MadLab Returns With Their 25th Season and New Artistic Director Will Macke
I’ve reviewed many shows in the intervening years. Still, the last general article on our longest-running company devoted exclusively to new work, MadLab, came in 2015 when I corresponded with then-Artistic Director Andy Batt as they set out on their 20th season.
As we inch our way toward whatever normal looks like, MadLab announced a new artistic director, Will Macke. I’d reviewed Macke as an actor (including in Sondheim’s Company and his first MadLab appearance in Until He Wasn’t) but wasn’t familiar with his other work. I got the chance to catch up with the company – speaking with Managing Director Colleen Dunne, board chair John Kuhn, and incoming artistic director Will Macke by Zoom.
In the press release before we spoke, Macke said, “MadLab has always excited me. The people, the location, the uniqueness of our performances. New works are a different animal: they require a different eye, different energy, and ultimately produce a different kind of production. MadLab has an electricity about it, and I’m excited to share in that.”
We started by discussing the intervening years, and both Kuhn and Dunne were full of praise for the people who held down the challenging AD role – Jim Azelvandre and Laura Spires.
“The time with Jim, it was relatively short, but a lot of intense artistic expression, for sure,” Kuhn said.
Dunne concurred, “Jim was really passionate about expanding our offerings. He did some great things in just expanding our repertoire, our audience, our participants.”
In that regard, Azelvandre created the successful Late Night series, “Where we open up our stage after our own full-length productions to other smaller groups and acts,” Dunne said, “Both internally and externally, to utilize the space more [and] give as many people the chance to perform as possible.”
“Then when Laura took over, she was really interested in increasing our diversity,” Dunne continued, noting Spires arrived in a time of growth. “We’ve seen our auditions; I want to say, at least double since 2015. I think the 2015 [Theater Roulette] had zero people of color in it. I think the next we have planned; we were looking at closer to 20%. So it’s still a way to go, but [we took] massive steps. But really, we’ve been trying to encourage people, to welcome them, to value them and respect them, and to tell their stories. That was something that she was really passionate about.”
In addition to that initial spark, Dunne highlighted Alanna G. Rex, who joined the ensemble in 2017.
“Alanna has been an incredible advocate for our company,” Dunne said. “I can’t thank her enough for all of her hard work there. [She] helped introduce MadLab to areas of the community that we weren’t hitting before because it’s really hard for white people to encourage diversity by ourselves. She’s brought us some incredible artists, both performers, and visual artists, and dancers.”
Our conversation turned to the 15 months we couldn’t safely gather together in a black box space and the unique challenges that posed to a company like MadLab who own their own space.
“While we were able to take advantage of some mortgage forestallments, we also still had to pay our trash collectors and our utility bills and our parking lot people and whatnot,” Dunne said. “Our bills didn’t stop just because of the pandemic. Additionally, we’re a volunteer-run organization. While that meant that we didn’t have to worry about layoffs, it also meant that it was incredibly difficult to keep people motivated to create that content. With no single person dedicated to doing it full-time, it was definitely a challenge.”
Amid that challenge, all three expressed pride in what MadLab was able to bring to life.
“I think, in the midst of a pandemic, a global pandemic even, trying to find your way through that and still create content is amazing,” Kuhn said. “I think the driving force for [much of the ensemble] was to remember still that in the midst of something as tremendous and even horrific for a lot of people, that art still needs to happen.”
Dunne concurred, “We were very proud that we were able to continue producing shows.”
In August of 2020, they partnered with OG Productions to create a digital production that incorporated the safety measures of the time, including social distancing and masks.
“Most of our writers got really creative with it and didn’t make it about a pandemic,” Dunne said. “They were wearing PPE for a different reason. Or they were six feet apart because there were playing football. It was really fun.”
MadLab took those same lessons and enthusiasm to a digital pivot of the traditional holiday show.
“We revamped that and did a similar thing for our Christmas show, A Very COVID Christmas, where they were all holiday-themed shows with various reasons for us to be six feet apart or covered,” Dunne said. “I participated in one where it was a Hanukkah show. I had spilled oil, making latkes. There was this giant oil spill that prevented me from getting close to my girlfriend. There were some really fun and creative ways that we found to continue to express ourselves and use our incredible network of original playwrights across the country.”
Macke joined the company during the pandemic.
“15 months ago, when the pandemic hit, we lost a lot of our creative outlets. A lot of us had to go into survival mode. We had to do what we had to do to get by day by day,” he said. “For me, part of survival mode is creating. MadLab and the ensemble was a really awesome place for me to stretch my muscles and do what I love. That probably speaks to the fact that we didn’t lose too many people from the ensemble during this last year. There were a lot of outlets for us to be able to do what we needed to do to survive artistically as well as [as] humans.”
Kuhn had similar thoughts as they began their search amid the pandemic.
“I’m on the board [and] I’m still an artist and still a performer,” Kuhn said. “I noticed that all that energy that we were used to using to create and perform really didn’t have any place to go. [With] Laura leaving, I looked at as difficult and still an opportunity for all of us. I wanted to try to create a process for us all to go through in order to get to the place where we could have the opportunity to really choose an artistic director. We all grew in ways that were pretty profound, at least from my perspective. In the end, I know we’ve got the right artistic director in place.”
Dunne talked about, along with her earlier comments about the growth of the company, the wider range of candidates they reviewed.
“Back when Andy Batt left, I want to say there were three or four people who applied to be the next artistic director, and the board selected Jim Azelvandre,” she recalled. “Then, when Jim resigned, I believe Laura was the only applicant to fill his shoes. This time we had, I think, 11 applicants. I think a third were internal, and most of the applicants worked with us and knew us at least fairly well. I was thrilled not only with the number of candidates but with the quality. And Will is really just the best of the best.”
Macke lit up with infectious enthusiasm as he talked about the role.
“I think if the last 15 months have taught us anything, it’s that theater is alive and always will be alive,” he said. “But it’s changing. And the way that we do theater changes. I don’t see us being able to go back. The world is a different place than it was 15 months ago. I think we have to acknowledge that and be able to adapt the same way.”
“I’ve been in theater for, gosh, it feels like 15, 20 years and in a whole number of different states, and doing a whole lot of different stuff. So I brought a lot of different ideas. MadLab has always been a place where you can experiment,” Macke continued. “You can explore. You can do really amazing things. I’m very excited to see where we can go from there. I think that’s at least what got me interested in applying to the AD position. Then ultimately, I must have said something right because I ended up here.”
All three of them expressed enthusiasm for their 25th season initially scheduled for 2020-21 with three full-lengths, returning Young Writers and Theater Roulette festivals, and other surprises.
“I am very excited for us as a company to continue to grow,” Dunne said. “Will and I have had a lot of talks already about sharing our workloads with others and elevating other folks into leadership roles, and giving them ownership and responsibility over various programs and initiatives. I think it’s a very important thing to prevent burnout of those of us who do a lot for the company, as well as it’s important to continue developing leaders both internally and externally to our company. I’m excited. Will and I are on the same page with it. We are already talking with folks that are going to be coming on board and leading some very cool projects for us moving forward. I think it’s going to be a great time for us to just continue to grow and lengthen our bench and stretch our wings.”
As Macke commented, “It’s just going to be a big celebration of what MadLab is and the groups that have come from it and where we all hope to be going in the next 25 years after this.”
Details on the 25th season – starting in August with Christopher Missonak’s Sheridan – will be on madlab.net soon.