SPRING GREEN -- Sunscreen and mosquito repellent have been the prudent accessories for audiences at the American Players Theatre here for 30 seasons. On some days, an umbrella or rain slicker comes in handy.
But customers will have to add scarves and snow boots to their theater going experience this year. The APT is adding a Christmas show as its first-ever winter offering. The production will open the day after Thanksgiving and run through Dec. 19.
APT resident actor and playwright James DeVita is adapting the classic O. Henry short story "The Gift of the Magi" into a one-act musical. Josh Schmidt, the Mequon resident and UWM grad who is a rising star in American musical theater, is composing a score for cello and viola.
Theater-goers won't be perched on frozen seats in the APT's outdoor performance space. The new Christmas musical will be mounted in the company's smaller indoor venue, the 201-seat Touchstone Theatre, which had a highly successful inaugural season last year. Commissioning a holiday show and placing it in the new space dramatically reflects how the Touchstone is changing the face of the APT.
Three productions are scheduled for the indoor theater during the summer-fall season, and two of them, "Waiting for Godot" and "The Syringa Tree," already qualify as hits. They immediately became hot tickets during the pre-season sales campaign. There is no doubt that APT's loyal audiences have embraced the Touchstone.
"We thought it would work," APT Producing Artistic Director David Frank recently said about the smaller theater. "It was a relief that it has been as successful as we thought it would be."
Frank said he knew there were Touchstone doubters who previously felt the APT was defined by being an outdoor theater. "We sold every ticket there last season after the first few weeks," he continued. "And this season, people are fiercely chasing tickets."
That is further relief to the thoughtful Frank, whose leadership has kept the company solvent through the rough financial times of the last several seasons. "In the back of our minds, there was the slight fear that last year's popularity was just curiosity about a new building."
Opening a new venue and adding productions when other theater companies around the country are closing or shrinking in size would seem to be an uncharacteristically risky move for the APT, but the troupe's boldness has not backfired. It was in the operating black for the 18th consecutive year last season, a remarkable achievement for a non-profit classical theater company.
Frank said the APT sold almost as many tickets in 2009 as in 2008, although the total last year was spread over eight productions in two venues. The Touchstone did not exist in 2008, when the troupe mounted five shows. Overall attendance last summer at outdoor classical theaters across the country declined 11 percent from the previous year.
The APT has also bucked the national fund raising trend for theaters. "Individual giving has stayed with us," Frank said.
The Touchstone is budget neutral, according to the producing artistic director, meaning the shows mounted in it pay for themselves with ticket sales. Frank bubbles with enthusiasm over the creative options and flexibility the second theater offers the company. "We are just beginning to discover the programing possibilities the Touchstone offers us," he said.
Uncut and unadulterated productions of Shakespeare gave the APT its identity in the troupe's early years, and although play selection has broadened widely to include 20th century work of all stripes, the Bard remains the company's patron saint. Frank sees the Touchstone as a viable place to stage some of the lesser known Shakespeare works that typically don't fill the 1,148-seat outdoor theater.
He also views the smaller space as a valuable tool in keeping his core actors appropriately employed. Myriad financial and artistic factors are involved in choosing a season, and piecing it all together is not unlike assembling a large jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes a key member of the acting company is inadvertently given a light season on the outdoor stage.
Frank and associate artistic director Brenda DeVita can compensate for that by finding a good play with a prime part for the actor and scheduling it in the Touchstone.
Colleen Madden is not wanting for major roles this year. She will have a big summer on both of APT's stages.
Outdoors, she is playing the title character in George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara." In the Touchstone, the actress is reprising "The Syringa Tree," the 2005 smash hit she had in Milwaukee with Renaissance Theaterworks.
Madden plays all 24 characters in the piece, which is set in apartheid-era South Africa. As if this weren't enough, she also has a smaller part in "As You Like It."
Maintaining its customary rhythm, the APT will open its summer shows in two waves. Debuting in June are "The Syringa Tree" and "Waiting for Godot" in the Touchstone, and "All's Well That Ends Well," "As You Like It" and Lillian Hellman's "Another Part of the Forest" outdoors. Set in the south after the Civil War, "Another Part of the Forest" is a prequel to Hellman's better known "Little Foxes."
Opening in August at the APT are Athol Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" in the Touchstone, and W. Somerset Maugham's "The Circle" and the previously mentioned "Major Barbara" outside. Maugham was an influential British playwright, novelist and short story writer from the first half of the 20th century whose work has faded from public view.
"People forget what a good writer Maugham was," Frank said. Written in 1921, "The Circle" deals with the conflict between dull responsibility and scandalous romance.
The holiday show, "The Gift of the Magi," will feature Marcus Truschinski and Tracy Michelle Arnold as the poor married couple who sacrifice to give each other Christmas gifts. James DeVita has made O. Henry a character in his adaptation, and Brian Mani will play the author.
The APT plans to add festive touches to the company's wooded grounds for "The Gift of the Magi." "Few of our audience members have seen how beautiful this place is in the winter," associate artistic director Brenda DeVita said.
Check out the American Players Theatre's new website, americanplayers.org for details on all of the 2010 offerings.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.