This summer likely will be the last that crowds at American Players Theatre march up the theater’s famous hill to find a wood-chip floor in the theater’s outdoor lobby.
It’s the last season for lighting technicians to make the precarious climb up ladders to adjust lights hung over APT’s open-air stage.
And the final year, it’s thought, that APT’s classically trained, highly acclaimed actors will have to take a rustic hike outside their dressing rooms in period costumes, wigs and makeup just to find a restroom.
APT is in the midst of a $7.7 million fundraising campaign to improve much of its theater and backstage infrastructure. Only a few of the changes, scheduled to be made between the 2016 and 2017 seasons, will be outwardly visible to the approximately 110,000 people who come to see APT shows each year.
“Many people suggested putting a roof over the theater,” said APT production manager Michael Broh, who is serving as project manager for the upcoming renovations.
“But what it always came back to was — it’s part of our identity being able to see the stars,” he said.
“Even a removable roof that would have a permanent structure over our heads all the time felt too much like a baseball stadium, and not enough like APT.”
The construction work — slated to begin the day after APT’s outdoor season closes October 2, and expected to wrap up by April 1 — will include a complete tear-down of APT’s signature stage.
The basement underneath will be enlarged to allow for more trap space (that secret void that allows actors to magically emerge from or disappear into the stage floor).
A new stage, designed by APT set designer and Dartmouth professor Michael Ganio, will be built above the basement in sections, allowing future directors and set designers even more artistic freedom.
The future stage itself promises to look as rustic as the barn-board version APT has. But it will lose the awkward steps and doorways that actors and stage crews now have to deal with.
The new stage replaces one originally built in 1979, rebuilt by APT staff in the mid-1990s, and shored up for safety reasons by an engineering firm in 2012, Broh said. It’ll include an overhead catwalk for lighting techs, who currently have to rely on ladders to reach the highest theater lights. A new storage building behind the stage will make storing and moving large set pieces far more manageable.
“There are so many things that we’re doing in this project just to get us to the level of a major regional theater — which we are now,” said Sarah Young, director of communications for APT.
Originally built on open grazing land, APT has long been thought of as a “theater in the woods.” Set on 110 acres outside Spring Green, the 37-year-old theater has developed a national reputation for its productions of works by William Shakespeare and other masterpieces of classical theater.
This summer, APT patrons can see Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and “King Lear”; “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller; Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”; and “Arcadia” by Tom Stoppard.
The shows are performed in repertory, with as many as three different plays and eight different performances each week in APT’s “Up-the-Hill” Theatre. APT’s indoor Touchstone Theatre, built down the hill in 2009 for $5.25 million, also presents plays from June to November.
Which all makes for a complicated rehearsal schedule. So the upcoming construction at APT will include a new rehearsal hall, too.
Funded by an unnamed donor, the new building will contain three stage-sized, air-conditioned rehearsal rooms. They’ll replace spaces like “the verandah,” a re-purposed porch where actors and staff currently squeeze in for rehearsals in the early spring — but not in late summer, when the heat on the porch becomes unbearable.
Other nuts-and-bolts improvements include the addition of more dressing rooms (and performers’ restrooms located in the same building); more laundry and working space for the wardrobe crew; and infrastructure for sound speakers in the woods to better create a theatrical “ring of sound” for the audience.
No changes are expected to the APT picnic grounds or box office area at the property’s entrance. Up the hill, APT will re-use the audience seats it currently has, but will add a loop system for audience members who have hearing impairments .
Overall acoustics in the theater will be improved, and a few changes will be made to the layout of aisles, which are frequently used by actors during shows for dramatic entrances and exits. Those changes will shrink the theater’s current 1,140 seats by about 50, Broh said.
The theater’s outdoor lobby area, which already features a gift shop and concession stand, will get pavers instead of wood chips, more rain shelters, an accessible restroom and new landscaping.
The APT tradition of a designated spot for applying bug spray will remain.
So will APT’s bats, who have been known to swoop over the dramatic action during a nighttime show. APT brought in the Department of Natural Resources, said APT managing director Carrie Van Hallgren, to make sure the new construction does not disturb the animals’ habitat.
Madison firm Strang, Inc. is serving as architect on the project, with Kraemer Brothers, LLC, of Plain as general contractor, and structural and civil engineering by Spring Green’s Westbrook Associated Engineers, Inc.
Minneapolis-based theater consultant Schuler Shook, acoustic and audio consultant Talaske of Oak Park, Illinois, and landscape designer Ken Saiki Design, Inc. of Madison are also on board.
Brainstorming for the project, Broh said, took place in “about 100 meetings, with staff members, board members, even some audience members.”
“We tried to keep those meetings to about 10 people apiece, so nobody got overwhelmed,” he said. “And we just listened. We tried to gather as much information as we could. There were a lot of ideas that we never got close to be able to afford. But it was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about ourselves during that process.”
Fundraising for the theater up the hill is ahead of schedule, Van Hallgren said.
The project was originally budgeted for $5.1 million, but that goal rose after APT received the $1 million gift for the rehearsal building.
“Our fundraising has gone better than we could have dreamed, frankly,” said Young. “We’re so grateful to our donors” located in the Midwest and beyond.
APT will continue its fundraising push into the summer and even through the construction period, Van Hallgren said.
“When people are here, experiencing APT, that’s the best time to talk to them about the project,” she said, “and the best time to really connect with them about what we do.”
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