Midseason Musings at APT
American Players Theater is a magical place. I have been picnicking and seeing shows -- comedies and tragedies, classic and contemporary, indoors and outdoors -- in that glorious spot in the woods for more than 30 years now. But each trip still surprises me. This summer was no exception.
Weathering the Storm
While attending plays at APT, I have wilted in the heat of a July afternoon, I have shivered under blankets during cold snaps in spring and fall, I have “held” for inclement weather in ten minute increments, and I have quietly allowed my hair, clothes and shoes to absorb soft drops of rain. I have even taken shelter near the gift shop during a tornado warning, only to return to my seat to enjoy the rest of that night’s production. I have NEVER gotten rained out. . .until opening night this year.
During the first act of Twelfth Night the clouds were gathering. In the second act it started to sprinkle. By intermission, about half of the audience headed to their cars in the pelting downpour. The other half -- the resolute Packers fans of the theater -- kept themselves planted in their seats, covered with rain gear befitting survivalists and fishmongers. To ward off the rain and the slight chill, I burrowed under the green wool army blanket that travels in my car with me -- just in case. A few minutes after intermission, a voice on the loudspeaker lets us know that on that night, the show would unfortunately not go on.
I was soaked to the skin. I was also bummed.
Talking to Managing Director Carrie Van Hallgren afterwards, she assured me of what I already suspected: APT hates to cancel shows. They really hate it. But sometimes they have no choice. “Safety is our biggest concern,” she said. “We need to make sure the actors and patrons are not in any danger.” That means no shows during storms with thunder and lightning. No holds longer than 45 minutes. And to protect the actors on drizzly days, their shoes are equipped with extra-textured, non-slip soles to prevent accidents as they move across a wet stage. The costume shop will also make alterations due to wet weather -- removing delicate feathers from hats, for example. “Another consideration,” Van Hallgren continued, “is the noise. Sometimes it’s raining so hard it’s difficult to hear the actors. Then you know it’s time to stop.”
Although a lot of APT patrons have stories about performances that were slightly soggy, according to Communications Director Sara Young, getting completely rained out is extremely rare. The company performs roughly 103 shows outdoors per season and over the past five years there have been between one and five rain-outs each. Given the unpredictability of Wisconsin summers, that’s pretty incredible.
Scholars have described the rowdy “groundlings” standing near the stage in the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare’s day, who undoubtedly conversed with the actors and each other. Several centuries later, the APT experience is much more staid. Audience members do not interact with the company of actors. . . until now.
At the top of the second half of Twelfth Night, the jester Feste (a delightful La Shawn Banks) enters with a drum and a twinkle in his eye. Looking for a willing participant in the front row, he invites an audience member up on stage to participate in his merry-making. Conveniently, while the audience member’s hands are full, Banks takes the liberty of putting a clown’s red nose on the volunteer as well. The night I saw the show, the gentleman chosen to join in the fun took the gags in stride and seemed to enjoy himself.
Alas, finding a willing volunteer was not so easy on opening night. After chatting, cajoling, and pleading with a woman down front for several minutes -- who was further encouraged to take to the stage by the audience’s supportive applause -- Banks looked hopefully at other onlookers. Desperate, he chose a woman on the aisle several rows back who was so quick to jump onstage, one might think she was a lifetime theater nerd (and incurable ham).
My red foam clown nose now occupies a place of honor in my office.
An Unexpected Guest
There are many emotionally wrenching moments in American Players Theatre’s excellent production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning Fences. But on opening night, there was only one scene that included an owl. (Presumably a non-Equity performer.)
During a particularly tense scene between the deeply flawed Troy Maxson (David Alan Anderson) and his quietly resilient wife Rose (Karen Aldridge), an owl joined into their heated conversation with loud, mournful cries, as if on cue. It was a delightful reminder to APT audiences that in the open air Hill Theatre, nature often plays a part. As surprised as the actors were, veteran Chicago-based director Ron OJ Parson was probably just as startled, since this marks the first time in his career that he has staged a play outdoors. (It’s his second production with the Spring Green company. Last season he directed Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot in the indoor Touchstone space.)
After that particular scene, the owl made a quiet, graceful exit. What a pro.
There are infant characters in several of the shows at APT this season. Tiny babes are swaddled and cradled onstage in Fences, Macbeth and A Doll’s House, but only one of those productions will have an actual baby in the cast instead of a prop doll.
If all goes according to plan, when A Doll’s House opens in the Touchstone Theatre on August 17th, 7-month old Emma Dieckman will make her professional acting debut. According to her bio, Dieckman loves stroller walks with her mom, guitar sing-a-longs with her dad, and spending time with all her aunties and uncles. Hopefully she will also like being dressed in 19th century clothing and hanging out in front of packed houses under very bright stage lights.
APT Core Company member Kelsey Brennan plays Nora in the production, the mother of three little tykes who will all be onstage at certain points in the show. Though she’s not worried about working with Dave and Susanna Van Hallgren in the parts of little Ivar and Jon, acting alongside an infant introduces some challenges.
“She’s completely unpredictable,” said Brennan with a laugh. And as the showbiz adage goes, she’s also a potential scene-stealer. “Regardless of what she does, that’s the story when we’re on stage together. I mean, she’s the best actor in the room.” She mused, “I have weekly meetings with her. We walk around, we dance. Sometimes things go well, sometimes she’s not as happy. But that’s the plan as of now.”
While Broadway’s The Ferryman had a bullpen of four 6-8 month olds to play the youngest member of the family, eight shows a week, APT is betting solely on Emma. “We’ll see how it works out,” said Brennan.
If Dieckman turns diva -- or suddenly develops stranger anxiety -- another doll will fill the role.