Managing Talent Development: APT, not MLB

Managing Talent Development: APT, not MLB
Brendan Meyer, crouched at David Daniel's right in last season's production of 'Alcestis', got some strong stage time as one of American Players Theatre's 2015 acting apprentices. Anne E Thompson, in the shadows at left, is a graduate of that program.

Carey Cannon isn’t quite buying my sports metaphor.

We’re talking about American Players Theatre’s apprenticeship program, and I’m trying to suggest parallels between the way the classical theater company trains and deploys its apprentices and the way Major League Baseball teams handle the promising rookies they draft each year. It seems sensible that APT would try to groom raw acting talent into an eventual core company actor the same way the Brewers might groom a triple-A prospect into a starting third baseman.

Except that’s not quite how APT sees it.  

“At the beginning, end and middle, we’re serving the play,” says Cannon, APT’s associate artistic director. “We go after apprentices who will serve the play first.”

Fair enough. After all, nobody would expect the company to slot, say, an actress like Anne E. Thompson, the former APT apprentice whose wonderfully caustic performance as Masha in last summer’s staging of The Seagull was one of the best parts of the play, into every leading-lady role.

But at the same time, there’s not exactly a shortage of examples of actors who have worked their way through the ranks to become regular fixtures in Spring Green. Kelsey Brennan, the actress APT just added to its esteemed Core Company—you just saw her in and Travesties—spent the summer of 2008 in Spring Green as an apprentice before returning to perform in APT’s .Gift of the Magi in 2012

“It’s not like we’re looking for someone who will just do one thing,” says Cannon. “At the same time, if we’re going to do a play like Troilus and Cressida, everyone’s going to have to fight.”

But they’re definitely looking. Like baseball scouts, heavy-hitting classical programs like the Oregon and Utah Shakespeare Festivals, the Yankees and Red Sox of the classical theater world—there I go with the sports metaphor again—often identify talented young actors right away, especially those with an affinity for the challenges of the dense Elizabethan language. APT—should we liken them to the Oakland As?—is no different, says Cannon.

“We identify actors before we ever use them,” she says. They just don’t all go through the company’s paid apprenticeship program, where they perform mid-to-minor roles and produce their own project; instead, many of them receive their training, and eventual APT opportunities, through particular college theater programs.

For instance, now-familiar APT faces like Abbey Siegworth, Cristina Panfilio and Eric Parks all came to APT from the theater program at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Colleen Madden and David Daniel both came through the University of Delaware. If you were so inclined, you could almost call these schools APT’s farm teams, and the drama teachers that work there talent scouts. Texas’s Southern Methodist University and the University of California-Irvine are another couple of programs APT regularly keeps its eye on, says Cannon.

But just because an actor spends a summer in APT’s apprentice program—or even a season as a full-fledged actor with the company—doesn’t guarantee them a fast-track to the core company, even if they happen to be hugely talented.

“There’s not a stairway to achieving status,” Cannon says. “We’re so careful about not creating expectations for these actors we can’t justify. At the end of the day, it’s about the plays, not about the spots on the team.”

Given that each APT season only offers a certain number of available roles, this certainly makes sense. To illustrate her point, she points to Paul Bentzen, the lovable character actor who retired from the core company this year after a long and very successful run.

“We’re not going to go after a character actor to replace him,” says Cannon. On the other hand, actors like Deborah Staples, an APT vet who now works more frequently with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, is on APT’s speed dial. “If there’s a role available, we’ll call her,” she says. “Once you learn to tell a story on the hill, that’s something that stays with you.”    

It’s all part of the ongoing process of managing talent. Cannon mentions APT’s interest in someday staging Arcadia. Tom Stoppard’s time-shifting drama, especially now that the company’s proved its audiences have an appetite for Stoppard. “It needs an actor who can play a twelve-year-old, but not like the kind of young person found in Romeo and Juliet. I better have been thinking about who’s going to play Thomasina before we do that.”