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When the Madison Repertory Theatre closed its doors for the last time in March 2009, a veritable Greek chorus wailed that this was the end of professional theater in our fair city. After 40 years of providing the area with topnotch productions, the Rep succumbed to a combination of failed finances and artistic miscalculations; its contract with Overture Center, to whom it was heavily in debt, was not renewed.
The end was not entirely unpredictable, given that the effects of economic malaise were being felt far and wide, and many believed the Rep's demise was the harbinger of more sorrow to come.
Today, however, those pessimistic prognostications are starting to look a little premature. New companies have sprung up in the Rep's wake, the Playhouse is booked with productions from local and out-of-town troupes, and Madison theater groups are pressing forward, expanding their offerings, trying out new ideas. Not only is Madison theater in general surviving, it is thriving in ways that have confounded the naysayers of less than a year ago.
An integral part of the current revival is the formation of Forward Theater Company, a new professional troupe that is looking to fill the void left by the Rep, although artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray is eager to stress the differences between the two.
"For one thing, we're a lot more fiscally responsible," she says, mindful of both the current economy and the Rep's cavalier financial dealings. "We're also very committed to using the extraordinary pool of talent, both professional and nonprofessional, that we have right here in Madison." Given how frequently the Rep squandered treasure and good will by importing talent from out of the area, that can only be seen as a sensible move.
Forward also boasts an advisory company that features many well-known and well-connected Madison theatrical names, such as Sam White, Frank Schneeberger and Colleen Burns. Just as important, Forward is keen to capitalize on the existing fan base for established area actors.
"We're so fortunate to have people like Sarah Day and Colleen Madden in our midst," says Uphoff Gray. "They attract their own following wherever they play, and that helps us to sell tickets."
Overture CEO and president Tom Carto still sees something of what he calls a "hunkering-down mentality" among donors and arts groups, conceding that the economic challenge is, after all, a broader national issue. But he remains optimistic about how Overture is progressing. "Change forces out-of-the-box thinking," he says. "We're seeing, for instance, that collaboration between different companies is helping to not only amortize production costs, but also attract larger audiences."
A good example is the recent co-production at Overture of Little Women, which was mounted by Children's Theater of Madison and Four Seasons Theatre. According to Sarah Marty, managing director of Four Seasons, "There is a real sense of community in Madison theater. Because of that, people are partnering in ways that lead to some really great projects."
CTM's producing artistic director, Roseann Sheridan, goes so far as to say that establishing partnerships was "one of the most important things I was interested in when I was hired three years ago. I wanted to expand CTM's role, not only with other arts organizations, but in the community at large. I particularly wanted people to see that CTM was theater for all ages, not just children."
After a successful early collaboration with Madison Ballet, Sheridan saw further opportunities to expand CTM's artistic horizons. "We purchased all of the Rep's production inventory with the goal that we could establish an arts production cooperative," she explains. "That way we could share space and other production resources with as many local organizations as possible."
That spirit of collaboration is not limited to the professional companies. Just across the Capitol Square from Overture is the Bartell Community Theatre, an institution that, according to Sheridan, "changed the whole landscape of the downtown arts scene." Within the Bartell's walls, a core group of Madison's community theater companies is finding ways to reach audiences that individually might not attract large crowds, but collectively can result in sold-out performances.
Bartell's managing director, Sarah Hoover, sees collaboration as a growing trend.
"We have six resident companies here," she says. (Soon to be five: Encore Studio for the Performing Arts is about to vacate its residency and occupy a new space on Fish Hatchery Road.) "Frequently, they can share the technical costs of a show and even marketing and advertising. All those things help to defray their expenses."
But that spirit of cooperation goes much further, in Hoover's view.
"Aside from the performers and technical artists, there's an entire community involved with the theater scene here," she explains. "We have our volunteer base, which fulfills a huge social need to accomplish something. Plus, we've made a deliberate effort to be an integral part of the whole downtown arts scene, not just theater."
Contrary to what the mood of the country might indicate, people are attending live theater in large numbers. "We've seen increased attendance overall, and some of our companies have begun to reach out to corporate sponsors," says Hoover. "We lost our largest individual sponsor, so we have to look for places where money is left on the table. But we're already planning our seasons for the next two or three years."
Tara Ayres, artistic director of StageQ, a Bartell company, says her troupe is expanding its next season. Part of this growth, she believes, can be attributed to successful collaborations with other area companies, such as StageQ's co-production of Cloud Nine with Mercury Players Theatre. Another part is knowing how to keep your audience base satisfied.
"We research the whole strategic aspect of how we make our choice of material, and we are very conscious of our demographic," says Ayres.
In difficult times, unsurprisingly, comedies rank highest in what audiences want to see. That doesn't mean drama is in decline. On the contrary, Madison's many acting companies have a willingness to experiment that underscores the need for what Ayres calls "the visceral experience that makes live theater so compelling."
In the vanguard of producing edgy and frequently controversial material are Broom Street Theater and Merc Lab, an outgrowth of Mercury Players that has its own small space on Madison's east side. Both companies focus on new scripts, often with unconventional formats, and often written by local playwrights like Rob Matsushita, who has a long history with Broom Street.
"When I started working with them in 1998," he says, "sometimes the audience consisted of two people and a hamster. We've all come a long way since then. The goal, of course, is not just to have more drama in your life, but better drama."
Merc Lab subscribes enthusiastically to that philosophy. It is rapidly gaining a reputation for presenting adventurous material in an atmosphere that would not be out of place among the converted lofts that double as performance spaces in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
That desire to break out of the usual constraints is part of what drives native New Yorker George Gonzalez, a past employee of the Rep and now producing director for the Bricks Theatre, another company that, like youth-oriented Laboratory Theatre, is a new player on the scene.
"The demise of the Rep was heartbreaking for me, personally," he says. "But rather than focus on the mistakes that were made, I wanted to find ways to keep theater vibrant in Madison."
Recognizing an untapped audience that might not attend traditional theater, Gonzalez opted for an approach that he terms "finding the dormant theater lover."
"We're bringing our performances to places where people wouldn't normally see theater, like bars or music clubs," he says.
Gonzalez is looking to expand into other areas of performance, including corporate events, and he has a vision of how he wants Bricks perceived. "We don't just want people to come to a sit-down show," he says. "We want people to have an experience."
Gonzalez's attitude is typical of Madison theater, a scene that Overture's Carto refers to as the "ecosystem of Madison arts culture." It's a culture that stresses innovation in the face of economic challenges - and, as important, innovation for its own sake.
Nowhere is that more apparent than at the University Theatre, the performance arm of UW-Madison's drama program. Not only is UT an incubator for some of Madison's finest young actors and technicians, it's a great place to see unusual and (frequently) underappreciated plays. UT's seasons invariably include plays with a focus on minority issues, as well as incorporating innovative acting techniques like Suzuki, mask and kabuki.
The innovative spirit is also on display at American Players Theatre in Spring Green. After suffering the horrendous tribulations of Highway 14's reconstruction in 2009, which depressed audience sizes but not income, APT continues to be a major force.
Last year's addition of the Touchstone, the remarkable indoor space, has altered the entire APT experience. Now, rather than suffer the mosquitoes and the sometimes histrionic outdoor productions, you can relish the more subtle talents of APT's actors in modern classics by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Athol Fugard in an atmosphere of intimate seclusion. It was a bold, almost counterintuitive move when APT opened that second stage, and the timing was fortuitous. Had planners waited another year, it's doubtful the project could have come to fruition.
Despite financial challenges, there is an overwhelmingly optimistic attitude among the area's many groups. "We're all finding it hard to attract funding," says Sheridan. But, she continues, overcoming problems is what theater people do. "After all," she laughs, "we are creative people!"
Directors need direction
As a 40-year veteran of live theater, I'm still amazed that a city the size of Madison should offer such an extensive and diverse theatrical experience. That's not to say it's all good. The quality of the performances is often erratic, the production values can be primitive, and the choice of material frequently baffling. But if there is one woeful inadequacy on the local scene, it must be the paucity of able directors.
Sometimes, even basic blocking schemes seem to be beyond their grasp. I recall that in The Little Dog Laughed, directed by David Lawver for Strollers Theatre, actors, after finishing a scene, made their exits by actually walking through the next scene after it had started. At first, because of the multiple locations that were being portrayed in the play, I thought this was a device; I soon realized it was just a mistake.
Some directors simply turn their actors loose with no regard for how bad they're making them look. For example, on more than one occasion I've watched performers making their throats (and my eardrums) bleed in howling displays of anger. Directors must understand that emotions are multi-layered and direct their actors accordingly. Anger, for example, can be underpinned by disappointment, fear, emptiness, longing, insecurity, even love. Yelling your lungs out just makes you unlikable and unlistenable.
Many directors also fall into the trap of directing the emotions, rather than the situation, in a play. They overlook the axiom that if the situation is real, the emotions will arise naturally. This was particularly obvious in the recent production of StageQ's Random Harvest, where the lead character became a monotonous drone of whiny aggravation. His director, Greg Harris, could have helped him by grounding the performance in the reality of the character's life and then shading that characterization with tempo, physicality and dynamics.
As spring pokes its frozen nose over the horizon, here are some upcoming productions that might help to thaw your winter blues:
StageQ is producing Sappho in Love (Feb. 12-27), described as a comedy about the "slippery terrain of lesbian romance." Any play that features the goddesses of Olympus can't be all bad.
Madison Theatre Guild dips its toe into the waters of political intrigue with Two Rooms (Feb. 19-March 19), which will run in repertory with Meg (Feb. 25-March 13), a play about the only daughter of Sir Thomas More.
University Theatre kicks off its year with Narukami - The Thunder God (Feb. 26-March 13), a mystical Japanese tale told in classic kabuki style.
Forward Theater Company presents a staged reading of KIRITSIS (March 20), David Schanker's winning script from the 2009 Wisconsin Wrights Playwriting contest. If you like to watch the creative process, come by and see art in the making. One night only.
Children's Theater of Madison will stage Narnia (April 10-18), a musical adaptation of C.S. Lewis' beloved fable The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Should be suitable for adults, too.
Mercury Players Theatre offers Mercury Rising: A New Play Competition (April 16-May 1), featuring eight 15-minute original comedies.
Broom Street Theater presents Multiple O: The Second Coming (April 23-May 30), a sequel (of sorts) to the uneven but entertaining sex romp Multiple O. The play will further explore adventures in polyamory. (Look it up.)