by Brooke Jackson, PortalWisconsin.org
Sometimes enough just isn't enough. At least, the four founders of Four Seasons Theatre hoped that was true when they first added their flavor of theater to the batch of other cultural events in Madison. Three years and ten musicals later, it seems that even a culturally stuffed market was hungry for more.
"When we first started, 'saturation' was a question: Is there an audience? Is there too much going on to add to the mix?" explains Four Seasons' founder and managing director, Sarah Marty. "We were not finding much musical theater here. Other [theater] companies do maybe one musical a year. We only do musical theater."
The success Four Seasons' shows have seen so far suggests they've struck the right chord with local audiences. Their first show, "Ragtime," which was produced in partnership with Middleton Players Theatre, brought them the attention they were seeking.
"We made a conscious decision to start with a full season. We needed to start with a splash to get our name out there, which you don't get with one show a season," Marty says. They've since managed to produce the same effect with shows like their 50th anniversary celebratory presentation of "West Side Story."
Soon after their start, Four Seasons was presenting shows in cooperation with Wisconsin Union Theater. This cooperation gave them the support that most small theater companies dream of: an established name; a beautiful, historical venue; and, perhaps most importantly, clout.
"We're so, so lucky that they support us and have given us this opportunity," Marty gushes.
Such backing has allowed the young company to quickly become a highly respected presenting organization in south-central Wisconsin.
"We're working toward becoming a regional theater, and we're committed to high quality. If we can't find [a lead artist] locally to maintain that quality, we hire a guest artist," says Marty of their professional casting decisions. "There are many great singers in town, but not everyone knows the show. Guest artists help us to bring in larger audiences."
Tony-nominated tenor Tom Wopat is one such guest artist. He will join Four Seasons for its upcoming presentation of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies," running Feb. 22 and 23, 2008 at UW-Madison's Wisconsin Union Theater. (Madison writer Nadine Goff has been chronicling the "Follies" rehearsal process on her blog "Something Else to Do"; you can find those entries here.)
To the credit of local talent, however, most of Four Seasons' performers, staff and designers are from the greater Madison area. Four Seasons employs young actors and singers to fill roles and provides internships for students to work with local professionals. The company also works closely with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's University Theatre, which provides student technical staff and designers; in return, those students get a chance to work in "real-world" musical theater.
The story of Four Seasons Theatre begins close to home. The founders (Andrew Abrams, Jamie Pitt, Amanda Poulsen and Sarah Marty) were initially brought together by Abrams' mother. Formerly their undergraduate advisor in the UW-Madison's School of Music, she knew that each of them wanted to start a theater company in Madison.
"It began sort of evolving in all of our minds at the same time. We didn't know each other well in undergrad. I was the band geek. Andy was the piano-player/singer guy. Amanda had just come back from New York, and she and Jamie were going to start a theatre company," recounts Marty. "Somehow we all ended up in Madison at the same time, and we all ended up in the same room."
Their mix of talents has been one of the company's greatest assets. "With a lack of funding," Marty explains, "it helps to have the four key founders be part of the production staff. Jamie is a music director and hires tech staff. I'm a techie and stage manage and hire the orchestra. Amanda is a choreographer and Andy, the director/musical director."
Can musical theater continue to bring in big enough crowds to sustain a niche company in Wisconsin? Four Seasons thinks that a commitment to quality and its partnerships with other organizations will keep its goals within reach. Says Marty confidently, "We've done amazing work on a shoestring budget. Artistically, we're in a great place."
For more information on upcoming Four Seasons showsincluding "Follies," "The World Goes Round: The Songs of Kander and Ebb" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie"visit the Four Seasons Theatre Web site.