A Thoughtful New Direction at American Players Theatre

As APT’s longtime artistic director retires, the Spring Green classical theater troupe embraces an exciting new future

PHOTO BY NICOLE PEASLEE

In June, Brenda DeVita takes the reins from longtime artistic director David Frank.

The summer of 2014 is a season of numbers and legacies for American Players Theatre. Not only does the popular classical theater troupe mark its thirty-fifth season, but it also marks a transfer of artistic power, as David Frank, who’s served as artistic director in Spring Green for the last twenty-two years, officially gives way to the woman who’s shared the duties for the last three—Brenda DeVita.

It’s both bittersweet and bewildering for the sixty-nine-year-old Frank, who’s had to catch himself in situations like the theater company’s recent search for a new managing director. “I start finding myself being drawn in, and then I realize, ‘wait—you’re not going to be part of this.’” 

He’s been part of just about everything else out at Spring Green these past two-plus decades. APT’s vision jelled under Frank’s watch, buoyed by his devotion to the specificity of language and to a wide range of classic works that started with Shakespeare and stretched to include hidden gems of British comedy. With Frank at the helm, APT developed a core company, a concept that’s kept familiar and beloved stars like Jim DeVita, Jim Ridge, Tracy Michelle Arnold, Sarah Day and Colleen Madden locked into Spring Green and audiences’ hearts. The company also raised the cash to construct and open the indoor Touchstone Theatre, a smaller space that’s expanded APT’s reach and vision.

“What I like to think we were able to do here was to create a concrete, specific aesthetic goal that dovetailed with a viable business plan that was right for this market. My biggest single skill was knowing when to get out of the way,” says Frank with his typical self-deprecating modesty.

Frank and DeVita’s styles differ in ways both stark and subtle. Where Frank starts and stops when he speaks, his mind and mouth moving in a million directions at once, DeVita’s more deliberate, sometimes pausing in intense thought to land just the right phrase. She’s keenly aware that she’s about to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Usually, transitions come in crisis, to revitalize and remake,” says DeVita. “That’s not the case here. I am not David, and as much as I admire him, nobody wants me to try to be him.”

She’s already begun to build on the momentum she’s helped to create. Her selections for the 2014 Touchstone season shift the theater in a direction that decidedly reflects the first word in her company’s title. “American” is what she grew up on, you see. “It’s how I knew theater, and the experience of seeing myself up there in people’s lives in plays by writers like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.”

One of her earliest challenges will likely be identifying and grooming the next generation of core company members. The group got appreciably younger with the additions of Matt Schwader and Marcus Truschinski in recent years, but with longtimers like Paul Bentzen retiring from the core company this year (although he’ll likely still make future, albeit less regular, appearances), DeVita’s aware that APT needs a few more new faces willing to make a long-term commitment to performing in Spring Green. She plans to urge the current core actors to direct plays, teach workshops to younger actors and take sabbaticals to keep themselves fresh. Achieving greater diversity, both onstage and in the audience, is another major goal.

“Our job is to take calculated risks,” she says. “We want to say to our audience, ‘This new thing will make you happy, because you never knew it existed.’”

Frank will still be a major presence this summer—he’s directing two plays, the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing in the outdoor space and poet Ted Hughes’s translation of Euripides’s Alcestis in the Touchstone in the fall. He steps away free of regrets, looking forward to being able to attend more local theater and perhaps teach a new generation of actors and artistic directors.

The only thing left on his theatrical bucket list? “I never got around to directing Shakespeare’s As You Like It,” he says.

If he’s lucky, Brenda DeVita is taking note.

Aaron R. Conklin is a Madison writer. He blogs about local theater on Stage Write.

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