Major gifts boost Milwaukee Repertory Theater's campaign for new home beyond $43 million

More than halfway to reaching its fundraising goal of $75 million, Milwaukee Repertory Theater revealed details and renderings for its new home to local business leaders at a breakfast meeting Tuesday at Northwestern Mutual.

Milwaukee Rep plans to build a new theater complex at its current site downtown on East Wells Street, completely redoing two of its three theaters as well as expanding its facilities into some little-used loading dock space.

In September, Associated Bank announced a $10 million sponsorship agreement with the Rep for the theater's new home, which will be named Associated Bank Theater Center through 2042.

At Tuesday's meeting, executive director Chad Bauman disclosed several other major gifts to what the Rep calls its Powering Milwaukee Campaign, including $1.5 million from WEC Energy Group. The Rep's current facility incorporates a historic 1898 Oneida Street Power Station previously donated by WEC.

The Northwestern Mutual Riverwalk will be supported by a $1.5 million gift from Northwestern Mutual. Bauman said the Rep will transform its little-used Riverwalk zone into a pre-show, post-show and event space that can be active six to eight months of the year.

The Bill and Sandy Haack Grand Lobby, thanks to a $2.5 million gift from the Haacks, will feature ground-level entrances on Wells Street and the Associated Bank River Center, and tie together the Rep's three theaters with other spaces, including a new gift shop and donor lounge.

To date, the Rep has raised more than $43 million, Bauman said.

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Milwaukee Rep moved into its present home in 1987. The Baker Theater Complex includes main stage Quadracci Powerhouse (720 seats); the Stiemke Studio (205 seats); and the Stackner Cabaret (186 seats). The Stackner has a full-service restaurant and bar.

The complex also includes rehearsal spaces, administrative offices and work area for designers, artisans and craftspeople.

The Rep has reached a point where "our ability to create some of the best art is really hampered by the facility … in numerous different ways," Bauman said in an interview.

An artist's view of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's future Northwestern Mutual Riverwalk. The Rep is raising funds to build a new home on its present location.
An artist's view of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's future Northwestern Mutual Riverwalk. The Rep is raising funds to build a new home on its present location.

Due to the age and condition of its facility, the Rep is paying more than $1 million annually in maintenance and upkeep, campaign co-chair Tammy Belton-Davis said at the Northwestern Mutual event.

The renovation will allow the Rep to configure its main performing space as either a proscenium or thrust stage, increasing the kinds of shows that can be staged there. Perhaps even more important in Bauman's mind, the Rep will add a fly loft, allowing it to whisk scenery on and off from above the stage.

In the current Powerhouse setup, seating for people with disabilities is in the back, limiting the Rep's ability to be fully inclusive, Bauman said. In the new configuration, people using wheelchairs will be able to sit in prime locations and reach those seats from the ground floor, close to valet parking.

Similarly, the renovation will move actor dressing rooms to the first floor, making them more accessible, and allowing the Rep to engage more actors with disabilities, Bauman said.

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Construction will start when the Rep has raised enough money to begin, Bauman said. He said the Rep will act prudently, but noted that "given the inflationary environment," they want to start as soon as possible.

The Rep will continue performing during the construction project.

The Rep structure, which it owns, is attached to the Associated Bank River Center.  An Associated affiliate bought the 28-story, 373,000-square-foot office tower formerly known as the Milwaukee Center in 2016 for $60.5 million. It's been redeveloping the site. Earlier in September, Associated revealed that a new bar named Vault, quick-service dining and a coffee shop are coming to the site.

The Rep is working with Eppstein Uhen Architects, Hunzinger Construction and Chamberlin LLC on the project.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Major gifts boost Milwaukee Rep's campaign to build a new home