In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

The intimate Touchstone Theatre is changing the face of the American Players Theatre. (PHOTO: Zane Williams)

The American Players Theatre expands into winter

SPRING GREEN -- Sunscreen and mosquito repellent have been the prudent accessories for audiences at the American Players Theatre here for 30 seasons. On some days, an umbrella or rain slicker comes in handy.

But customers will have to add scarves and snow boots to their theater going experience this year. The APT is adding a Christmas show as its first-ever winter offering. The production will open the day after Thanksgiving and run through Dec. 19.

APT resident actor and playwright James DeVita is adapting the classic O. Henry short story "The Gift of the Magi" into a one-act musical. Josh Schmidt, the Mequon resident and UWM grad who is a rising star in American musical theater, is composing a score for cello and viola.

Theater-goers won't be perched on frozen seats in the APT's outdoor performance space. The new Christmas musical will be mounted in the company's smaller indoor venue, the 201-seat Touchstone Theatre, which had a highly successful inaugural season last year. Commissioning a holiday show and placing it in the new space dramatically reflects how the Touchstone is changing the face of the APT.

Three productions are scheduled for the indoor theater during the summer-fall season, and two of them, "Waiting for Godot" and "The Syringa Tree," already qualify as hits. They immediately became hot tickets during the pre-season sales campaign. There is no doubt that APT's loyal audiences have embraced the Touchstone.

"We thought it would work," APT Producing Artistic Director David Frank recently said about the smaller theater. "It was a relief that it has been as successful as we thought it would be."

Frank said he knew there were Touchstone doubters who previously felt the APT was defined by being an outdoor theater. "We sold every ticket there last season after the first few weeks," he continued. "And this season, people are fiercely chasing tickets."

That is further relief to the thoughtful Frank, whose leadership has kept the company solvent through the rough financial times of the last several seasons. "In the back of our minds, there was the slight fear that last year's popularity was just curiosity about a new building."

Opening a new venue and adding productions when other theater companies around the country are closing or shrinking in size would seem to be an uncharacteristically risky move for the APT, but the troupe's boldness has not backfired. It was in the operating black for the 18th consecutive year last season, a remarkable achievement for a non-profit classical theater company.

Frank said the APT sold almost as many tickets in 2009 as in 2008, although the total last year was spread over eight productions in two venues. The Touchstone did not exist in 2008, when the troupe mounted five shows. Overall attendance last summer at outdoor classical theaters across the country declined 11 percent from the previous year.

The APT has also bucked the national fund raising trend for theaters. "Individual giving has stayed with us," Frank said.

The Touchstone is budget neutral, according to the producing artistic director, meaning the shows mounted in it pay for themselves with ticket sales. Frank bubbles with enthusiasm over the creative options and flexibility the second theater offers the company. "We are just beginning to discover the programing possibilities the Touchstone offers us," he said.

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