Some people come late to acting. Not me. I knew at the age of 12 growing up in San Francisco that I wanted to be an actor. While being fortunate enough to be in television shows such as “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Arrested Development” and “Transparent” has provided me with wonderful roles and opportunities, my early career path actually started in Milwaukee. My residency at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater came after receiving my master’s degree from Wayne State University in Michigan and gave me invaluable grounding in my profession.
I spent three seasons at the Rep, 1971-75, and the diversity of roles provided me with an invaluable education in the acting craft. In baseball terms, I guess you could call me a utility player for the Rep. Artistic Director Nagle Jackson gave me some of my earliest opportunities, including “Cat Among the Pigeons” with Judith Light, with whom I will co-star nearly 40 years later in “Transparent,” “Joe Egg,” the world premiere of Jackson’s “All Together Now,” and one role I’d like to forget — Joseph in “The English Mystery Play Anonymous.”
My years at the Rep provided me with the springboard to graduate to Broadway and an opportunity to enjoy a diverse career on stage, screen and television as a working actor.
The work of the actor would not happen if not for the audience who buys the tickets to see a performance. But whether it’s the arts or a professional sporting event, ticket sales alone can’t sustain a robust arts and cultural scene. It’s also up to the many people and organizations that recognize its importance and support the performing arts through monetary contributions. I realized this from my earliest years on stage at The Rep as a paid actor.
The Milwaukee community should take its own curtain call for its role as a funding model for 50 years, thanks to the formation of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). When UPAF was formed in the 1967-’68 season, The Milwaukee Repertory Theater was one of its charter members, and, 50 years later, remains one of six UPAF Cornerstone Groups. I’ve been told that in its history, UPAF has contributed more than $300 million to its Member Groups and Affiliates. That’s a staggering number worthy of applause.
Milwaukee’s performing arts scene continues to thrive, thanks to the benevolence of people who support UPAF. From my early years on stage, I understand the high caliber of repertory actors. And in its 50 years, UPAF funding has evolved to recognize the greater need to expose more diverse audiences to the wonders of live performance and through its support of arts in education funding to help fill the unfortunate gap that exists today in school funding for the arts.
Now in “Transparent,” I’m still putting lessons learned at the Rep to work on the show. I also can’t seem to get away from people with connections to the Badger State. I’ve reunited with Judith, and our cast includes two graduates of UW-Madison, Jill Soloway and Amy Landecker, as well as Madison native Brad Whitford. Now if they’d only bring brats and cheese curds to the set, I’d be one happy guy!
I wish I could be in Milwaukee to help celebrate UPAF at 50, but work commitments preclude that from happening. What I do hope is that you attend more live performances in Milwaukee and support the arts by donating to UPAF during its milestone year. I remember performing to “subscription audiences,” people who bought tickets for the whole season without even knowing what plays were going to be performed. It’s an investment in the community’s quality of life and, speaking from personal experience, it helps actors like me realize their career aspirations. Without UPAF and its support of the Rep, my story could have had a completely different narrative.
Jeffrey Tambor is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor. His memoir, “Are You Anybody” will be coming out in May from Crown Publishing.
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