American Players Theatre (APT) has been celebrating the persistence of Shakespeare for 45 years. As the world according to us changes, APT’s attention to shifts in the zeitgeist provides fresh and familiar avenues for sharing a range of poetic language through open-air theatre.

Sara Young, managing director of APT, says, “Most performances start in the light. Because of the shape of the audience in a thrust stage, you’re looking at your fellow audience members. You’re experiencing the play with them, and then as it gets to night, it becomes just you and what’s happening on stage and the trees and the stars and what’s around you.”

With so many layers to the experience, there’s a heightened sense of authenticity. Even for the Shakespeare aficionado, every word hits different. We’re often bombarded with notions that bigger is better—that if we’re to have a grand experience, everything around us must be larger than life. But at APT, it’s about a shared experience: a world-class play in a secluded setting. Even after the play is over, everything that just happened on stage is given time to sink in as you look out to tree silhouettes against a midnight-blue sky.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2023. Photograph by Liz Lauren

The experience of theatre is timeless, and APT strives each year to enhance that by giving their performances a taste of today. Sara says, “Over the last decade, APT’s mission and our vision has evolved to include not what we used to call classics—classics is such a complicated word now—but the great plays of the past and also emerging voices of the future. What are going to be those plays that are going to stay with us?

“As we explore these newer plays, we hope that we’re bringing our audience along with us on this journey on how to share a wider variety of voices. Good plays are good plays. When people came to see Fences [a play with a predominantly Black cast] and our predominantly white audience saw themselves in that play, they knew this is a good playwright. Any play is not just for one segment of the population. Great plays have something to say to everybody.

“That said, representation matters. So having an audience that’s diverse, you want to have an acting company that’s diverse. You want people to be able to identify, see themselves represented on stage. In diverse casting, we have to take into account what that world is for that character. What are going to be the ramifications of having a Black body or Latine body on stage experiencing those things? The artistic staff thinks about that a lot as they cast the season.

An audience in the Hill Theatre, 2022. Photograph by Hannah Jo Anderson

“Diverse casting isn’t just about race, but gender. We did Hamlet in 2022, and Horatio was a woman, so what does that mean for Hamlet’s best friend to be a woman? What is that dynamic? For instance, how that last scene feels with those words coming out a woman’s mouth instead of a man’s. I feel like it just gives a whole new dimension to the play and meets the moment.”

Aside from work put into shaping well-known plays to reflect contemporary society, APT also works to educate audiences and voices of the future through ACT Camp, student matinees, and a collection of education workshops. For example, David Daniel, education director at APT, teaches three levels of The Potency of Poetry to show students in grades 3 through 12 the power of words. The course gives students the tools to evoke a moment, draw emotion, and to better understand how a wordsmith operates.

Whether looking forward, looking back, or looking at the here and now, every facet is approached with a great deal of thought. The plays themselves start with Brenda DeVita, APT’s artistic director, who’s all about the artist. Sara says, “She’s going to look for directors that want to tell a story. They have a play in mind and have a point of view on a story. That’s the first piece. From there, she’ll make sure we have the actors that can make that work, starting with our Core Acting Company members. Then you have to look at the mix because we’re doing all our plays at the same time. … Because we’re in rotating repertory and most of the actors in the company are in multiple plays, we have to layer in that all those roles have to be understudied. There are crazy logistical considerations.”

The Liar, 2023. Photograph by Liz Lauren

It’s pretty incredible how APT continues to culture a perpetual blossom of authenticity and intention, all stemming from its founders, Charles Bright, Randall Duk Kim, and Anne Occhiogrosso. “We’re so grateful to them for having that vision to come to the middle of nowhere and work on Shakespeare,” says Sara. “It’s a play in the woods. That’s real. When you come to see a play and the quality of the work is excellent, put those two things together, and you have a really powerful experience.”

Be sure to join everyone at APT to celebrate their 45th anniversary on July 21 with live music, presentations by Core Company members, games, fun, and more. Tickets and information at Box Office: (608) 588-2361

Kyle Jacobson is a writer who enjoys learning from failure so much that he has nothing to show for it.

2024 Performances

The Touchstone

The Virgin Queen Entertains Her Fool 
World Premiere 
by Michael Hollinger
directed by Aaron Posner
June 14–September 19

Wolf at the Door
by Marisela Trevino Orta
directed by Melisa Pereyra
June 25–September 18

by Nick Payne
directed by Vanessa Stalling
August 10–September 28

Nat Turner in Jerusalem
by Nathan Alan Davis
directed by Tyrone Phillips
October 17–November 10

On The Hill

Ring Round the Moon
by Jean Anouilh 
(adapted by Christopher Fry)
directed by Laura Gordon
June 8–September 20

Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
directed by Robert Ramirez
June 14–September 29

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
by August Wilson
directed by Gavin Lawrence
June 21–September 7

Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel
directed by Brenda DeVita
August 2–September 27

King Lear
by William Shakespeare
directed by Tim Ocel
August 9–September 28