A month after the Madison Repertory Theatre watched the curtain fall on its 40 years of operation in the Madison community, artistic director Trevin Gay told 77 Square, “I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Five hundred thousand dollars of debt had forced the theatre company to cancel the remainder of its 2009 season without the ability to reimburse ticket holders and close its doors permanently. The news sent theatre lovers — actors and goers alike — into a worried frenzy. If the city’s only professional theatre company could not survive the economic downturn, how would the vast number of smaller troupes — Strollers, Broom Street and Mercury, to name a few — hold their heads afloat in the midst of the recession? And if they could not, what would happen to theatre as a whole in Madison? The closing of The Rep, it seemed, was the death knell for theatre in the city of Madison.
Thus, Gay’s premonition back in March would be accurate: There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There were three.
And it didn’t take long for The Bricks Theatre, Laboratory Theatre and Forward Theater Company to establish themselves in the city of Madison. The same March members of the Rep took their final bows on the Overture Center’s Playhouse stage, both Forward and The Bricks formed, while Laboratory offered its first performance just for schools shortly before the Rep’s closing.
While the companies share a similar Madison birth month — Laboratory Theatre is considerably older than the other two companies, having originated in Chicago in 1998 — the three companies take decidedly different approaches to their productions.
On one end of the spectrum is The Bricks, arguably the most “radical” of the three theatre troupes.
“We like to consider ourselves really darkly humored,” said former Rep member George Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, along with Rep members Dave Pausch and Ric Lantz, formed The Bricks in what he might call a rather organic fashion.
“I just kind of sat around and talked to Dave Pausch, who’s the other executive director, and I said ‘Yeah, they’re all still here. No one is working.’ So, what kind of theater, if I were going to start a theater in Madison, would it be?’ and we started to build The Bricks,” Gonzalez said.
And that “kind of theater” has been widely buzzed about since its first performance, a rendition of “An Adult Evening with Shel Silverstein,” due to the company’s employment of uncharacteristic performance spaces. Namely, bars.
Yet the utilization of these venues has been the group’s modus operandi, of sorts. “Shel Silverstein” saw all of its performances in the Frequency, just off the Capitol Square, and a two-night run of “The Santaland Diaries” took place there as well as the Brink Lounge.
“We also wanted to make the theater experience fun, make it a social event,” Gonzalez said, and the venues help this, especially with audiences that aren’t traditional theatre-goers.
But for those seeking a more traditional approach to theater, Forward Theatre seems to represent that end of the spectrum. Also formed from the ashes of the Rep and now inhabiting its place in the Playhouse, Forward looks at theatre from a classic perspective.
“Honestly, we’re looking to provide for the…broadest audience we can,” Advisory Committee member Gwen Rice said.
But don’t expect rigid, played-out theatre from this group either. Ending its Midwest premiere run last Sunday, Jan. 17, “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them” looks at America’s homeland “insecurity” in this dark comedy about a woman faced with the prospect of her husband being a potential terrorist.
March also finds Forward featuring “KIRITSIS” from Madison author David Schanker, a winner at the Wisconsin Wrights Playwriting Contest, which tells the 1977 true story of a real-estate agent who holds a mortgage broker hostage after he tries to foreclose on his home.
And in the middle of this spectrum is Laboratory Theater, what artistic director Michele Good calls the middle ground to Bricks’ “hipster” and Forward’s “Grand Dame.”
“In my opinion, Madison audiences are looking for something different in theatre…” Good said. “They’re ready to branch out into something different… and that’s what we do… even if we do a play that’s well-known, we try to put a different spin on it.”
This spring will see Laboratory tackling “Schoolhouse Rock,” but, as Good promises, there’s a twist: Rep. Tammy Baldwin will “star” in a rendition of “I’m Just a Bill,” and Laboratory has contacted lawmakers and officiators of all stripes to perform “The Preamble” to the Constitution. Good says audience members will also be incorporated into the production, though they won’t have much forewarning about their Laboratory debuts.
“They’ll be literally in the middle of the stage as part of the show,” Good said.
It’s these different approaches that have allowed the three companies to succeed and collaborate rather than compete.
“I think we have one sort of uniting philosophy, and that’s quality theater in the city of Madison,” Good said.
So, don’t call it a swan song. Bricks, Forward and Laboratory are in it for the long haul.