Actors take on many roles over the course of a career, but most usually don’t end up playing themselves.
Good thing Sarah Whelan is used to the unusual.
Whelan was one of a small but extremely dedicated group of Madison theater-lovers who worked to convert the old Esquire movie theater into the Bartell Theatre in the late ’90s and is a legendary fixture on the local theater scene.
Now she’s stepping into her own shoes in “From Awkward Spaces: The Story of the Bartell and the Journey to Permanence,” an original play penned by Madison’s Suzan Kurry and Brendon Smith. It opens this Thursday as part of a four-performance fundraiser that helps kick off the theater’s 20th Anniversary season.
When Whelan picks up the phone for our interview, she’s standing in the Mustard Museum in Middleton. She’s just been serenaded, in honor of her upcoming 80th birthday—an occasion she’ll use to raise several thousand dollars in donations for her beloved Bartell—by museum founder Barry Levenson, who’s playing Tom Haig, the Bartell project’s key architect, in “Awkward Spaces.”
“It’s very weird,” Whelan admits. “I’m playing me 20 years ago, so I had to do research. I had to find out what color my hair was back then!”Luckily for her, it was white, just as it is today—so no need for dyes or wigs.
Back then, the community theater companies that now share, own and operate the Bartell space (Madison Theatre Guild, Strollers Theatre are still performing; Reprise Theater and Mazo R&R are defunct) were nomadic troops with no space to call their own. Today, the Bartell is home to six companies: Madison Theatre Guild, StageQ, Strollers Theatre, Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre, Mercury Players Theatre and the Madison Ballet.
The Bartell’s history is long and storied. “Awkward Spaces” focuses on the obstacles and conflicts, both internal and external, the group had to overcome to get the theater refurbished. A foundation and ownership structure was worked out to serve the theater’s tenants and keep the enterprise solvent.
Kurry, Smith and director John Jajewski occasionally found themselves relying on Whelan’s extensive memories to head off potential continuity errors. An early draft of the script had Whelan introducing herself to Gretchen Wheat, another key Bartell player, when the two obviously would already known each other well.
“I read the lines, and I think ‘Did I say that? Would I have said that?” Whelan says. “It’s a very interesting show. There are some liberties taken, but it does a great job of telling the story.”
Whelan remains a mainstay on the Madison theater scene, turning in remarkable work in recent shows, like Mercury Players’ 2015 production of “Rapture, Blister Burn,” the 2015 Strollers Theatre/KRASS production of “The House of Yes,” and an unforgettable turn as a slow dating newbie in this year’s “Queer Shorts 2.1” by StageQ.
She’s clearly enjoying interacting with a younger generation of actors. During “Queer Shorts 2.1,” her younger co-stars were shocked to discover the dressing/room studio they were using in the Bartell’s Evjue Theater is named after Whelan.
“Their eyes got wide when they realized it,” Whelan giggles. “One of them said, ‘I thought people who had rooms named after them were dead!’”
“From Awkward Spaces” is one of several fundraising events that dot Bartell’s current 20th anniversary season. (Last Saturday’s Barties Awards ceremony was another, and in late October, there will be a staged reading of the H.P. Lovecraft story “Rats in the Wall.”)
The Bartell has the beginnings of an endowment in place to help ensure the theater makes it to the next major anniversary, but as with nearly every arts group, money’s a constant issue.
For this week, however, the focus will be on celebrating a major milestone for a unique project that continues to serve as a centerpiece of the local theater scene.
“It’s amazing,” Whelan says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Did we really do this?’ We were so busy getting it done, and people were saying ‘It won’t work.’ And yet here we are. In spite of all the conflicts, we still love each other and we’re still here.”
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.