If anything is ideal training for running a theater company, it might be growing up in a very large family. The parallels are numerous, from the range of personalities to the hard work and the complicated scheduling required to make everything click.
No one knows this better than Brenda DeVita, associate artistic director of American Players Theatre in Spring Green. DeVita is slated to succeed artistic director David Frank upon his retirement in 2014.
While they share a vision for what the theater is and can be, they come to it from quite different places. Frank, born in Northern Ireland and raised in England, speaks with frequent pauses, searching carefully for the right metaphor. DeVita, who grew up in Jesup, Iowa (population 2,212), speaks rapidly and forthrightly, with a keen intelligence.
Together they have shaped APT into something quite rare: a classical, language-focused theater company in the Wisconsin woods that was heralded by Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout as 2011's company of the year. Teachout lauded APT's production of The Cure at Troy as "the best show of any kind that I saw in 2011," a "perfect embodiment of the company's serious yet unpretentious style." High praise, indeed, from a national critic who sees productions all over the country.
Attendance figures have mirrored critical acclaim. In 2011, total attendance reached 113,162, a new record for the company and an increase of nearly 9% over the previous year.
As APT ramps up for another season, it's time to get better acquainted with the woman who will hold the top artistic job at this well-loved Wisconsin institution. The drive that it took to assert herself as one of 16 kids in a farm family suits her well at a thriving theater company.
DeVita's trajectory from tiny Jesup to equally small Spring Green was by no means a foregone conclusion. She jokes that she once told her husband, APT core company actor and author James DeVita, "I will not move back to a town the size I grew up in!" But for both, Spring Green seems to fit as both an artistic home and a place to raise their children, 16 and 13.
Brenda DeVita's father died when she quite young, leaving her mother to raise six children under the age of 15. Then her mother married a carpenter with nine children, and a large, blended family was born - as well as a final child DeVita's mother and stepfather had together.
"My mother is wickedly funny, sarcastic and pessimistic in the best ways," DeVita says with obvious affection. "You'd have to be a fool to pretend anything was easy or simple [in her life]. But she did a fantastic job of balancing that with real pride and joy in her children and in life." Most of the kids went on to college, and more than half run companies today.
Of her decision to pursue theater, DeVita says, "Thank God I was 11th, and all the practical people went out ahead of me!" While she expected to become a lawyer, she had a change of heart and majored in theater at the University of Northern Iowa.
"Northern Iowa has a conservatory-type undergraduate program, and a very dedicated artistic theater staff," says DeVita. "It taught me a lot about taking it seriously. I became interested in Shakespeare and classical work at that time." DeVita went on to the University of Delaware's Professional Theatre Training Program (APT actors Colleen Madden and Susan Shunk also went there, as did production stage manager Evelyn Matten), and then to Japan, where she studied with Tadashi Suzuki, creator of the Suzuki method of actor training.
By this time, she had already met her future husband. She left Japan to join James in Milwaukee, where she met actors now familiar to APT audiences: James Ridge, Jonathan Smoots, Brian Mani. She and James were living in Chicago when he was offered the role of Romeo at APT, which proved decisive for both their careers.
Brenda DeVita planned to stay a year in Spring Green. That has stretched into 17 years, during which she's worn a lot of hats, trading the stage for equally important behind-the-scenes roles. Shortly after her arrival, APT lost its company manager, and DeVita stepped up.
"I fell in love with the kind of environment for artists here, the lack of distractions," she says. "People can devote themselves to something."
Her responsibilities as associate artistic director include season planning, casting, assembling design teams and hiring directors. Says current artistic director Frank, "She does a huge portion of what a regular artistic director does."
Why announce the 2014 transition from Frank to DeVita now? "By giving two and a half years' notice, we're saying we're not looking to change," says Frank. "It's part of a continuum. Anything short of that would have belied that. A ton of people are invested in identifying who we are, what the strategy is. It's not about one individual."
At this stage in its 33-year evolution, APT is solidifying its base as a classical company rooted in Shakespeare, but it is increasingly willing to stage contemporary or less familiar plays, such as this season's Skylight, by David Hare, a tense, emotionally rich play written and set in mid-1990s London.
The company has also enhanced its apprentice program, largely thanks to Brenda DeVita. APT interns used to do lots of manual labor, like set changeovers. While they still do some of that, DeVita has developed a more educationally rich classical acting apprenticeship, with master classes in the mornings, small roles in APT shows and understudying for major parts.
The apprenticeship program is, in many ways, a tool to cultivate the next generation of APT actors. "When I look into the future, one of the big challenges is continuing to find the artists," DeVita says. "There are a lot of schools and a lot of actors, but very few that are actually seriously interested in poetry and dense language. [I need to find] not just the talented ones, but the ones dedicated to being better, even when they're already good."
Coupled with her interest in attracting new audiences, it's clear that Brenda DeVita has a reverence for APT's text-focused approach. She's also willing to see it grow in new directions for years to come.
American Players Theatre's 2012 season
APT's 2012 season will be Shakespeare-heavy and busier than ever, with five shows up the hill in the outdoor amphitheater and four more in the indoor Touchstone Theatre. Artistic director David Frank and associate artistic director Brenda DeVita offer a look.
Up the Hill
by William Shakespeare
Opens June 16
Though Twelfth Night is considered one of the great comedies, director David Frank wants to get at "the ache at the heart of it. I want to find out how aches are active and playable and dangerous." Despite debauchery and mistaken identities, "It's not just idle escapades, but big risks" that are at stake.
The Royal Family
by Edna Ferber & George S. Kaufman
Opens June 23
Milwaukee-based director Laura Gordon tackles this zany 1927 comedy about an acting family based on the Barrymores. Gordon's approach, says Brenda DeVita, will offer more than just belly laughs: "She finds the generational aspect of the craft of acting."
by William Shakespeare
Opens June 30
Acting favorite James DeVita will direct Shakespeare's powerful tragedy. Says Brenda DeVita, "What Jimmy is passionate about is not a man without a conscience, not an outright, soulless villain, but a man who loses his ability to check himself.… It's about how he becomes who he becomes, and how he smothers his conscience."
The Admirable Crichton
by J.M. Barrie
Opens Aug. 11
Written by the creator of Peter Pan, The Admirable Crichton explores what happens when an English butler and his employers are shipwrecked on a deserted island. Says Frank, "It is whimsy used for a socially radical - for the time - point of view. It accepts the rigidity of class but punches an enormous hole in it. It is deftly entertaining, polished and witty, but, at another level, it's kind of seditious while retaining a stiff upper lip." Kenneth Albers directs.
Troilus & Cressida
by William Shakespeare
Opens Aug. 18
Frank calls this "the most surprising, iconoclastic play Shakespeare ever wrote. It's tragedy, it's comedy, and it's something else! It's sexy, adventurous and really surprising." William Brown, who directed last year's riotous production of The Critic, is at the helm.
In the Touchstone Theatre
by Tom Stoppard and Gérald Sibleyras
Opens June 16
Heroes stars Paul Bentzen, John Lister and Jonathan Smoots as a trio of World War I veterans who will provoke both laughter and tears. "If I have the right actors in my head when I read a play, it makes all the difference," says DeVita. "I could hear the genius of these guys." James Bohnen, who led a successful production of the play in Chicago, directs.
by David Hare
Opens July 1
I'm especially excited to see Skylight, a contemporary drama that is both stripped down and emotionally expansive. Hare's drama packs a lot into three characters and a tight timeframe. "It's so much bigger than it looks," says Frank. It has a kind of Chekhovian power." Greta Wohlrabe, an APT apprentice last year, steps up to a big role as Kyra, who re-encounters the man with whom she had an affair. "Greta is the real deal," says DeVita. John Langs directs.
by Vern Thiessen
Opens Aug. 17
This one-woman show, starring Tracy Michelle Arnold and directed by Brenda DeVita, offers a new perspective on Shakespeare. Penned in 2005, the play focuses on his wife, Anne Hathaway, and takes place on the day his will is read. Anne reflects on the choices she's made and on Shakespeare as a husband and father, not as a literary giant. "It has a really contemporary feel, because the life she led was unusual at the time," says DeVita.
In Acting Shakespeare
by James DeVita
Opens Aug. 24
This funny, heartfelt one-man show, freely adapted by James DeVita from Ian McKellen's Acting Shakespeare, was a runaway hit during APT's 2009 season. DeVita has since performed it elsewhere and continued to refine it. Says his wife, "The script itself is better, and he's excited to bring it home. It works on so many levels here: Jimmy's relationship to the audience, how hard it is to be good at anything in life - a lot of themes that are quite tangible." Directed by John Langs, it's shaping up to be a hit again, with shows being added even before the season begins.