Cramer successfully leading Waukesha's civic theatre

Todd Ponath
John Cramer, managing artistic director of the Waukesha Civic Theatre, stands in the Live Pit Orchestra space. A number of the shows the theatre puts on each year feature live music.
Published on: 9/17/2013

John Cramer had his career pegged down at an early age.

"I started my career in the second grade when I wrote, directed and starred in my own one-act play," Cramer recalled.

That was the unofficial start to what has become a long and successful career in the arts and theater business. And it eventually led him to become the managing artistic director of the Waukesha Civic Theatre.

Cramer is into his 11th year in Waukesha after previously spending more than three years at the Sunset Playhouse Community Theater in Elm Grove.

Acting was the initial goal for Cramer, but after he directed a play his senior year in high school he knew the other side of the curtain was where he would make his mark. He continued this path after earning a degree in theater from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"I always had an interest in directing," said Cramer, who grew up in central Minnesota and has a passion for musical theater from his background in tap dancing and singing. "It's been a very good fit for me."

Cramer, specifically, has found his niche in community theater.

He was away from it for seven years when he lived in Chicago and worked for a production company in corporate and puppeteering theater on the director's side of the table.

Directing plays is something Cramer loves to do as he also operates his own directing company, Alleycats, which does both live and corporate theater.

Directing is passion

At the Waukesha Civic Theatre, Cramer directs at least one of the eight regular shows it does each season. He's directing and choreographing WCT's current play, "The Goodbye Girl." Cramer has been working with the actors for the last 2 1/2 months.

"It's been a pretty intense last two weeks," Cramer said. "It's always a very demanding time."

Their work was on display this weekend as the play began Friday and will run 10 more times over the next two weekends, concluding with five shows from Sept. 26 to 29. Cramer also directed "Oklahoma!" earlier this year. In 2011, he directed Roald Dahl's "Willy Wonka" and "The Tavern."

When Cramer is not directing, he's busy producing all of the shows and maintaining the financial books and building operations.

As the producer he sets the budget, hires production staff and is a resource for each director. Cramer reviews up to 40 potential directors before making his selection on each show.

"I try to stay out of the director's way," Cramer said.

Donations key

Cramer and the directors create each show with all volunteer actors.

"(The talent level) is such a wide range," Cramer said. "We can have a show where an actor has been in 40 shows working alongside an actor who is in their first show."

With the actors having full-time jobs, it becomes a "huge challenge" when making out schedules to rehearse, Cramer said.

Educating the actors is key and that's why WCT includes an education and outreach program available for all ages.

But keeping these programs and its plays thriving is no easy task.

"Fifty percent of our revenue comes from ticket and earned revenue, merchandise sales, concessions and from the education programs," Cramer said. "The other half is from donations and fundraising drives."

For non-musicals, Cramer said production budgets range from $3,500 to $7,000 and between $12,000 and $25,000 for musicals due to royalties and larger casts, costumes and multiple sets.

"I think some people look at the civic theatre and think it doesn't need support," Cramer said. "But we absolutely need the community support."

Successful run

This community has supported the WCT over the years.

If it didn't, WCT wouldn't have been still open after close to 60 years.

According to the American Association of Community Theatres, only 100 of the 7,000 community theatres in the US have been running for at least 50 continuous years. WCT started in 1957.

"That's pretty impressive," Cramer said. "We're in an elite group. Some start up and go on for decades and then fold, others just disband. But the fact that a nonprofit arts organization has been going for (that long) is a great testament to the leadership and volunteers we have."

And there are many.

More than 350 volunteers help keep WCT successful. Besides the actors, volunteers range from box-office help, crew members, ushers and its board of directors. In addition to Cramer, there are only three other full-time staff members.

"We are doing the work equivalent to eight or nine full-time people," Cramer said. "It's really stressful and demanding, but we do it because we love the arts and theater."

Acting family

His wife, Kelli, and their two children have this love. Kelli is a professional actress and is performing at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., in "9 to 5" through October.

Cramer's daughter, Elena, a sophomore at Waukesha South, is in "Godspell" in November and his son, Jude, a seventh-grader at Waukesha STEM Academy, has performed in musicals with his school at WCT.

"It wasn't by choice, but they're both artistic and creative," Cramer said.

Just like the hundreds who enter the doors of WCT.

"Nobody's doing it as a vocation," Cramer said. "They're doing it as an avocation and bring a level of passion. It's really an important part of our culture."


Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre

What: "The Goodbye Girl"

When: Through Sept. 29

Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha

Tickets: (262) 547-0708