"Community theater" can be a loaded term. Some hear in those words positive connotations of being rooted in one's community. Others hear a patronizing term that calls to mind amateurish work.
Members of Madison's theater scene mostly seem to embrace the first interpretation. They've built strong relationships with each other and with their audiences. And they're thinking about the ways the shows they present respond to the lives of Dane County residents.
And why not? Community theater people are everywhere. They're baristas, state employees, IT folks, attorneys and more. And unlike full-time theater professionals whose duties are often very specialized, community theater people fill many different roles.
Most people in local community theater are not getting paid. They're in it for love, not money. They're cultural underdogs, competing in a lively but crowded theater market and committing their free time to their chosen art form.
The call for people to be active making art in and for their communities has deep roots in Wisconsin, largely due to the efforts of UW professor Robert Gard, who received the first rural arts development grant from the NEA and authored such seminal books as 1955's Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. It was part of Gard's vision that everyone would reap the benefits of participating in the arts, whether rural or urban, farm wife or accountant.
While one article can't do justice to the area's dozens of theater organizations, here's a sampling of some of the key players in the local scene.
The house painter and the funeral planner
Casey Grimm, Mercury Players Theatre's 25-year-old artistic director, has a pragmatic attitude towards the "community theater" moniker: "I don't care what you call us, as long as you don't assume we suck!"
During a Saturday morning conversation with Grimm and fellow Mercury member Rachel Bledsoe, 29, the two were surprisingly chipper the night after a cast party that stretched into the wee hours.
Grimm elaborated on his point: "A couple of years ago, we were so against that term. We were determined to brand ourselves as 'independent theater.' Some of our company members worry that 'community theater' implies lower quality, but the term doesn't make that much difference to me. Every show we produce can go toe-to-toe with the professionals, even though the scale might be different."
Within the local scene, Mercury is known for shows that tend to the controversial and dark, yet it doesn't want to be confined to that niche. Grimm, who has served as Mercury's artistic director since 2007, says, "We're actively in search of the unpredictable. We don't want to box ourselves in. Mercury had developed this strength in doing very black comedies, doing dark humor with a visceral edge. I wanted to show that we could also do happy plays. We're doing mostly comedies this year."
Grimm, who is recently married, makes his living painting houses. He enjoys the work and is hoping to buy a house with his wife, Jess, in the next few years. Jess is also heavily involved in Mercury, and the two met during one of Mercury's 24-hour Blitz extravaganzas.
Bledsoe also has a non-theater-related day job, as a planning consultant at a funeral home. "I started as a mortician and was beginning my apprenticeship, but realized it was hard to do an apprenticeship and still do art," she says.
Both Grimm and Bledsoe are firm believers in the sense of community generated within Mercury and between Mercury and other local companies. Mercury is one of the Bartell Theatre's resident companies.
"I think the fact that Madison can have a place like the Bartell that's lasted as long as it has is miraculous," says Grimm. "You don't find that many places where you have a number of different arts groups all running the venue together."
Encore Studio for the Performing Arts has carved out a niche that is not only unique locally, but a rarity on the national scene as well. Although technically a professional company with paid staff and actors, Encore feels very community-centered in its focus on the lives of people with disabilities. Disability issues form the core of Encore's subject matter, and the majority of cast members are people with disabilities.
Says founding artistic director and executive director Kelsy Schoenhaar, "There's so little repertoire for people with disabilities, and when it is done, it's usually with actors without disabilities." Schoenhaar, 42, who writes many of Encore's plays herself or with program director Wendy Prosise, 31, wants people with disabilities to be the stars of their own lives and tell their own stories.
Those who haven't seen an Encore Studio show shouldn't expect a safe, fuzzy approach. Says Schoenhaar, "It's not cutesy B.S. We put it out there in very real ways. These are adult lives."
Encore's first commissioned work took on the sensitive subject of sexual abuse against people with disabilities, which occurs at a higher rate than in the population in general. The play, To Love or Not to Love, also explored the issue of consensual romantic relationships.
While Encore's stories are fictionalized, Schoenhaar bases most of her scriptwriting on interviews she's conducted with people with disabilities.
For a cast member like Dawn Cieszynski, 28, Encore is a powerful outlet. "Encore is my love and passion," she says. "We open everyone's eyes to our lives and how we lead them. Because when people see me, they think one thing, 'She's stupid, she probably can't take care of herself.' But I have total faith in myself." Cieszynski, who walks with the aid of braces, wound up in a coma as a result of spinal bacterial meningitis at the age of 15, and some expected her never to walk again.
Another actor, Connie Alsum, 29, feels similarly. "A lot of people misjudge you," she says. "People are shocked and amazed that I get on stage, but I look at it and I'm like, 'What's so shocking?'" Alsum enjoys getting out of her personal comfort zone and taking on characters unlike herself. "Really bitchy characters are a lot of fun!" she says.
Prosise, who, like Schoenhaar, is a full-time staff member, comments, "The characters in Encore plays are coming from a perspective that people don't often see in the theater or even recognize in the community." Encore shows allow people with one disability to imagine the life of someone with a different disability, and they provoke the nondisabled to think about challenges they don't have to face.
Concludes Schoenhaar, "I want people to find themselves within the culture of disabilities, to envelop people in that world."
A forester's big family
Outside Madison, there's a strong community theater scene that includes companies like Oregon's Straw Hat Players and the Stoughton Village Players.
The Stoughton Village Players has been around since 1972, and Jerry Lapidakis, a retired forester, has been involved since 1977. He became president of the troupe last year.
Like many community theater participants, Lapidakis has trod the boards and helped run things behind the scenes. "I started out doing a lot of character parts. I get shot or hung or whatever," chuckles Lapidakis, 67. He's also played lead roles, as in 2006's production of Tribute. His wife, Karen, handles the group's ticket sales.
The group's members have a range of day jobs, from teaching to construction to management. However, says Lapidakis, "Like a lot of groups now, we're aging, and that's a problem we're working to solve."
One of the niches Stoughton Village Players fills for its community is the annual Syttende Mai play, part of the town's Norwegian heritage festival. Says Lapidakis, "It's an original play written every year, and it's our biggest fundraiser. The whole premise is that Norwegians are dumb and everyone else is dumber," he says with a laugh.
Lapidakis is hopeful about the future. His group generally has a good track record attracting audiences and strong working relationships with other suburban companies. The various companies trade actors, share costumes and lend other kinds of support.
"This is a great experience for people," he summarizes. "It's like a big family, and [as an actor] it's fun to goof off and be someone else."
Stories not often told
Tara Ayres, the artistic director of Madison's StageQ, is another local theater veteran who has embraced hands-on, face-to-face community building. Says Ayres, 51, "I love the term 'community theater.' This is about people making art themselves in their communities. They don't just consume art that someone else far away made for them."
StageQ, as a company focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experiences, is also about telling stories that often don't get told. While Ayres had some childhood experience in theater, she gave it up because she was tired of shows that almost never reflected her experiences as a lesbian. A musical project with local troupe Flaming Dykasaurus about 10 years ago helped get her back into the groove.
"To my mind, even in a city like Madison - a progressive town with a big queer community - we're still an oppressed group," says Ayres. "We give our lesbian and gay audience an evening with which they get to relax in a way they're not necessarily used to." Of course, not all members of the StageQ audience are LGBT. Ayres estimates that about a third of the audience are straight allies.
By day, Ayres runs her own computer training business called Breathe Easy. She also gives private voice lessons. Others active with StageQ make their living as nurses, IT people and hospital records supervisors, among other occupations.
Chatting about making theater in the wake of the Nov. 4 elections - in which a civil-rights barrier was shattered on the presidential level but another one reinforced with California's passage of Prop 8 - Ayres takes the long view. "I'm an optimist. I think social movements happen when rising expectations are disappointed," says the Yale poli-sci grad. "And part of the point of doing political cultural work is to reenergize your audience to go out and make change."
Actor, publicist, patriot
Miranda McClenaghan of Strollers Theatre disproves the old myth that community theater is filled with people who couldn't cut it in the professional realm. On the contrary - while some use community theater as a launching pad, others walk away from the professional life for the different rewards that community theater offers.
McClenaghan, one of the minority of people in local community theater who also have arts-related day jobs, works full-time as director of theater education at UW-Madison's Division of Continuing Studies. In her Strollers capacity, she's publicity coordinator, but she has also acted, produced and directed.
A California transplant, McClenaghan says, "I had an opportunity to get my Actor's Equity status in California, and I turned it down. A lot of the stuff I was drawn to was the smaller, lower-budget, volunteer organizations. You're not just in the show, but you volunteer to come in and paint the set and find the ushers. You wear multiple hats if you want to. I enjoy being involved in a more in-depth manner, and that would not have been possible if I had gone professional."
It's not always easy, though. "Sometimes that [Strollers] time is spent at two in the morning so I don't take time away from my family. And I couldn't do it without my husband."
While not knocking anyone looking to make a living solely from acting, McClenaghan comments, "There is something that I personally lose when the paycheck is riding on it. There's a feeling - and this is completely personal - when you go to the theater in the evening and you see people who, just like you, have been working all day and are juggling personal lives. There's a camaraderie there."
McClenaghan has strong feelings above the positive side of the "community theater" moniker. "I can't imagine anything more full of pride than that term. It's almost a kind of patriotism for me that I do community theater."
Broom Street Theater has staked out a niche doing plays mostly written by Broom Street members, giving it a freewheeling, experimental feel. Observes artistic director Callen Harty, 51, "Broadway is not very original anymore. They take TV shows and make musicals out of them. They can't afford to take big risks."
"We want to do something new," says Harty, who is recovering from a heart attack he suffered at the Nov. 14 opening of Broom Street's Dancing With My Other. "Even when we do something like Dr. Faustus, we make it new. We want something meaningful for the times we live in, and we tend to be topical."
Harty, who by day is a customer service manager for an Internet billing company, is in a 17-year relationship with another Broom Streeter, Brian Wild, who works in security for a credit card company. Theirs is not the only relationship to have been forged at BST.
"Occasionally, I look at our history, and I think of all the couples that have come out of this theater and the children that have been born. I consider them children of our theater," says Harty, who has been working with Broom Street for 25 years.
Says Harty of Madison, "For the size city we have, it's an incredible scene. And while not every show does great, there's enough audience here and an educated community, and they do tend to come out and support us."
Mercury Players Theatre
Encore Studio for the Performing Arts
Stoughton Village Players
Broom Street Theater