Chapter 2: Play in the Woods

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by Michael on November 28, 2016

Back in the days when whimsy was thought to be a desirable quality for internet addresses, APT’s website was playinthewoods.org. The woods, and trekking through them from the parking lot to the “Up the Hill” stage, have always been an important part of the company’s identity. And despite its unlikely location just south of Spring Green, Wisconsin, population 1,628, APT ranks among the country’s elite classical theater companies, with an annual budget of about $6 million and ticket sales of more than 100,000 each season.

The company was founded in 1979 by a small group of big thinkers led by Randall Duk Kim, a highly regarded classical actor who wanted a stage far from the coasts, which he found “too frantic” for the kind of theater he wanted to do. Kim had played Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and had toured with the company in a production of Gogol’s Marriage. He was impressed by the way midwesterners listened. Near Spring Green, a rural community with an arty bent—it’s the home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and the associated school of architecture—Kim and his colleagues found a natural amphitheater with excellent acoustics, and there in 1980 they presented their first season of two plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and (lest anyone get the idea that this company would be pandering to popular taste) one of Shakespeare’s least performed and most vilified works, Titus Andronicus, which one local critic promptly dubbed “a Renaissance Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Kim and his companions—they were Chuck Bright and James “Dusty” Priebe, whom Kim had met at the University of Hawaii, and Anne Occhiogrosso, who joined them after they came to the mainland in 1970—were hardcore idealists: artists and visionaries, not promoters. Marketing was not a high priority for them; they wanted their work to sell itself. In their first year one journalist complained that he couldn’t find the theater for lack of road signs. The audience found it anyway. Kim, an extraordinary actor and a master of makeup, could play Shylock one night, Hamlet the next, and carry the whole company on the strength of his talent. He insisted on performing Shakespeare’s plays exactly as published in the Folio of 1623, the closest thing we have to a definitive edition of Shakespeare’s works. There were no cuts, no changes, no concessions to audience sensibilities. He also insisted that the actors research every word of the text, so the unfamiliar language could be made clear to modern audiences.

It worked—up to a point. The company quickly established a reputation for uncompromising yet entertaining shows, and slowly the audience grew. But the founders’ vision encompassed more. They believed that the level of performance they aspired to required a training academy, a library, a center for classical theater research—an institution, in other words, that could not flourish without major financial support. The big money never came and the company couldn’t get ahead of its expenses. Twelve years into the dream the audience was still using portable toilets.

The founders moved on after the 1991 season. To replace them the board hired as artistic director David Frank, a 47-year-old Englishman who had worked at regional theaters in Baltimore, Saint Louis, and Buffalo. Frank was a rare find, a dedicated artist who could balance a budget. Together with his business-side counterpart Sheldon Wilner, who had been managing director of APT since 1988, he continued the artistic trajectory of the company and set it on firm financial ground as well. APT finally 20 installed permanent bathrooms in 1995, established a core company of actors in 1999, retired its debt in 2003, and added a 200-seat indoor theater in 2009.

It took longer than the founders expected—and more compromises, probably, than they would have stood for—but today the company they established bears at least a passing resemblance to the one they envisioned, with apprentice and education programs, a resident company of actors, and a text-first approach to the classics. Back in the beginning Kim told a reporter, “I don’t say we will be the best theater in the country right from the start, but from the start we are aiming there.” In 2014, the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, Terry Teachout, called APT “the best classical theater company in America.”

By that time Frank’s production of Much Ado About Nothing was up and running. He was set to retire at the end of the season, having announced some years before (perhaps a tad prematurely, he later admitted) that 70 would be an appropriate age for him to go. Though he would remain in Spring Green and continue to mount shows as a visiting director, Much Ado was the last Shakespeare he would direct as head of the company.

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