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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Fog
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American Players Theatre: 'A place where excellence is possible'
APT nurtures a creative community
for the 2008 season: 'The actors are actively involved in the trajectory of
this company.'
Rehearsing for the 2008 season: 'The actors are actively involved in the trajectory of this company.'
Credit:Carissa Dixon

Mike Daisey is mad.

He sits at a desk on stage, fuming, sweating - venting about the state of the American theater. He tells us marketers, administrators, fund-raisers have taken over. Artists can't make a living wage. Artistic directors timidly cater to the lowest common denominator. Theater doesn't matter anymore.

In his new one-person show, How Theater Failed America, Daisey says the dream of the regional theater movement has been corrupted by visionless bureaucrats. The great promise of creating thoughtful communities has been squandered. Actors are condemned to a nomadic, dog-eat-dog life. And theaters are too focused on mere survival to focus on anything other than the bottom line.

Daisey's diatribe has hit a nerve in the theater community, lighting up blogs and possibly even seeping into boardroom conversations. Its current New York City run features weekly post-show panel discussions with many of the industry's movers and shakers. Some think he's a lone, sane voice in the wilderness. Some think he's simplistic and unfair. Some think he's blaming the victim.

I think he needs to visit Spring Green, Wisconsin.

American Players Theatre kicks off its 2008 season on June 7 (see sidebar), and promises to again offer proof that American theater is still capable of nurturing creativity and community. Built around a "core company" of actors, the classical troupe bucks all the current trends in American theater, in spite of its out-of-the-way location. Each season, it attracts an impressive group of artists who are willing to weather the unique circumstances of making theater in a place that might be more suited to a wilderness camp or religious cult. They come because the leaders of APT - David Frank and Brenda DeVita - know the value of an institution that supports artists in their work.

"It's a place where excellence is possible," says director John Langs. "It's about thriving rather than merely surviving."

The bucolic setting of Spring Green has always been both an asset and a challenge for American Players Theatre. The founding members, Charles Bright, Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso, searched the Midwest for a natural amphitheater and found it on the Lockwood Farm, 40 miles west of Madison. In the early years, artists (and audiences) had to deal with limited facilities and amenities. Even today, APT hardly offers the posh theater experience of some well-financed companies. And the theater has had its low moments, including the 2006 departure of managing director Sheldon Wilner amid talk of misconduct.

But people come. Since 2003, over 500,000 theatergoers have seen shows at APT. Most of them are from the immediate area, though for a rural community like Spring Green, that covers a pretty wide radius (including Madison). Some are from bigger cities like Milwaukee or Chicago. But wherever they are from, they bring a reputation with them. They are among the best theater audiences in the country.

"I was amazed at how hungry the audience is for the ideas of these plays," says Langs, who came to Spring Green for the first time last year to direct George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance. "It's really hard not to fall in love with a hungry audience."

"The biggest reason artists like to come here is the audiences," says Matt Schwader, now in his third year acting at APT. "They're up for a challenge, and they get engaged and involved in shows."

Schwader, a Chicago-based actor who performs regularly with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, finds the connection with the Spring Green audience to be direct and personal. "In Chicago, you get done with a show, you go out the stage door, and you go home," he explains. "Or you go to an actors bar with your friends, where no one else hangs out. Here you go to the Shed, and half the audience is there. Or you meet them the next day at the General Store or on the street.

"I think that's a big attraction for the artists up here," he continues. "You're just as important as the people running the local bar or grocery store. You're just the town storyteller, not a weird removed object."

And, Schwader says, APT audiences are tenaciously dedicated: "These are Wisconsin sports fans, who will sit through any kind of weather. Anybody with that commitment is going to elevate the stakes for everyone."

Perhaps the audiences see something in the APT approach that is worth the commitment. Many actors here would summarize that "something" in one word: company.

Unlike most theaters in America, APT is built on the idea of a group of actors and artists who grow together as they move through the great plays in Western literature. While Mike Daisey rightly argues that most theaters have abandoned this approach, it's alive and well in Spring Green.

"All the best work in the history of the theater has come from the great companies of the world," says Henry Woronicz, a veteran classical actor and former artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Moscow Art Theater, the Berliner Ensemble, the Group Theater - all those organizations that banded together as a collective and created a body of work. It doesn't get any better than that."

The alternative, Woronicz says, is like a game of sandlot baseball: a different team for every show. "If we're lucky we get a good team that day. And if we're really lucky, young Frank Robinson is standing there.

"It's certainly possible to make great theater under those circumstances," he says. But it all depends on who is around.

Although he is acting at American Players Theatre for the first time this year, Woronicz knows how companies work, and understand both the advantages and risks. A longstanding company, for example, can atrophy or breed conflicts. Which means that a theater's leadership needs to pay close attention to the collective personality of the group. By many accounts, APT's management does exactly that.

After two years as a "pickup player" with APT, Schwader signed on this season for a three-year commitment with the core company. For him, the sense of ownership and community makes it worth the investment and sacrifice. "I've had to turn down work at Chicago Shakespeare," he says, "which I consider my other home, because I've wanted to be here. That can be hard, but I love how engaged I am here."

Through meetings and discussions with APT management, Schwader says, "the actors are actively involved in the trajectory of this company as an organization. No theater I've worked with has had that."

That sense of participation means that APT's management needs to concern itself with more than finding actors to play roles. It means cultivating a community and creating a culture. John Langs saw that from his very first visit.

"Getting hired usually means spending time with an artistic director," says Langs. At APT, an informal gathering with the leadership and core company was clearly the most important part of the process. "They wanted me to know what it's going to be like to hang out with this group of people, artists who have developed a way of working and a shared vocabulary.

"They are very ambitious," he says, "but they communicate. It's sort of like being in a relationship where you don't go to bed angry. If there's any kind of rift, I think the leaders feel very comfortable addressing it with a great deal of generosity.

"In my first year, both David [Frank] and Brenda [DeVita] said, 'We're going to screw up. But we want you to tell us that we screwed up and we promise to listen.' When you hear that from the top, it allows you to step into that space and say, 'Well then I'm allowed to screw up. And if I'm free to do that, I'm also free to take extraordinary risks and feel like there's a graceful safety net beneath me."

Schwader points to the design of the company's two new buildings - a scene shop and a small theater/rehearsal space to be completed by 2009 - as another example of company-centered management. "When they were designing," he says, "they went to everybody. They asked the box office, the actors, the designers, the costume builders, the administrative staff: 'What kind of space do you need to work?' They genuinely wanted people's input in the creation of that next step."

Call it an attention to detail that extends from the language of the plays performed to the habits of the people who work there. It's one of the main reasons APT continues to attract talented artists in spite of its relatively remote location. This year, the roster of designers includes Broadway costume veteran Robert Morgan and two Chicago stalwarts, set designer Todd Rosenthal (currently nominated for a Tony award for August: Osage County) and multiple award winner Lindsay Jones.

So please, Mr. Daisey, come out to Spring Green this summer. It's quiet and relaxing, and breakfast at the General Store is an experience not to be missed. The folks at American Players Theatre don't hold all the answers to the problems in American theater, but they're giving it a good shot. And 500,000 people are happy they are.

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