Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Oct 14, 2013
09:58 AM
Stage Write

For a Small City, Madison has Major Theater

Forward Theater Company's opening 2013 show, "Sons of the Prophet," was a Pulitzer finalist just last year.  

Fellow mag contributor Rebecca Ryan was right about a bunch of things in this month's controversial talker column, “The Tier-Two Tradeoff.” I’m not here to wax indignant or rehash the discussion about where Madison sits in career-boosting relation to San Francisco, Austin or even King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. 

But when Ryan wrote that “Madison is too small to have a repertory theater,” my theater-loving mind smacked the waitaminute button.

Um, Madison actually kinda does. It’s called Forward Theater Company. And it’s also called the Touchstone.

The actual Madison Repertory Theater, the one Ryan’s referencing, closed its doors in 2009, the victim of unfortunate overspending and an untimely economic recession. But over the course of the last four years, both Forward and American Players Theater’s indoor Touchstone space have grown and evolved to fill and even expand the artistic void the Rep’s demise created. 

When I talked to Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward’s artistic director, earlier this week, she talked at length about how the Rep’s demise was the spark that led to Forward’s formation, in no small part because the company’s founders didn’t want to see professional contemporary theater in downtown Madison become the sole province of travelling productions booked as part of the annual Overture season. Both Forward and APT feature casts composed of professional Equity actors, just like the Rep did.

Gray noted that the late, lamented Madison Rep wasn’t even an actual repertory theater, at least in the technical definition of the word—a theater that presents annual slate of productions in rotation. APT’s Touchstone is the only local indoor theater that manages to accomplish that, but again, that’s not really the point. The point is whether Madisonians have the opportunity to see stagings of challenging, modern plays they’d otherwise have to book a trip to New York or Chicago to catch. 

If we’re using that definition, Madison’s in as good a shape as any large city. In a few weeks, APT will push our boundaries with a challenging production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and already, artistic director-in-waiting Brenda DeVita is talking about using the Touchstone space to stage works by David Mamet and Tony Kushner. Forward’s 2013 season kicks off next month with Sons of the Prophet, a Pulitzer finalist just last year, and continues with Red, the John Logan play that won the Tony for best play in 2010. Plus, Forward performs its shows in the Overture Center, the very same spot the Rep used to haunt. 

Sure, Madison feels small at times, and its theater scene hasn’t yet returned to the point where the works of promising and upcoming regional playwrights were debuting on its stages, as was the case during the Madison Rep’s heyday. But the way Forward and APT are pushing boundaries these days, it feels like anything’s possible—and that’s a good, good thing.  

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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