelton says.
Even five years after Clements’ arrival, there may still be changes on the horizon. For several years, the artistic team has been debating the pros and cons of transforming the internship into an accredited grad program. And while their program’s focused nature helps them beat out most of the competition, many less-targeted programs have begun offering incentives such as health insurance, which the Rep currently isn’t able to.
One thing won’t change: the company’s commitment to teach a good old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic. It’s the single attribute of the program every veteran points out, and the one the artistic team thinks might be the most important.
“If I had not worked my ass off as an intern,” Clementz says, “Brent would not have come to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking to hire someone in the literary office; are you interested?’ … You have to work hard enough and put yourself in a position where (people) will want to hire you for the work you do.”
It’s a lesson he learned from his teachers as a Rep intern. It’s one he teaches to his interns now that he’s running the program. And, if history is any indication, it’s one they’ll teach the next generation.