One of the things that I love about the theater scene in Madison (and the general arts scene here as well) is the kind of collaboration that happens between different theater groups and artists. From StageQ, Perfect Harmony, and Proud Theater’s co-production of “Riot Acts,” to Kia Karlen bringing 50 different visual and performance artists together for “Something Wicked” at MMoCA, to Children’s Theater of Madison teaming up with Four Seasons to produce “Little Women: The Musical,” to StageQ and Mercury Players Theater’s co-production of “Vamp” and “Cloud 9,” there’s a lively foment of cross-pollination among artists here. And one of the institutionalized cornerstones of that collaboration is the Gerald A. Bartell Community Theatre.
The Bartell is something of a Madison miracle: a theater building owned and operated collaboratively by six theater companies. In most cities, theater companies see themselves in competition for audiences and for scarce resources. In Madison, a group of visionary community theater stalwarts, representing “competing” theater troupes, joined together in 1994 to create what would become the Bartell. One of the only ventures of its kind in the U.S., the Bartell does more than provide performance space: the proximity of the troupes, and the structure of the organization guarantees communication between the groups, and fosters cooperation, from sharing props and costumes to helping each other find technical staff.
The building itself has a colorful history: constructed in 1906 as Colonial Hall, it housed a dance academy on the third floor, a community center and stage on the second floor, and a bowling alley and pool hall on the first floor. It continued to be an entertainment and meeting venue after it became Madison’s first VFW post in 1946. It became a movie theater (The Esquire) from 1969 to 1993. And in 1997, it was leased by the Gerald A. Bartell Community Theatre Foundation, which later purchased the building.
Some of the troupes housed by the Bartell have folded or moved on to other venues (Millenium, Reprise, Mazomanie R&R, and MadCAP) but the Bartell has consistently housed six theater troupes. The current companies are Encore Studio for Performing Arts; Laboratory Theater; Madison Theatre Guild; Mercury Players Theater; StageQ; and Strollers Theatre. Each company has a unique identity, ranging from queer theater (StageQ) to theater focused on people with disabilities (Encore) to children’s theater (Laboratory) to more avant-garde fare (Mercury Players) to classic community theater (MTG and Strollers). Each of the resident companies has a seat on the Board of Directors. And while each troupe’s philosophy and management structure varies, we all have a fierce commitment to each group’s artistic freedom and autonomy.
The Board and committee meetings ensure that the representatives of the different troupes see each other regularly and work together. Just that simple proximity encourages cooperation; the people in the Bartell community know each other and call on each other for help, borrowing and loaning set pieces, props, and costumes freely, as well as working on projects and productions together. It’s not uncommon for calls for help to go out and for there to be immediate assistance forthcoming. The spirit of community cooperation extends far beyond the six Bartell resident companies to other Madison theater troupes.
Each of the resident companies obtains its own space for rehearsal; storage for props, sets, and costumes; and shop space for building sets. Since all of the groups have similar needs, the Bartell Board is currently researching the feasibility of obtaining additional space to meet those needs. If it does so, it will likely undertake the first major capitol campaign since its inception. And it will certainly continue its mission of supporting vital community theater in Madison.
The Bartell is located at 113 E. Mifflin Street in Madison, just off the Capital Square. For more information, visit the Bartell website at www.bartelltheatre.org.