Arts and Culture

American Players Theatre surveys its season

Brenda DeVita looks back on 2017

There were points when it seemed like the summer of 2017 might never end, but American Players Theatre finally put the wraps on the first season for its newly renovated Hill Theatre, the central part of an $8 million project that transformed the theater and its rehearsal spaces.

Theater companies do it, just like pro sports teams: At the end of a season, they sit down and talk to their players/actors to debrief, take a pulse and gauge where they are and where they’re going. 

So we talked to APT artistic director Brenda DeVita about what worked, what she learned and what, if anything, she’d do differently—given a time machine.

The Season

Ambition mixed with signature APT-style plays for this historic season. The outdoor offerings included “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the French farce “A Flea in Her Ear,” “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Chekov’s “Three Sisters” and a very unusual staging of “Pericles: Prince of Tyre” one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays. Indoors at the Touchstone Theatre, the company produced Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Yazmina Reza’s “An Unexpected Man,” in the first wave of shows, before closing the summer season with Arthur Miller’s “A View From The Bridge.”   

What Worked

“The thing I’m proudest of is that we pulled off this challenging season in the wake of an $8 million rebuild,” says DeVita. “That could have been really problematic. We expected there to be a lot of wear and tear on people, but honestly, it was not the case.”

In fact, APT set some records. According to Sara Young, APT’s communications director, the company’s crowd-pleasing production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” drew nearly 35,000 people, making it one of APT’s all-time best sellers. Over at the Touchstone, “A View From the Bridge,” featuring an electric performance from DeVita’s actor-husband Jim, was the runaway champ. “Three Sisters and “Pericles” were tougher sells, but both ultimately did just fine. 

The new Hill Theater, meanwhile, exceeded expectations. Well, except for one small thing. The designers and contractors didn’t anticipate a sightline problem. The company’s actors have always needed and made use of the ability to scamper from backstage left to the top of Aisle 5 (the central aisle) to make dramatic reappearances from behind the audience. With the stage redesign, the company soon discovered that audience members in Aisles 7 and 8 (Section 2) briefly had a clear view of the actors’ path.  

“About 175 people could see the actors making their run,” says Young, “We’ve never had that problem before.”

It’ll be addressed in the off season.

“If the biggest thing we’re talking about is a missing wall, I’d say we did okay,” says Young.

What Did You Learn?

“That risks are risky,” says DeVita,

Okay, that’s a little oblique. But it also makes sense: APT took several risks this season, most notably staging challenging, less-familiar plays like “The Maids,” a work that confounded some audience members and thrilled others. Anchored by strong, edgy performances by Melisa Pererya and Andrea San Miguel, the show broke new ground for the company. “Pericles,” a play in which the cast had to embrace the unconventional, fourth-wall breaking vision of guest director Eric Tucker (the artistic director of New York’s Bedlam Theater) was another creative stretch.

“My actors didn’t know they could do the things they could do,” says DeVita. “To jump off a cliff with no parachute like that was really remarkable. I’m as proud of the product as the process.” 

Gimme a Do-over

APT’s summer schedule can be a little like a waiter navigating a crowded room with a tray of brimming champagne glasses. If something unexpected happens—in APT’s case, it’s probably going to have something to do with Mother Nature—it can have far-reaching effects. Even losing a single night to a thunderstorm makes a difference.

“I would have given my shows more time to rehearse,” says DeVita, “I would like to have more previews, especially for my farce.”

She’s referring to “A Flea In Her Ear,” a show that had more action and moving parts—and spinning stages, and running, screaming actors and lightning—quick costume changes—than a Chinese fire drill in the middle of a flash mob.   One of the show’s preview nights was rained out, reducing the opportunity to hone the logistics.  

But DeVita’s not just idly wishing here. The possibility of adding more days to the summer schedule for rehearsals is heading slowly toward the front burner.   

“it’s a long-term conversation,” she says. “It obviously changes our calendar. It’s like pulling a pin out of 18 things. Our schedule is extraordinarily intricate.”

But it’s not just about adding more days, notes DeVita. It’s also likely about (gasp!) adding more actors.

“We’re more and more aware of how we stretch the talent,” says DeVita, noting that the company went from a situation in which it staged five shows a summer to staging nine, but didn’t double the size of the acting company. Instead key actors tackle multiple roles across a summer, sometimes creating challenges for rehearsal schedules.

“We struggle with the dramaturgy sometimes,” admits DeVita.

As the company preps to unveil its 2018 season later this week, the discussions continue. Just don’t expect immediate, drastic changes; after all, APT just completed one of the most sweeping changes in its history. 

‘These give-and-takes are exciting,” says DeVita. “We don’t want to go backward. We need to figure out, what do we need to change to raise the bar.”

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.


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