A few hours northwest of Chicago, some of our city’s young actors share a summer home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a town of about 1,600 people approximately 30 miles west of Madison. There, amid the idyllic trees and rolling hills, they entertain a modest number of guests: 1,100 or so a night.
The American Players Theatre, established in 1980, claims to be the country’s second-largest outdoor theater devoted to the classics. Each summer the company produces five plays in its 1,148-seat amphitheater, the Up-the-Hill Theatre, and another five in its 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre. Several members of APT’s acting company are Chicago-based actors who spend May to October in the Wisconsin forest.
“It’s just really beautiful to have this theater in the middle of the woods, doing shows late at night under the stars, bats flying around,” says Eric Parks, who’s spending his third summer in Spring Green. Parks, 31, last seen onstage in the city in Chicago Shakespeare’s Elizabeth Rex, is performing in APT’s Twelfth Night, Richard III and Troilus and Cressida.
Every actor in the company, which this year numbers 39, has roles in two shows that open in June and a third that opens in August; he or she also understudies for the other productions. “Everybody has to understudy, or else we’d have to have another 30-something actors,” says Nathan Hosner, in his first season at APT. Hosner, 35, recently in Writers’ Theatre’s Hesperia and Chicago Shakes’s The Madness of George III, is in the up-and-running Richard III and The Royal Family while rehearsing Troilus, which starts performances August 18. “It’s a pretty grueling schedule, especially once you get into performances at night and rehearsals during the day,” he says.
Then again, there are perks, as Steve Haggard points out. “Techs are kind of funny here, because there’s not a lot of tech,” says Haggard, in his fourth APT season. “The lights only go on when the sun goes down.” This fall, the 32-year-old will play opposite second-year American player Nate Burger in TimeLine’s Wasteland.
Travis A. Knight, also in his fourth season, was based in Milwaukee when he began as an apprentice in 2009. “I grew up in this area, so I’d seen shows out there and always really admired the work,” he says.
APT secures housing for the acting company in the community rather than on campus; all three actors say the locals embrace the theater’s presence. “It’s sort of this weird arts hub,” Parks says, noting the nearby presence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and odd attraction the House on the Rock. “There’s all these arts things happening around this small little town in the middle of Wisconsin.”
“You get to know the people who own the shops and restaurants. It’s a real kind of small-town feeling in the best way,” Hosner says. Adds Haggard, “It’s good work, it’s good people, and it’s in a beautiful place.”
The exposure to the troupe’s many Chicago-based actors and directors helped persuade Knight, 26, to move here permanently. “I was in L.A. for just a little bit, and it kind of felt like I was leaving the community I’d started to establish myself in,” he says. When he was offered a role in the Goodman’s spring production of Camino Real, “without hesitation I packed my car up and drove back. I consider myself a Chicagoan now.”
For more information on American Players Theatre, visit americanplayers.org.