When you talk to David Frank about theater these days, some surprising names creep into the conversation: Eugene O'Neill, Athol Fugard, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet.
"Classical theater certainly didn't end with the First World War," says Frank, who is in his 16th season as artistic director of Spring Green's American Players Theatre. "There isn't a great playwright who isn't a poet. It may not be in iambic pentameter or even in verse, but these playwrights are part of a continuing tradition."
Well...sure...but David Mamet?
Frank readily agrees that Mamet isn't necessarily a good fit for the classically oriented company, whose 2007 season runs June 16 through Oct. 7. ("Glengarry Glen Ross is a highly poetic play, but there are other theaters that do that"). But the hush in his voice suggests a sense of reverence for these modern masters. And it suggests a man on the cusp of realizing a dream.
On June 7, shortly after I talked to Frank, the APT board voted to begin a $3.5 million capital campaign to build a new indoor theater space. Details are still being worked out, but the idea is to create an alternative performance space (which might double as a classroom) in the nearby town of Spring Green.
"It will be an incredible focus for artistic creativity," Frank says of the indoor space. "It will allow the possibility of some company members writing, of some company members directing. It will be a place for the young actors to try their wings. It will be a place for us to try out a young director who's really talented but not very experienced. Right now, we've no place to do that."
And, of course, it will offer a place to take risks on plays that might not fill a 1,148-seat outdoor amphitheater.
As you can tell by Frank's reverential tone, it's a dream that's been echoing around the wooded hills of Spring Green since the theater began.
In 1978, Randall Duk Kim, Anne Occhiogrosso and a group of theater enthusiasts and investors arrived at the Lockwood Farm, 40 miles west of Madison. As legend has it, the group lingered at the crest of a hill while Kim went to the bottom to read from a book - the acoustics were perfect. With a Field of Dreams sense of optimism, they selected the site (over 43 others) as the place to build their theater.
Less than two years later, American Players Theatre opened its first season with a play that would take full advantage of the location's bucolic atmosphere: A Midsummer Night's Dream. Construction crews worked on the theater at night so the actors could rehearse during the day. Some of the company lived in a converted chicken coop, and rehearsals took place in a remodeled barn.
While there have been improvements along the way, the first major updating of the theater's facilities came more than 20 years later. The amphitheater was renovated in 2000, and the theater's headquarters, called the Bravo Center, was completed in 2001, adding 22,000 square feet of rehearsal halls, offices, and much-needed room for costume, scenery and property shops.
Over the years, the idea behind APT has grown along with its infrastructure. At its inception, Kim's approach to Shakespeare was strictly traditional. Plays were performed uncut from the First Folio (considered closest to Shakespeare's "original text"). Costumes were modeled on Elizabethan traditions. This was Shakespeare "as it was meant to be."
Through the '80s, the theater moved beyond Shakespeare, adding other "classical" playwrights to its programming. But with Frank's arrival, APT expanded its vision considerably. It poked into the 20th century, including plays by George Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder. This season, that trend goes a step further with Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana. (See sidebar.)
While American Players Theatre started as an impassioned vision of a few founding artists, it has redefined itself as a tightly knit collective that includes dozens of artists and administrators.
The "deep bench" of APT's management has been quite evident in the last two years. Veteran managing director Sheldon Wilner left the theater in early 2006 after allegations of "serious misconduct." To deal with the situation, Frank assumed management duties, becoming producing artistic director.
In spite of the transition, the theater went on to mount one of its most successful seasons ever. At the time, Frank said that his new position was temporary, and that the theater would seek out a new managing director. But today he says he's in it for the long haul. "As long as I can keep walking up that hill," he jokes, referring to the climb from the theater offices to the amphitheater.
Today, Frank says, almost all of the big decisions are wrestled over by a core group of senior staff, including associate artistic director Brenda DeVita, production stage manager Evelyn Matten and production manager Michael Broh. Moreover, the core acting company - currently at nine members - boasts an average of over 13 years with APT. The theater has assembled an impressive cadre of regular directors, including Ken Albers, a longtime company member of the Milwaukee Rep and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Chicago-based directors Kate Buckley, Bill Brown and James Bohnen.
"There's a very strong sense of a team and a continuum here," says Frank. "When we assemble for the first rehearsal, it's overwhelming to see the number of people returning to the company. I'm inclined to tell them, 'I feel stupid welcoming you back as a host. This is a place that you've collectively created.'"
Frank's trust in directors' choices to shape a season is another sign of the theater's collective approach. The centerpieces of the season, he says, often fall into place when "somebody has an idea about a particular play and that idea includes this place and this company. That's what we look for."
That's exactly what happened with Night of the Iguana, which stretches the "APT Idea" more than any play in recent memory. Bill Brown made a persuasive case for the play, and the company embraced it.
But what is the APT Idea, now that it no longer involves doing First Folio Shakespeare dressed in real chain mail?
"This is an actor's theater," Frank says. "It always has been, and I think it will continue to be."
The theater's very business model, in fact, depends on the centrality of acting. Resources are devoted to actors and rehearsal time rather than ambitious sets. Frank calls it an "esthetic discipline" that requires better directors and designers, "because it's always easier to insert a theatrical 'Woomph' if you have enough stuff and enough money. But that doesn't take you to the play itself.
"The essential tools we have to work with are language and story. Story - the ability to make an audience ask, 'what happens next?' - is the most important thing about any play. I don't care whether it's Brecht or Sophocles."
As for language, Frank thinks classical actors today should confront an essential question: "Why all those words?" And the answer lies in the middle ground between British and American traditions of actor training. The British emphasis on technique, he says, has the potential to produce "brilliant acting and terrible Shakespeare." But with skills gleaned from the American tradition of Method acting, actors can make Shakespeare's dense language "accessible, vivid, necessary and unpretentious."
"If you simply play really angry for two pages," Frank explains, "you wind up with a wave of verbiage, and people stop listening. But if you have the discipline to really follow the details of that language, you give yourself over to the idea itself, not simply how it sounds or looks. Then the audience has the joy of unlocking the meaning of that language right along with you.
"We have a particular interest in blending these traditions," he continues. "Very consciously blending them and thinking about how they serve each other. That's our approach, and it's not taught in this particular way anywhere that I know of."
So while other managers might see APT's current plan as a means for institutional growth, Frank sees it as a way for the company to develop as artists. The additional space translates to artistic evolution - expanded repertory and an investment in educating actors and other artists in the APT Idea. While we may not be seeing APT productions of David Mamet any time soon, it seems we should continue to expect the unexpected.
Much Ado About Nothing
Opening June 16
One of Shakespeare's most accomplished comedies, it nonetheless rises and falls with the actors playing Beatrice and Benedick, the lovers whose verbal fencing hides the true love in their hearts. Director Ken Albers has tapped APT company member Tracy Michelle Arnold and Milwaukee Rep regular Ted Deasy for the parts, and they should deliver just the right balance of acrimony and amour.
Opening June 23
American Players Theatre brings in a new face to direct George Bernard Shaw's comedy about the challenges of living a new life in an old world. Seattle-based John Langs has his work cut out for him. Creating flesh-and-blood characters out of Shaw's emblems of class and political positions is always a challenge. Marcus Truschinski and Brian Mani, as representatives of the new and old order, should provide a lot of help.
The Merchant of Venice
Opening June 28
James Bohnen tackles one of Shakespeare's most vexing plays, at least for contemporary audiences. James DeVita is the merchant Antonio and Colleen Madden is Portia. The shape-shifting James Ridge plays Shylock, the despised Jewish moneylender.
The Night of the Iguana
Opening Aug. 11
Tennessee Williams' thoroughly modern play about the redemption of a defrocked priest is APT's boldest step yet into the modern era. It's set in a steamy jungle, and I hope that isn't too perfect a match for the APT surroundings. But I have to admit that's part of the production's appeal. That and James DeVita tackling the role of Rev. Shannon, one of Williams' best male characters.
Timon of Athens
Opening Aug. 18
The riskiest choice of the season, Shakespeare's rarely performed tragedy has questionable authorship (it's now believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton) and a challenging structure. APT artistic director David Frank admits the play needs "strong editing and a strong directorial hand." But he thinks he's found a director, Kate Buckley, who can offer exactly that. Brian Mani plays Timon, a man who discovers that generosity is often unrewarded.