It was hard not to notice the screeching U-turn made by the Madison Repertory Theater when artistic director Richard Corley arrived four years ago. From a modest, community-centered company with a mixed repertory of mostly familiar plays, the Rep became a showcase for new work and hot talent from around the country.
Today, however, Corley continues another, gentler turnaround, steering the Rep toward the goal of being a theater that is more interested in serving its community than becoming a national player.
From Corley's perspective, the shift reflects nothing more than his growing familiarity with the community and his interest in working with artists he has gotten to know. He came from the Acting Company, a theater with strong ties to New York playwrights and actors. But now, he calls Wisconsin his artistic home.
"It's a watershed year for me," he says. "It's my fourth season, and it takes that long to really understand the community and the area, and to begin to build a group of artists that you want to work with."
Indeed, almost every show in the 2006-07 season is designed to showcase an artist with whom Corley's worked before or wanted to work with. These are artists who, he says, "will begin to form some nucleus" of a future company. And what's more, there's a real Wisconsin focus to the new plays in development, along with a growing inclination toward collaborating with other Wisconsin institutions, namely the UW department of theater and drama and Door County's American Folklore Theater.
For example, the season opener, Muskie Love (Sept. 22), a new piece by the team of Dave Hudson and Paul Libman, is a fanciful retelling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, with Beatrice and Benedick turned into rival Green Bay fishing guides. Hudson and Libman are associated with American Folklore Theater, and are developing another musical for the Rep, an adaptation of stories by Wisconsin writer Hamlin Garland called Main-Traveled Roads. That show will be one of the featured pieces in the Madison New Play Festival (Oct. 31-Nov. 12), which now occupies a slot in the mainstage season.
The third slot in the season is a charming box office winner: Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates (Dec. 1). It's the season's only production with no discernible local connection.
Corley's big project for 2006-07 is Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (Feb. 2), which will feature Carrie Coon, the recent toast of the UW-Madison MFA program who starred in Corley's production of Our Town last season. Corley's faith in her is impressive, for the role is one of the most challenging in the American canon.
Slot five features two well-known Wisconsin actors who will make their Madison Rep debut: Jim Ridge and Colleen Madden, a husband-and-wife duo who have long been fixtures at American Players Theatre. In Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly (March 9), they'll play a mismatched 1940s couple who turn an awkward meeting in a boathouse into a "no-holds-barred romantic story" (as one character puts it). It's one of America's great stage romances, and Ridge and Madden should really put a shine to Wilson's sparkling dialogue.
The season concludes with a feature for another Madison actor, Patrick Sims, a faculty member at UW-Madison. Sims will star in Samm-Art Williams' Home (April 20), playing a farmer from North Carolina who survives small-town moralizing, prison and back-breaking labor in New York, only to find himself back on the farm he grew up on.
While the season is clearly in line with Corley's goals for the Rep, economic necessity makes it fairly modest. The Rep was forced to cut its budget by a whopping 17% from last season, which is evident in the number of small-cast shows (not uncommon lately in theaters around the country). Anna Christie, a solid ensemble piece, is more in line with the kind of theater Corley has his eye on.
"We pulled back budgetarily to a place we can build from," says Corley, "to where we can start to see some growth in a long-term sustained way."
But Corley is adamant that the only way to go from here is up: No growth is possible if the theater remains at its current budget. "We need to grow our budget," he says firmly. "We need to pay our artists what they deserve to be paid. We can't go back to where it was before I came."
That, Corley says, was his top priority upon arriving here. "The major change was increasing, by a significant amount, what we paid our artists. We increased rehearsal time. We grew the production side of the organization. I felt all that was necessary to step into the national theater arena. And frankly, I don't think the community was ready to make that step."
Now, however, with "the extraordinary opportunity and challenge of the Overture Center," Corley sees this as a critical time for the Rep and the whole Madison arts community.
"I think that Madison is learning what it takes to sustain and support a professional theater," he says. "I don't think that's a critical comment, it's just a fact."