By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Dec 29, 2011 at 5:32 AM

The year ends, and critics are expected to come up with lists. The best, the worst, the most surprising – you know the drill.

Being a rebel at heart, I am ignoring the annual string of superlatives to give you one name and declare its owner the most inspirational theater person I have encountered in 31 years of writing about the stage. Richard DiPrima is an unassuming Madison clinical psychologist who gave up his practice to follow a blazing passion: encourage and enable children and teens to perform in rigorous classical stage productions.

Beginning in the backyard of DiPrima's Madison home in 1980, the Young Shakespeare Players have given about 3,000 young persons the opportunity to speak lines written by Shakespeare, Dickens and George Bernard Shaw in full productions, individual scenes and readings.

From the early years as a summer-only outdoor operation, YSP has grown into a vigorous year-round program headquartered in a ramshackle structure that was built as a church in the 1920s. The building is on Madison's near west side, a few blocks from Camp Randall.

Any child who wants to be in a production is given a speaking role. That results in as many as seven casts per show.

There are no auditions. Kids apply to play specific characters and do some sample readings. A combination of peer voting and the judgement of DiPrima and his wife, Anne, who serve as co-directors of the Young Shakespeare Players, determine the casting.

The founder is not keen on shaping children into little acting machines. "We are not interested in turning a child into a theatrical product. Our product is self-knowledge, self-confidence and self-respect.

"Our kids know they can do anything," he says.

The actors pay a tuition of $540 for a full length play, but about a third of them seek and receive fee-reducing scholarships. There is no means testing, and no child is turned away.

Public performances in the 91-seat theater are always free.

I wrote two lengthy pieces about the group during my years as theater critic for the Journal Sentinel, and it remains a remarkable story because DiPrima continues to develop YSP and take it in new directions.

The group has mounted full and uncut productions of 17 of Shakespeare's plays, and workshop stagings of nine or 10 more. Many of the plays have been produced many times.

Mirroring the approach the American Players Theatre takes to doing Shakespeare in Spring Green, the YSP actors, who range in age from 7 to 18, don't simply memorize their lines. They study the meaning of every word they speak.

"Ninety percent of the emotional content in Shakespeare comes from his imagery," DiPrima says. "I want the actors to understand their characters as Shakespeare wrote it."

Language rhythm is also emphasized by DiPrima, who notes that 75% of the lines actors speak in Shakespeare's plays are in verse.

"We are in the age of texting and tweeting," he says. "We can't lose the thing that makes us most human, our language."

Each YSP actor is given a word by word analysis of every line in his or her role, recorded on a CD by DiPrima. Last year the Young Shakespeare Players published "The Actor's (and Intelligent Reader's) Guide to the Language of Shakespeare," an 854-page volume the size of a phone book.

Authored by DiPrima, it sells for $85 and will be available at in the new year. APT co-founder and classical actor Randall Duk Kim wrote a blurb for the back cover that says, "In my 50 years of performing the classics, I have not seen so comprehensive a guide for the use of Shakespeare's language."

Giving his book a small plug, DiPrima says it is useful for the person who simply loves to read Shakespeare. "You are an actor if you are reading Shakespeare well," he asserts.

After 20 years of exclusively working on Shakespeare, YSP added some George Bernard Shaw to its repertoire. In 2007 the company staged the full ten and a half hour adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby" that the Royal Shakespeare Company produced on Broadway in the '80s.

This year, DiPrima adapted the Dickens novel "Our Mutual Friend" for the stage, and the group mounted it for two separate runs. The adaptation has been published and will be available on Amazon in 2012.

The YSP Playhouse has limited lighting and scenic capabilities. "I don't want the tail to wag the dog," DiPrima explains.

But shows are beautifully costumed, thanks to Anne DiPrima, who sews all of the clothing. Also a psychologist, she has maintained a full time practice while being heavily involved in YSP.

The Playhouse's basement is used for costume storage, as is the DiPrimas' home, which is next door to the theater. The company has an inventory of wigs Anne has accumulated from thrift stores and online browsing.

Jealous parents lobbied to be included in YSP programing a few years ago, and they now have their own productions. Some shows have mixed casts, with the kids often coaching the older actors.

However, the name is still the Young Shakespeare Players, and the focus has not drifted from the children.

"This is about the kids, the way they can connect with what is most beautiful in our culture and language, and what is in themselves," DiPrima says.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

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.