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American Players Theatre survives and thrives in down economy with new facility
High drama

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"I'll never forget my first time here," says David Frank of American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

"It was a very hot July; the Porta-Potties had a pretty obnoxious smell. I was at a matinee and it was like being on a griddle. And there were 300 people watching an uncut production of The Winter's Tale. I thought, that's some audience!" laughs Frank, his vivid blue eyes sparkling as he recalls the summer of 1991.

That level of audience commitment to serious theater helped lure Frank to Spring Green. He joined the company late in 1991, and 1992 marked his first full season.

APT and Frank have come quite a distance since then. The Porta-Potties are long gone, and the theater, while still rustic and open to the elements, is much more comfortable than one might expect of a venue in the woods of southern Wisconsin.

Frank, 64, is now in his 18th season as artistic director. While APT has established a firm reputation for high-quality classical theater, it's not resting on its laurels, even in a dismal economy.

Big changes are afoot: This year signals not only the company's 30th anniversary but also the opening of a second stage, the indoor Touchstone Theatre. While Frank is quick to emphasize that it's a "complement, not a substitute" to APT's main stage - simply referred to as "up the hill" - the new facility will expand the sort of fare APT offers.

The Touchstone Theatre also hints at APT's long-term ambitions to become a multi-stage destination not only for regional audiences, but national ones.

Something riskier

While the outdoor theater "up the hill" seats 1,148, the Touchstone will accommodate roughly a sixth of that with its modest 200 seats.

Why a small, indoor venue? "We felt we'd come to the end of one phase," says Frank. "We were trying to look as far ahead as we could and figure out what the next logical step was. We were also dealing with the phenomenon that, in some ways, the very success of 'up the hill' had created artistic perimeters that were hard to go beyond."

Indeed, while APT has cultivated a following for reliably topnotch professional theater, there's also a certain notion of what APT is that may have calcified over time. Audiences have come to expect certain fare, certain production values, a certain ambience.

"We sell a huge amount of tickets up there [the outdoor stage], and we have to," Frank says. "We had discovered what was right for that audience and that number of tickets, and we were happy doing it. But the days of being able to do something riskier were getting harder."

The Touchstone Theatre will allow APT to broaden its offerings over the course of the season. The five main-stage shows will be joined by three more at the Touchstone. And, because of its much smaller capacity, the company can afford to produce plays that may draw fewer theatergoers.

There's more at work than a bean-counting game, however. Having a second stage is part of a strategy to keep staff creatively engaged. "The quality of this institution depends on being able to keep the people that have made it possible: the core company [of actors], the designers, the directors. We needed a space that made it easier to have creative adventures, where it was less certain what the outcome was going to be."

APT's main stage will offer a familiar mix of three Shakespeare plays, one by George Bernard Shaw and one "accent color" (to use Frank's phrase) in the form of Noël Coward's Hay Fever.

The Touchstone will offer Harold Pinter's 1971 drama Old Times, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and writer/actor James DeVita's reworking of Ian McKellen's In Acting Shakespeare.

Says Frank philosophically, "It's a place for us to ask, 'In a hundred years' time, what will we identify as the great classics of the 20th century?'"

Balancing act

Although the audience's experience in a small, indoor venue will differ greatly from that in a large, open-air one, Touchstone architect Peter Tan worked hard to design a structure that still fit APT's identity.

Tan, a vice president and principal architect with Strang Inc., distilled what seemed to him the most crucial elements of the APT experience: a sense of rusticity, informality and organic growth over time.

"Things are very different once you have a building indoors," he says. All of a sudden, mundane but essential factors come into play: obeying the fire code, making sure the roof doesn't leak and so forth.

Says Tan, "The task was to create a building that seems like it was kind of improvised and yet, technically and performance-wise, is on par with the best theaters in the world." His solution was to create a building with a strong relationship to the outdoors and with certain visual cues that subtly evoke rural Wisconsin.

"I made the lobby as the bridge to the outdoors," says the architect. Before and after the play, or during intermission, you can experience the outdoors through floor-to-ceiling windows at one end that look out onto the woods.

Tan, who is LEED-accredited (a green building credential), notes that the Touchstone is surrounded by a restored prairie that used to be a staff parking lot. There's a DNR-identified wetland nearby, and Tan's firm worked with the DNR to ensure that they didn't impinge upon it.

Dusky red metal siding on part of the building recalls the iconic look of Midwestern barns without being too literal. "It's a delicate balancing act. It's about infusing the building with metaphors but not being too cute," Tan says.

Inside, there are other rustic elements like a bare concrete floor and an unpainted, sliding fire door that seals off the theater once the show begins. (Before the show, there's a seamless flow between lobby and theater.)

"The most sustainable building is the one you don't build, so the best you can do is minimize the amount of materials you use," Tan says. "The most sustainable floor is one that's just concrete, not putting carpet or tile on it. You'll always need the concrete slab [as part of the foundation]."

Tan feels like a "kindred spirit" with APT and draws parallels between theater and architecture. Ultimately, the goal is to create a meaningful, memorable experience - and make the whole thing look easy.

Budget uncertainties

Of course, nothing is easy for arts organizations in the current economy. Last fall saw the demise of another classical theater company, Milwaukee Shakespeare. And earlier this year, Madison Repertory Theatre folded in the midst of its 40th anniversary year.

In fact, APT offered to exchange tickets for Madison Rep ticket-holders who were unable to use their remaining season tickets. "How sad we were to see Madison Rep go down," says Frank, noting the longstanding connections between the two groups. "They were like a cousin, if not a sister, organization."

A number of APT actors had also worked for Madison Rep, and the two theaters had commonalities among audience members, donors and board members.

Frank remains guardedly optimistic about his own theater's future, though APT has not been immune to the deep economic slump. While no core company actors have been pink-slipped, some salaries have been frozen and others cut. Seasonal production jobs have been trimmed, as have seasonal (non-core) acting contracts.

"We are increasing from five productions to eight [this year], and we're doing that with a 7% reduction in staff and company size," says Frank.

APT is also delaying finalizing its 2010 season. During a conversation in mid-May, Frank commented, "Typically, in a year less fraught with budget uncertainties, we would have put to bed the 2010 season and budget already. We're a couple of months later this year." They wanted to see the impact of the economy on 2009 attendance.

"We're still cautiously confident we'll deliver our 19th break-even season in a row," says Frank, noting that the company was on track with budget projections. Fundraising for the Touchstone Theatre was slightly ahead of its benchmarks, but the final million out of a $5 million total was still being raised.

Manifest destiny

Assuming the 2009 season continues to chug along according to plan, Frank has his eye on even bigger long-range goals. The opening of the Touchstone is the first major move in that direction.

While he has no time frame in mind yet, Frank says, "It seems to be manifest destiny that APT can and will take its place as a major, multi-venue summer festival theater serving the upper Midwest and beyond. It's ideally located, and it has exactly the right history and core esthetic to make it appealing enough to get a wide audience but be specialized enough to attract people from a long distance."

He cites models such as Stratford, Ontario's Shakespeare Festival, which has four stages, and Oregon Shakespeare in Ashland, which has three.

Frank hopes long-distance visitors will build excursions around not only APT, but also Taliesin, the great outdoors and "sweet little Spring Green."

It's revealing of APT's ambitions that, even before the first show in its second venue, Frank is dreaming of a third - or more. But he hasn't lost sight of APT's roots and main identity.

"We're quite determined not to let the Touchstone - which excites the hell out of us - distract us from doing the best work possible up the hill. That's our banner."

The plays

In early May, APT hosted a "Director's Chat" event during which the Touchstone Theatre was unveiled and this season's directors talked about the shows they're helming. Here's what they had to say.

Up the hill

The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare
Opens June 13

"It's an early play for Shakespeare. He's digging at themes he will deal with much later," says William Brown. "Throughout this play, people struggle with identity, what it is to be a wife, husband, brother. They struggle with loss. Rather serious themes get addressed beautifully and comically."

The Philanderer, by George Bernard Shaw
Opens June 20

The Philanderer was published in 1898 as one of Shaw's Plays Unpleasant. In keeping with Shaw's beliefs as a member of the Fabian Society, a socialist group, it was "not designed to entertain, but to raise consciousness," says Kenneth Albers. Audiences should expect Shaw's clever wordplay, but also a look at gender, marriage, divorce and more.

The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare
Opens June 25

"Shakespeare's contemporaries categorized it as a comedy, which is quite strange. I think they meant comedy in the way Dante meant comedy," says David Frank.

Hay Fever, by Noël Coward
Opens Aug. 8

"I love this play," gushes William Brown of the first Noël Coward play to be staged by APT. "I think it's funny, sassy and daring. It concerns a group of people who've all been invited for the weekend to this highly theatrical family's house in the country. It's the perfect comic fertile ground for confusion and fun."

King Henry V, by William Shakespeare
Opens Aug. 15

"It's a play I've badly misunderstood and undervalued [in the past]," admits James Bohnen. "The more I read it, it's about as ambiguous a play as I know that Shakespeare wrote." In part an exploration of the costs of war, APT's Henry V will be staged with 13 actors, many of them double and triple-cast.

In the Touchstone Theater

In Acting Shakespeare, by James De Vita
Opens July 10

"How did we find ourselves up the hill doing classical theater?" says actor James DeVita of himself and his colleagues. "Everybody has a moment in their career that changed them."

For DeVita, it was seeing Ian McKellen's Acting Shakespeare as a college student. "I'd never felt more out of place anywhere in my life [than in a New York theater], but Ian McKellen came out, and I understood Shakespeare for the first time."

McKellen granted DeVita permission to do his own reworking of the show, based on DeVita's own experiences. John Langs directs.

Old Times, by Harold Pinter
Opens July 11

"Pinter was interested in the poetry of real-life conversations and how they don't proceed logically and smoothly from point to point," says Laura Gordon. Old Times centers on the interchange between a husband, a wife and the wife's roommate of 20 years ago, delving into themes of memory, identity and contradictory views of the past.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, by Eugene O'Neill
Opens Aug. 27

Kenneth Albers spoke on behalf of John Langs, who was unable to attend the Director's Chat. "Every family has this play in them," said Albers. "It is probably the greatest American play ever written."

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