The heart of Wisconsin’s capital city is perched on a narrow isthmus. Sandwiched between Lake Mendota on the north and Lake Monona on the south, the city’s central corridor is anchored on one end by the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. Take a diagonal stroll up State Street from there, and you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of the isthmus, gazing up at the dome of the state capitol building.
The geography is a hint: Madison is a city charged by both politics and college sports. It’s possible to see crowds of sign-toting protesters marching up State Street to the capitol one day, then watch a sea of red Badger apparel thronging down the sidewalks the next. The university is big, boasting a current enrollment of more than 42,000 students, and the city itself has a population just shy of a quarter-million. Highly educated and overwhelmingly white (79 percent, according to the 2010 census) with a median household income slightly above the national average, these Madisonians provide a reliable audience for much of the city’s performing arts scene.
The emblem of that scene is the gleaming Overture Center for the Arts, which opened in 2004, replacing the aging Madison Civic Center. It is home to a bevy of venues, ranging from a 2,255-seat hall to a tiny black box. The center also houses a 350-seat thrust and an historic 1,000-seat proscenium theatre, as well as several other multi-use spaces. The Overture is both a presenter of touring acts and a venue for local performance companies, 10 of which are considered Overture residents—including the Children’s Theater of Madison and Forward Theater Company.
The trouble is that not everyone in Madison is in love with the place. Paid for almost exclusively with a $205-million gift from a local philanthropist couple, W. Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland Frautschi, the Overture has struggled since its inception against the notion that it was built by and for the wealthiest in Madison. “It’s a textbook case of why fundraising campaigns are so important,” believes Anne Katz, executive director of Arts Wisconsin, a statewide arts advocacy organization that works closely with both governmental and private organizations. “If there had been a campaign, we’d have had a community-wide conversation about why Madisonians should support and care about the facility,” she told me recently as we sat in one the center’s lobbies. “We didn’t get to do that with Overture.”
Like many in the community, however, Katz can see beyond the Overture’s image problems, and concedes that it is a beautiful, highly functional asset to the city. “The Overture gets an unfair rap that it is only for the rich—that’s not true,” she says, going on to rattle off the virtues of the facility and its programs, most notably its educational and outreach efforts. “Madison is funny,” chimes in Robert Chappell, the center’s director of strategic communication. “We may have this white, affluent demographic, but people here still feel bohemian and countercultural.”
Although the Overture still receives a portion of its operating budget from the city—the Madison Common Council recently voted to increase Mayor Paul Soglin’s proposed contribution to the center by a $900,000, nearly restoring the city’s original commitment—an organizational restructuring at the end of 2011 shifted control of the facility from the city to a private nonprofit foundation. That has prompted concerns from people like Karin Wolf, arts program administrator for the Madison Arts Commission, who worries that the change could mean local companies will have a harder time raising money. “A gem like Overture absorbs so much of our community’s available resources that it becomes a challenge for smaller organizations to get enough of the soup for sustenance,” she reasons.
There’s also a perceived conflict in the Overture’s role as presenter versus its partnership with resident companies. Chappell has heard it all before. “I’ll be frank,” he says. “There used to be people in the Overture administration who didn’t see the residents’ place in our mission.” But attitudes have shifted since the center’s restructuring, Chappell maintains, and the Overture has been very careful in pursuing a fundraising strategy so as not to siphon income away from resident companies.
After years of relative calm, theatre in Madison found itself on shaky ground when the economy faltered in 2006. That year, the once-respected Children’s Theater of Madison, founded in 1965, stumbled and then fell flat: CTM cancelled its season mid-stream, then struggled through two more truncated, difficult seasons before bouncing back under the new leadership of producing artistic director Roseann Sheridan. In 2008, the nearly-as-old Madison Repertory Theatre began stumbling as well. Much of its staff was laid off, and the board of directors fired the artistic director; in early 2009, it shuttered operations for good. Nowadays, CTM is operating in the black, and MRT’s place has been taken by the fledgling Forward Theater Company, now in its fourth season.
“It was a tragedy when that company closed,” laments Forward’s artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, speaking of Madison Rep. When it happened, those who would soon form Forward Theater met to find a way to fill the void. They were concerned, Gray says, that MRT was the third Equity theatre in southern Wisconsin to close in a sixth-month period (the others were New Court Theatre in Beloit, Wisc., and Milwaukee Shakespeare). “This was no longer going to be a region where theatre professionals could make a home,” Gray reasoned. She and her colleagues wanted to stay, and they needed to find a way to make it possible to do so.
“It took a while to regroup, but the situation offered some new opportunities,” Wolf wrote in a recent e-mail. “A greater number of collaborations, shared work spaces and new models have emerged.”
The entire production inventory of the failed MRT was purchased by CTM, saving decades-old costume, prop and scenic stock from the auctioneer. Now CTM makes that inventory (as well as shop space and technical assistance) available to other performing arts organizations and educational institutions, including Forward.
Although Forward is still a young company, each season it has shown impressive growth: Ticket sales increased nearly 350 percent from season one to season three, and the company’s ever-growing subscription base has surpassed 2,000. It’s still a small operation, with only seven part-time staffers (including Gray) and an operating budget hovering near $600,000. Only time will tell how the company will manage the obstacles that hindered MRT, as it grew into a full-fledged theatre and struggled to define itself in Madison’s limited market. Gray believes that the model developed by FTC has staying power in a way that MRT did not, at least in its final years. FTC aims to serve its artists, she says, but it is “really specifically tailored to being a part of its community.”
Forward’s various partnerships and “add-on” events, outside its typical three-show season, keep the company persistently in the public eye and help keep the mostly local artists who work there busy. They have ventured into developing new work, co-producing Gwendolyn Rice’s A Thousand Words with Milwaukee Chamber Theater in 2012, and plucking shows from local playwrights each season for staged readings. Some of these plays come from the UW-Madison Department of Continuing Studies and its Wisconsin Wrights program, which offers in odd-numbered years residencies to three Wisconsin playwrights.
The program is headed by Sarah Marty, who counts among her many affiliations the job of general manager for FTC. “The sheer number of theatre companies in Madison and the opportunities here in the performing arts are astounding for a city this size,” Marty enthuses.
How many theatres are there? “At last count there were more than 25,” Marty says, “producing everywhere, from more traditional venues like the Overture Center and the Bartell, to local churches and libraries.” The Bartell Theatre, located a short walk from the Overture, is a theatre cooperative founded in 1996 with seven community-theatre partners. It now houses four such companies, including the oldest producing theatre in Madison (Madison Theatre Guild, established in 1946) and the city’s only theatre serving the LGBT community (StageQ).
Abundant amateur theatre is great for the town, but doesn’t do much for working theatre artists. “One of the biggest challenges is providing enough regular employment so that theatre professionals are able to stay in Madison,” Marty reiterates. Resources are also stretched thin. “There is a lot of competition for rehearsal space, performance space, production resources, cast members, designers and crew members.”
For professionals like core company member James Ridge of American Players Theatre (see below), Madison can be a vexing place to work, especially since the closure of Madison Rep. “The interesting thing about small markets like Madison is how far in advance they plan and ask for a commitment, whereas a place like the Goodman [in Chicago] will call up and offer you a show next month,” Ridge told me one night as he prepared to step into a tech rehearsal for his annual gig playing Scrooge in CTM’s A Christmas Carol. While he would prefer to work closer to home, Ridge often frets that making a commitment a year in advance in Madison might mean passing up a more lucrative gig elsewhere. “When you’re talking about raising a family, it’s hard to reconcile.”
Everyone in Madison’s theatre circles can see this problem, including Forward’s Gray, who promises to strive for “more pay for artists across the board.” But for an emerging company like hers, remaining viable demands fiscal caution. It’s hard to imagine a near future in which there is enough work to retain many of the artists needed to create a truly diverse performing arts scene in Madison. It is an ongoing dilemma for a city with lots of talent, lots of heart and a strong desire to make its mark.
Head for the Hills
Forty miles west of Madison, in the hills outside the village of Spring Green, is a theatre scene inextricably linked with Madison, but with a style all its own. American Players Theatre, wrapping its 33rd season in the autumn of 2012, is a primarily outdoor classical theatre with an intensely devoted audience (see AT Sept. ’11, “Getting It Right”). Brenda DeVita, the company’s artistic director designate (she will assume the role fully when longtime producing artistic director David Frank steps down at the end of the 2014 season), points to what she calls Madison’s “intellectual base” as a prime reason APT has been able to thrive for so long. “I don’t think APT would exist without Madison,” she says. It doesn’t seem to be false modesty, either. More than half of the theatre’s ticket buyers are residents of the greater Madison area, and over 60 percent come from within a 100-mile radius. With typical season attendance topping out at just over 100,000, it’s easy to see how essential the Madison theatregoer is to the thriving company that lies about an hour’s drive away.
Mike Lawler writes frequently for this magazine.