American Players Theatre: Threads of Authenticity

American Players Theatre
Photo by American Players Theatre

The shadow of the hillside stretches over the far-reaching forest. In the distance, a gleam of sunlight brushes with a yellowing light upon green horizon’s fringe. But the reason 1,000 people have gathered this night is for the stage. Out in the open, its grades of platform are not limited to the traditional confines of a theatre. Three 12-foot rings grow layered before floating stairs and a fantastical light shining like a blue and green marble moon onto the actors performing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream .

As the performance continues, the sky turns orange, then pink, then purple, until bleeding rich and black seamlessly into night. With the forest swallowed in darkness, the stage takes on a new life. Blue lights in the background give a faint glow to the specters of trees weaving peculiarly behind the performance, and the vibrato of an owl’s call echoes fortuitously before Puck’s closing monologue.

Photograph provided by American Players Theatre

The audiences who return time and time again to see performances at Spring Green’s American Players Theatre (APT) will tell you there’s nothing like it, whether going to the outdoor Hill Theatre or the intimate 201-seat, indoor Touchstone Theatre. And the actors and directors will double down on that. Artistic Director Brenda DeVita says, “I can’t explain what it’s like to step out of a dressing room and be under the stars. I can’t explain to you what it does to you as a performer. How it rejuvenates you. How it affects you. For the right people, for the people who enjoy that, it’s lifegiving. And there’s something sacred about it.”

APT enters into its 40th season this year, and the organization’s passion for storytelling is as strong today as it was for their first performance in 1980. Jessica Amend, marketing content manager for APT, says, “Regardless of who’s directing, the story comes first.” Their philosophy is about making the story as accessible as possible. To achieve that depth of telling a story while using easily misinterpreted language requires world-class actors with a lifestyle dedicated to perfection. “They are students of something that they think is infinitely impossible to be great at,” says Brenda. “They are people that are inherently interested in that larger exploration and that larger challenge and tenacity to go after something that has no real answers.”

I imagine the vision of APT founders Charles Bright, Randall Duk Kim, and Anne Occhiogrosso was very much in the spirit of the actors when they searched the Lockman farm near Spring Green to find the perfect place for the stage. As is on APT’s website, “One person walked to the base of a steep hill and began to read; his voice reached those above with uncanny clarity. After looking at 43 sites, this was the one.” Here they would perform Shakespeare plays uncut, which meant potentially four-hour-long endeavors. In the interest of accessibility, this is typically not the case today. Jessica says, “It’s really evolved so that we tell people the best story with the best actors while keeping the playwright’s original vision in place.”

Photograph provided by American Players Theatre

As prominent as Shakespeare is at APT, his works aren’t exclusive in the venue. This year will also feature playwrights Oliver Goldsmith, August Wilson, Lauren Gunderson, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, and Lucas Hnath. Drawing a wider breadth of play enthusiasts through an eclectic mix of stories is something everyone at APT is quite passionate about, and audiences are dedicated to ensuring each year is a success. Jessica says, “APT’s audience is amazing because they’re like the Packers fans of theatre. It takes some effort to get here. You drive, you walk a quarter mile up a hill or take the shuttle, and then you’ll watch a play outside. And usually it’s beautiful under this starlit sky, but sometimes they’re in parkas, and they’re bringing blankets because our outdoor season runs until early October.” Regardless of the circumstances, APT notes their audience is always engaged. Not just hearing, but listening.

For Brenda, “There’s nothing like performing for people who’ve come to listen.” It’s that Midwestern passion that goes all-in upon discovering something true. “When something’s true, you can’t stop looking at it. You can’t not have it reveal something. … This audience is an authentically interested audience. An authentically interested group of humans who’ve come to have an authentic experience.” It’s theatre. You’re watching a person, not someone on screen. Adding the element of nature to the equation creates something impossible to replicate.

Photograph provided by American Players Theatre

The directors are quite familiar with the uniqueness of a play and take today’s zeitgeist into account when deciding the best way to tell a classic story to contemporary audiences, sometimes even incorporating our world into the show through set- and costume-design choices. But taking the times into consideration is only one layer when it comes to an individual’s experience. Jessica says, “It’s a different pivot on that story, and the people who are coming to see it are maybe in a different place in their life from the last time they saw it.” In essence, there’s a heightened intrigue to come see a play you’ve experienced before when it’s again put on by APT because what you walk away with will almost certainly not be what you remember.

Year in and year out, APT’s audiences have been the most significant source of the theatre’s success. In a financial respect, the theatre relies more on ticket sales than donations, essentially flipping the trend seen in similar venues. When it comes to the performance, Brenda says, “The experience of seeing Shakespeare at APT is different because the audience is different. … You’re collected in a group of people that are adventurers who made this effort to be here to listen to a story.” Many don’t make the drive to the hills of Spring Green to simply see a performance and go home. They come early, have a picnic, drink some wine, then take the hike to do something words can never explain—cherished vestiges for the senses and of the mind enlivened in the poetry of the examined life.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.