Since its 1980 opening, the American Players Theatre in Spring Green has been telling stories that resonate with audiences on its panoramic outdoor stage. With 1,148 seats, it's a large space.
Associate artistic director Brenda DeVita talks about the shock actors new to the company feel when they stand on the stage for the first time. The woodsy amphitheater can be initially intimidating.
Not every play works in such a setting. That is why the debut of the 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre three years ago was so important to the APT. A huge catalog of small and intimate plays that had been unthinkable for the outdoor stage became immediately doable.
This season, the Touchstone's summer lineup consists of two single-actor pieces, "Shakespeare's Will" and "In Acting Shakespeare," and a couple of three-actor plays, "Skylight," and "Heroes." "Skylight" will feature stalwart state actor Brian Mani, who splits his year between Spring Green and Milwaukee.
A member of the APT's core company, Mani moves 115 miles east for most of the winter, regularly appearing in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Next Act Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks productions. Not flashy, he trades in competence and consistency.
Written in the mid-'90s by British playwright David Hare, "Skylight" is an exquisitely human contemporary drama of emotional need and conflicting values that is even more relevant today than when it was first produced. It won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for best new play in London in 1996, and subsequently had a critically praised run on Broadway.
Mani will portray a highly successful self-made London restaurateur who goes in search of his former mistress after his wife dies. The woman was a young employe of his and a friend of his wife when she fell into an affair with him. After the infidelity was discovered, the younger woman fled in shame, eventually becoming an inner city teacher, living among her pupils.
Lonely and a tad desperate, the older man goes to his ex-lover's apartment, intent on getting her back into his life. The old chemistry has not disappeared, but their lives stand for ferociously different values. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, has become a wealthy accumulator of things, and scorns her simple life of service to the less fortunate.
"He can't win her back until he has faced all of the crap he was and is," Mani said during an interview.
Hare's dialog crackles with smart arguments and ideas, but the drama also simmers in emotional vulnerability.
Now Mani is the appropriate age, and he is eager to sink his teeth into the part again. "I'm always grateful to get a second shot at something," he said.
"I don't come at this role now with any regrets from the first production. There is nothing I want to correct. I want to come at it with 14 more years of life behind me.
"It's a treat to have lived a little more life. I don't know if it is ever possible to get a role perfectly right, but I think the second time around you can wring more out of it, and that is what we are all trying to do."
Mani grew up in Winslow, Ill., a mile south of the state line, in a family of humble means, as he describes it. His parents were factory workers.
He was a high school athlete – a quarterback in football, a forward in basketball, a miler in track – and sang in the swing choir. His vocal ability got Mani cast in school musicals. Theater interested him, but he expected to spend his life in factory or farm work.
Mani attended junior college in Freeport, Ill., where he continued to perform, and he even did a little professional acting at the now closed New American Theatre in Rockford. However, enrolling in the former Professional Theatre Training Program at UWM set him on the path of a solid career in regional theater.
The Illinois native graduated in 1987 in an acting class that included Mark Corkins, Broadway actress Linda Balgord and his close friend, APT theater artist James DeVita. Mani has played a broad range of contemporary and classical characters, from Teddy Roosevelt to Julius Caesar.
"I've always played the dukes, the uncles, the fathers, because I'm a big guy and have a big voice," he said.
Mani first acted on the APT's outdoor stage in 1991, co-founder Randall Duk Kim's final year in Spring Green, but he didn't return until 2000. He was given core member status two years later.
A few months ago, Mani played another cheating husband in Renaissance Theaterworks' production of "Honour." Greta Wohlrabe portrayed his young mistress, and the two actors are back in that extramarital situation again. She is playing the ex-lover in "Skylight."
"This is my Greta year," Mani said with a grin.
Discussing his career, he continued, "The longer I do this, the more satisfaction and pleasure I get from acting."
Which characters would he like to tackle in the future? "I've got a Lear in me. I would love to do a Macbeth. And Sweeney Todd," he said.
The APT nine-play season officially opens June 16. "Skylight" debuts July 1. Here is the company's calendar.
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.