This is the time of year that Spring Green's American Players Theatre awakens after its winter hiatus. Actors and technicians assemble. Rehearsals begin. Scene and costume shops bustle with activity. People learn their cues. As the company begins its 35th year, there are almost as many notable entrances and exits behind the scenes as there are on the two stages.
In January Brenda DeVita was named APT's artistic director. She has been transitioning into this position since it was announced that she would succeed producing artistic director David Frank, who finishes his tenure this December. After working closely with DeVita on season planning and casting for the past two years, APT company manager and artistic associate Carey Cannon will also assume a new role: associate artistic director.
A fixture on the APT stage for more than 30 years, actor Paul Bentzen will retire from the core company at the end of 2014, though he may return for roles in the future. He notes that when he first saw APT's outdoor stage and met cofounders Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso, he knew it was his destiny to work there. In his final full season, he will portray Antonio in Much Ado About Nothing, Merriman and Lane in The Importance of Being Earnest, and Cullen in The Doctor's Dilemma.
David Frank's curtain call
After leading one of the country's foremost regional theaters for 23 years, Frank remains genial and self-effacing.
"There's nothing like retiring to get attention," he says, chuckling. "But there's a time for everything. At 70 years old, that's enough [of a career]."
Although he calls the departure "enormously bittersweet," he believes it's the right decision for APT, and for him as an artist.
"We've been working on the transition for years, in a very organic way. By the time I step aside, no one will notice I'm not there anymore," he says.
While that may be an overstatement, Frank is confident that APT's artistic and financial future is in capable hands.
"Ever since I took on the artistic and managing director positions, Brenda jumped in heroically," he says, explaining how DeVita's role has grown. "She's the one looking to the future, and I couldn't be happier."
According to Frank, the future will include hiring a new managing director, making repairs and further renovations to the outdoor Up-the-Hill stage, continuing to experiment with programming in the indoor Touchstone Theatre, increasing the organization's donor base, marketing productions further in advance and, above all, overseeing APT's growth while maintaining its artistic integrity.
Although Frank has been responsible for setting APT's artistic direction for more than two decades, he's quick to share credit for the company's success.
"There is an extraordinary community that supports this theater," he says. "The board, friends, allies, supporters, patrons and donors have grown closer to us over the years [and become] more part of the family.... They are more curious, smart and well educated than most [theatergoers]."
But don't expect Frank to pull a disappearing act. His wish list of theatrical projects continues to grow.
"There are hundreds of plays I still want to do, more than I could even begin to describe," he explains.
Frank says he'd like to work with college students and direct on a freelance basis, but he has no firm plans right now.
"Next January...I'll be out of work," he says with a laugh. "This is the first time in 23 years that my wife and I don't know what we're doing next year."
For his final projects as producing artistic director, Frank will direct Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Ted Hughes' adaptation of Euripides' Alcestis. Although Much Ado has been produced at APT three times, Frank is eager to introduce the witty comedy to new audiences.
"It's a slightly more serious and poetic play than people give it credit for. It's got some pith to it, besides being funny and effervescent," he says. "Most people also miss the sex in Much Ado. It's a very ribald, rich and salty period. People miss it in iambic pentameter."
Frank was also instrumental in choosing David Mamet's gritty, modern American Buffalo for the 2014 season.
"It's a very important play in American drama. Mamet is an important writer. He has his own type of poetry; it's poetry of the street," he explains.
As for career highlights, Frank cites his first production of Hamlet and his Cure at Troy, presented in the Touchstone Theatre.
"I find I'm incapable of expressing how lucky I was that I should have arrived...when this great idea [for outdoor theater productions] was being realized."
Jim DeVita's behind-the-scenes role
This is also a landmark year for core company member Jim DeVita, who is entering his 20th season with APT. He's had a full year so far, performing in a one-man production of The Iliad at the Milwaukee Rep and portraying artist Mark Rothko in Red for Madison's Forward Theater. His play A Midnight Cry was produced at First Stage Milwaukee, and the completed manuscript for his latest novel is in the hands of his literary agent. Plus he looks forward to another season of "playing in the woods," which includes directing Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and portraying Trigorin in Chekov's The Seagull.
DeVita is happy to return to Romeo and Juliet, an old favorite, in a role that brings new challenges.
"Romeo was my first job at APT," he explains. "I was based in Chicago before that. I'm here [in Spring Green] because of Romeo and Juliet."
Since then, DeVita has appeared in the iconic tragedy four more times.
It is a much different landscape in Spring Green today than when he arrived in 1995. Without indoor rehearsal facilities, the actors practiced in the site's picnic pavilion. When offstage, DeVita helped his wife, Brenda, undertake her duties as company manager, which included preparing housing for visiting actors.
"We built shelves and found futons for people," he recalls. "The fact that [APT] has maintained its identity and integrity...it's quite beautiful."
He pauses to look at APT's pastoral surroundings. "I'm so happy this is my office," he remarks. That's good, because he'll be spending a lot of time outdoors, in the director's chair at the Up-the-Hill Theatre.
DeVita says directors often fall into the trap of trying to be unique and put their own stamp on Shakespeare. He advocates simply doing the show with as much honesty and passion as possible.
"I'm thoroughly traditional with my approach," he says. "Tell the story as clearly as you can. Make it interesting, but make sure the language doesn't get lost. If the audience is moved and responds thoughtfully to the play, then you've been successful."
He says many of his former directors at APT -- including Kenneth Albers, Bill Brown and David Frank -- have influenced his own directing style. And he acknowledges that approaching the text as an actor first has informed his process enormously.
"It's good for me to direct a show that I feel really strongly about," he says. "I've always loved it."
DeVita admits that Romeo and Juliet resonates with him much differently now that he has two teenage children.
"It's one of the amazing things about great literature. Every 10 years you come back to it, and it changes. You see it differently."
APT's season at a glance
Touchstone Theatre, June 7-Nov. 8
Written by David Mamet, directed by Kenneth Albers
Don, Teach and Bobby discuss their plans to commit a robbery in Don's pawn shop. Their every word and silence have a deeper-than-expected meaning.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Up-the-Hill Theatre, June 7-Sept. 27
Written by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown
In this enduring comedy, dapper Jack Worthing and Algernon, his compatriot in cavorting, fall for two ladies who have their hearts set on marrying a man named Ernest.
Much Ado About Nothing
Up-the-Hill Theatre, June 13-Oct. 5
Written by William Shakespeare, directed by David Frank
When Leonato's friends return from war, the household is turned on its ear by the instant attraction between Hero and Claudio, and the constant bickering between Beatrice and Benedick.
Romeo and Juliet
Up-the-Hill Theatre, June 20-Oct. 4
Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Jim DeVita
The feud between the Montague and Capulet families comes to a head with tragic consequences for a pair of young lovers in one of Shakespeare's most renowned plays.
The Year of Magical Thinking
Touchstone Theatre, June 24-Oct. 4
Written by Joan Didion, directed by Brenda DeVita
Author Joan Didion recounts the 12 months following the unexpected death of her husband, and the concurrent hospitalization of her only daughter.
Up-the-Hill Theatre, Aug. 1-Sept. 20
Written by Anton Chekhov, directed by John Langs
Romantic and artistic conflicts abound as characters fall in and out of love -- and the limelight -- in this darkly funny Russian comedy.
The Doctor's Dilemma
Up-the-Hill Theatre, Aug. 8-Oct. 3
Written by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Aaron Posner
Dr. Ridgeon has developed a cure for tuberculosis but has a limited amount of the medicine to dispense. Who will get a dose of it?
Touchstone Theatre, Aug. 10-Oct. 3
Written by Tom Stoppard, directed by William Brown
Henry Carr reminisces about the friendships of his youth, from writer James Joyce to Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. But his fading memory mixes these famous figures with the cast of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Touchstone Theatre, Oct. 10-Nov. 9
Written by Euripides, translated by Ted Hughes, directed by David Frank
Apollo has sweet-talked the Fates into giving King Admetus a life extension. But the fine print demands a sacrifice. Now time is up, and there's but one volunteer: Admetus' beloved queen.