Drama in the Old Firehouse

Photo by Dan Myers–Lumi Photography

Anyone whose morning commute includes driving down Monroe Street probably has noticed an old brick building with two garage doors and a metal staircase along one side. But they might not know what’s inside. The Madison Theatre Guild (MTG) was founded in 1946 and has occupied the historic firehouse across from the entrance to Wingra Park since 1969. It is the oldest theatre group in Madison.

MTG stages four shows a year at the Bartell Theatre and attracts both amateur and professional actors. Both groups appreciate the opportunity to hone their crafts and learn from each other, and many are loyal members.

This past fall, Jim Chiolino, MTG’s president of the board of directors, played an aging father in the musical comedy The Boy Friend. It was a production Jim was familiar with—he played a different role when MTG staged the same play 28 years earlier, in 1987. (He left Madison for several years in between, but returned to MTG when he came back.)

Photo by Dan Myers—Lumi Photography

Sarah Whelan, an accomplished performer, estimates she’s been in 20 or 30 MTG productions since moving to the area in the early ‘70s. She says new performers will be successful if they bring a professional attitude to rehearsals and appreciate the people supporting their growth. “Learning to work well, or play well with others, is very important.”

Directors look for certain traits when someone completely new to theatre auditions. “If they’re not great at reading, they might still have the right sort of energy or animation. If the director can say ‘try doing it this way,’ and they do it, that’s a good sign,” Jim says. A 16-year-old woman with no acting experience tried out a few years ago, and the director saw potential. She gave her a small role and intensive coaching. Now she’s getting full roles.

Because many of those involved are students or have day jobs, rehearsals, set production, and planning take place outside of normal working hours. Casts rehearse four or five evenings a week for three hours at a time. Rehearsals last for five or six weeks. But those involved gladly trade free time to be a part of a production.

Sarah says the love of being able to create something that hasn’t been created before keeps her acting. “Maybe other people have done the same role, but they’ve never done it like I’ve done it.”

For every person on stage, several people behind the stage helped get that person there. Crew members work long hours to plan and build sets, secure props, design the lighting, and find or sew costumes. For musicals, the MTG also needs musicians. Like the performers, crew members and musicians are volunteers and usually skilled multitaskers, like the reed players who took on multiple roles in a recent production. “They were picking up the saxophone, then the clarinet, switching back and forth,” Jim says.

Photo by Jason Atkins

For the first several weeks, rehearsals focus on technical details like stage positioning, outfit changes, and how actors will interact with props. The performance comes to life during “tech week,” the week before the show when rehearsals take place in the theatre for the first time and the various pieces are combined: set designers move the set onstage, cast members rehearse in full costume and makeup, lighting designers run the lights, and the orchestra joins rehearsals. Prior to tech week, cast members rehearse only in church basements, where they approximate the shape of the stage and their blockings and rehearse without a set.

Tech week can be chaotic, Sarah says, but if everybody listens to the stage manager and director and does their part, “it’s all smooth as silk.”

Despite having acted in hundreds of plays in her career, Sarah still experiences stage fright. Her stomach tightens up and her heart races several hours before each show. The nerves are so unpleasant that sometimes Sarah wonders why she continues acting. But they’ve been a part of her preshow routine for 65 years. “As soon as I’m another character, they’re gone,” she says.

Sarah so deeply assumes her character and focuses on interacting with the other performers that she loses awareness of the audience when onstage. If one of her cast members forgets a line, she only vaguely notices, if at all. She says she’s in another world. She doesn’t know if this is how it is for other performers, but she can feel when everyone in the cast is present and a production is working. “There are many ways to approach acting,” Sarah says. “Everybody does it differently. Yet we’re all there doing it together.”

Upcoming productions by MTG include Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck (March 4–19) and The Tempest by William Shakespeare (April 29–May 14). Visit madisontheatreguild.org for details .

Cara Lombardo is a writer and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Madison Theatre Guild

2410 Monroe Street
(608) 238-9322