Arts and Culture

APT tries out plays in the dead of winter

Winter Words series is key to company's future

Carey Cannon still isn’t buying my sports metaphors, but at least this time we’re a little closer to the mark.

Today’s subject is Winter Words, the series of staged play readings American Players Theatre runs in the dead zone between January and March each year. I point out that, in a sense, it’s kind of like a farm team system where plays get test driven to see if they might eventually be summer-season worthy. Cannon, the company’s assistant artistic director, just laughs.  

“I might give you that, this time,” she says. “Some of it is getting a sense of how these plays might work in front of an audience. The other part of this is practical for us. What else are you going to do on a Monday night in February?”

Like most successful companies, APT spends quite a bit of time thinking about its future productions. Cannon, artistic director Brenda DeVita and her husband, Jim DeVIta, APT’s leading light and dramaturge, actually read around 100 plays a year, searching for good bets for Winter Words slots and upcoming seasons. The company also holds its own internal readings with the acting staff during the summer season, in the daylight hours after all the plays have opened. 

“Every once in awhile, we come across one that checks a bunch of boxes for us,” explains Cannon. "'Beau Brummel,’” the play that launched this year’s Winter Words series in late January, was one of those plays.

“It’s sweeping and romantic,” says Cannon of playwright Clyde Fitch’s play, which examines the life of the famous British socialite. “But we couldn’t tell if it was going to speak to people.”

They now have a much better sense.

The 2018 edition of APT’s Winter Words includes two more readings at the company’s Touchstone Theater, both of which are already sold out. The highlight may be a zeitgeisty pick that drew immediate attention from fans of Winter Words and the Hulu adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale”—Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad,” a play that serves up the events of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s long suffering and ridiculously patient wife. It’s directed by Ameenah Kaplan, who also choreographed last summer’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s slated for Feb. 26. 

“Eurydice,” the Sarah Ruhl play that was one of the highlights of the 2016 Touchstone season, is the poster child for the Winter Words to staged production model. After holding a staged reading in 2015, Cannon knew it needed an anti-sentimental director to pull it off.

“We knew we had to not let the emotional aspects of the play overwhelm it,” says Cannon. “We thought, ‘If we start crying within the first moments of this play, we’ll lose it.’”

The company tapped Tyne Rafaeli to direct, and Rafaeli turned the production into one of the more balanced and memorable highlights of recent seasons.

“It became a feast,” Cannon says, steering the conversation into the food metaphors she’s way more comfortable deploying. “It became a much more evolved meal.”

Winter Words sometimes reveals unexpected truths about possible plays.

Last year’s series featured a reading of “Helen,” a look at the aftermath of the Trojan War from the perspective of the woman who, according to Homer’s version of the tale, started it all. (University Theater staged the play in 2014.)

“I had no idea how funny it was,” says Cannon of the play, which features a saucy Athena and a heroine who craves TV news. “It told us, if we program that play, it can go into a comedy slot.”

Alternately, the staged reading of “the Rover” by legendary female playwright Aphra Behn in 2017 showed, um, that not every selection’s going to make the cut.

“This is a play with a man chasing a woman around who’s saying ‘no,’” says Cannon. “If it was funny in 1780, it’s not funny anymore. There are different ways we hear and see these works when they’re read aloud.”

As noted earlier, tickets are gone for 2018’s Winter Words series—although if you get on the waiting list, you might get lucky and still be able to duck into “The Penelopiad” or “Knives in Hens,” the Brenda DeVita-directed show that closes the series on March 19.  

Just remember to leave the sports metaphors in the bullpen.

“I’m going back to food,” Cannon quips.

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

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