The Bartell Theatre Foundation recently accepted Laboratory Theatre as a resident company. The troupe is new to Madison, but it has a track record in Chicago. Artistic director Michele Good describes its niche as "educational theater, but not specifically for children."
"It's theater that's designed to make people think, rather than being strictly entertaining," Good says. "The material we pick is usually thought-provoking. If it's an existing play, we put a different spin on it."
For example, the troupe's first public production at the Bartell, scheduled for next October, is Educating Rita. It's a familiar tale of an English woman seeking to better herself, but Laboratory Theatre has changed the protagonist to an African American woman.
For its Christmas production, Laboratory Theatre is hoping to do an adaptation of David Sedaris' story The Santaland Diaries. "You wouldn't necessarily think of that as an educational play," Good says, "but it's educational in terms of how it makes you think about Christmas, materialism and the purpose of the holidays."
Good wants to start out with stories that are somewhat familiar so the troupe can attract an audience, then work toward less well-known material. The idea is to present theatergoers with work they haven't seen before, and to grapple with modern issues.
Laboratory Theatre ceased operations in Chicago in 2007. Good had been commuting there from northern Wisconsin -- a pain -- and decided to relocate the company here after getting a job at Wisconsin Public Radio. She liked the space and the people at the Bartell Theatre, and as luck would have it, a slot opened up when MadCAP Theatre for Young Audiences vacated its position as a resident company. As part of the Bartell, Laboratory Theatre has access to joint advertising, reduced rent, and help with grants and technical issues.
It would appear to be a tough time for local theater, with the Madison Rep suspending its season. But Good thinks life might be easier for a smaller troupe.
"When you're a smaller group you can maneuver much more quickly than a large group with 30 years' worth of infrastructure," she says. "There isn't a lot they can do to cut corners or change the way they're doing things. I'm as optimistic as I can be. I think there's always a place for theater, and especially a company that's trying to get material out there that's never been seen before."