Splinter Group revives Jim Farrell's inner artist

By Michael Muckian, Wisconsin Gazette.com

When it comes to theater — or any art form — there’s a big difference between an artist and an arts administrator.  Jim Farrell knows that better than many, having been both.  But Milwaukee has largely known him only in the latter role.

The actor/director/playwright moved here from New York City in 2008, lured by a development director position at the Milwaukee Rep. He followed that up with a stint at Skylight Music Theatre and, in 2013, became the executive director at Sunset Playhouse.

That’s when he hit a roadblock. Farrell says Sunset proved to be a poor fit and he left shortly after arriving. He automatically began searching for a new job as an administrator, but his wife, Milwaukee actor Niffer Clarke, reminded him he was first and foremost an artist.

The advice stuck. In the fall of 2013, Farrell launched Splinter Group, a theater company that allows him to blend the best of both roles and make strong theatrical statements in the process. In the two seasons since, Farrell has produced a wide variety of plays — from established works of the canon to newer plays and even world premieres.

“I called us Splinter Group because I really like works that get under an audience’s skin,” Farrell says. “If you are entertained, that’s fantastic. But we want to do plays that are meaningful and that really move you.”

As Splinter Group’s artistic director and only full-time — albeit unpaid — employee, Farrell alternates between making administrative decisions and changing light bulbs or taking out the trash. But he also gets to indulge his artistic side on a regular basis.

This year alone, Farrell co-directed and starred in the world premiere of playwright Tony DiMurro’s 3 for the Road, which Splinter Group performed in February, and will appear alongside actor Joe Picchetti in the final play of Splinter Group’s season, “A Number.” (The company also produced Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” earlier in the year.)

“A Number,” running May 8-24, is a two-person play by British playwright Caryl Churchill about human cloning and its effect on a relationship between a father and son — better make that “sons.” Churchill wrote the play in 2002, when cloning was an almost daily news item, and Farrell’s character encounters multiple cloned iterations of his son throughout the play.

“This play is about what makes us unique as individuals and the length we will go to preserve our identity,” Farrell says. “If there are genetically identical people out there, what will that do to our uniqueness in a possibly not-to-distant future?”

The unusual play helps Farrell meet the goals of his production company and, he says, of theater in general.

“There is a danger in trying to sell tickets and picking plays with ticket sales as the goal,” he says. “Ours is an artistic goal and trying to achieve something on stage, not a business goal. And if actors work hard on stage they will draw people into the theater.”

And if that play is by Caryl Churchill and performed by Splinter Group, there is a very good chance that it will get under the audience’s skin, and stay there.

ON STAGE 

Splinter Group’s production of Caryl Churchill’s “A Number” will run May 8-24 at the Marian Center’s Rosary Hall, 3211 S. Lake Drive, St. Francis. For tickets, visit splintergroup.brownpapertickets.com.

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