One of my favorite passages in Mike Lenehan’s delightful new book about a summer spent watching American Players Theatre in Spring Green mount a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” involves an actor who wasn’t even in the play.
Prior to the start of the 2014 season, Jim DeVita, one of APT’s stars, gave a talk for theater supporters. He recalled his first season in Spring Green, in 1995, playing the lead in “Romeo and Juliet.” Early rehearsals did not go well.
The director, Ken Albers, felt DeVita was playing Romeo too dark. Finally during a break, Albers took DeVita aside and said, “Romeo hasn’t read the play. He doesn’t know he’s in a tragedy.”
Actors call that mindset being “in the moment,” and it was one of dozens of pieces of theater art and craft that Lenehan, a longtime Chicago journalist who owns a home in the Spring Green area, gleaned when APT invited him backstage for the summer of 2014.
Lenehan’s book, “Much Ado: A Summer with a Repertory Theater Company,” came out last fall but is getting “a reboot,” in the author’s words, now that a new APT season is in full swing.
When we spoke by phone last week, Lenehan said he’d originally tried to write about APT three decades ago. That was a few years after Lenehan—former editor and executive editor of the Chicago Reader—and his wife began renting a farmhouse near Spring Green to escape Chicago on summer weekends (they now own the farmhouse).
It was also about six or seven years after the 1979 founding of APT by a small group of Shakespeare disciples, including the celebrated classical actor Randall Duk Kim.
Lenehan approached the founders with the idea of a behind-the-scenes book. “They gave me a day,” Lenehan recalled, during which he proposed hanging out for the summer.
APT turned him down. In those days the people in charge of the theater took themselves very seriously. Any whiff of commercialism was rejected. No surprise, they soon had money problems.
I remember having a drink at the old Fess Hotel with a Madison advertising executive who had volunteered his services to help APT fundraise. Things were desperate. His slogan, “The Bard is Broke,” was dismissed as too disrespectful.
I recall someone saying that Shakespeare would have embraced it. He’d have swept the stage if it meant getting his plays produced.
The founders eventually moved on. And over the ensuing 25 years, APT has managed to retain its professionalism while also becoming marketing savvy. The result is a troupe that the Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout calls “the best classical theater company in America.”
The new team welcomed Lenehan when he proposed detailing APT’s 2014 production of the Shakespeare comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”
There was some nervousness—“They’re very protective of the actors,” Lenehan said—but as the journalist returned day after day, his seriousness became apparent. Everyone relaxed. “I became like a member of the cast,” Lenehan said.
His book provides not just an insight into the process but also background on the major players, including the actress Colleen Madden (Beatrice in “Much Ado”), who relates her anguish at leaving a TV role on “All My Children” to come to APT in 2001.
Lenehan also checks in with Brian Mani, a gifted APT actor who that summer was not only playing Leonato in “Much Ado” but also Donny in the fierce early David Mamet play “American Buffalo,” presented in APT’s smaller indoor theater.
You could hardly find two more different roles to be performing simultaneously. “Almost two different languages,” Lenehan said.
“This is blue collar work,” Mani tells Lenehan. “We work long hours, and we work with tough text, and we have to struggle with the meanings, and we have to perform it in front of an audience.”
(My wife and I saw “American Buffalo” that summer 2014: Mani, and the play, were terrific.)
Lenehan at a keyboard is the company’s equal in terms of professionalism. Madison readers may also want to check out his 2013 book, “Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963, The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball.”
The central character is the Loyola coach, George Ireland—a Madison native who was inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame in 1983.
In the meantime, grab a backstage pass with “Much Ado.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.