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Farrell new leader of Sunset Playhouse

Director of Elm Grove theater says he is a natural collaborator

Jan. 13, 2013

As the new leader of the Sunset Playhouse, Jim Farrell might seem pre-destined for theater.

But, really, it was more a happenstance high school elective that led him to the stage.

His family had just moved from Long Island - he's still got a touch of the accent today - to Florida, and a guidance counselor said he needed another class.

The choices: home economics or theater.

"I'd never been on stage in my life, and no one in my family was in theater. But I'd seen plays and thought, 'If I did that, I'd do it a little different.' That was my opportunity to test that theory."

He couldn't possibly have known then, but the decision set Farrell on his path to Elm Grove, where he took over this month as executive director at Sunset Playhouse.

From New York to Milwaukee

From high school theater, he went on to work as a professional actor in New York. He wrote and produced plays. He won some awards, including the 2001 Siena College International Playwright's Competition for "Monster Island," which he brought to the Inbox Theatre in Milwaukee for a staged reading in 2010.

Eventually satisfied with his acting and directing experiences, Farrell set his sights on the business end of theater.

He went back to school to get his Master of Science Administration in performing arts management. And, nearly five years ago, his work - and a wish to be closer to family - brought him to Milwaukee, where he joined the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and, later, Skylight Music Theatre.

"And that is where Sunset (Playhouse) comes in," said Farrell, 50, who lives in West Allis.

Farrell was agreeably absorbed in his administrative work at both companies. But, he said, "It was strange to be working in theaters and not have anything to do with what was happening on stage."

When he learned about the hybrid artistic and administrative opening at Sunset, where he directed "Six Degrees of Separation" last season, Farrell knew he'd found his opportunity.

"It just looked like a perfect combination of my background," Farrell said.

Making his mark

Farrell only started with the theater Jan. 2, so it's too soon to know how he'll make his mark.

But, so far, he expects to direct two plays each season in upcoming years. And, while he's a little late to the process and not quite ready to drop any hints, Farrell said he has already gotten involved in selecting some productions for next season.

"Right now, we do musicals and a lot of comedies, but I think there's room for the frownie drama mask, too."

Beyond that, Farrell said, he wants to let things evolve organically.

"My approach to directing a play is very much the approach I'll take directing the playhouse," Farrell said. "We all know who's in charge, but I'm a collaborator; I want your input. Let me see what you've got. Let me see what you're going with, and we'll work with that.

"It's just who I am," he added. "I know when the discussion is over, but I want to have the discussion."

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