In the early 1990s the Madison theatre scene got a boost. A man named Tom Peterson opened a new venue, Brave Hearts Theatre, with the mission of making a performance space available to anyone who wanted to put on a show.
Peterson's stage saw everything from traveling companies performing Samuel Beckett's \Waiting for Godot"" to juggling troupes, storytellers and even a wedding. But the mainstays of the theater were the local theater companies that owed their existence, in part, to the opening of the theater, which provided them with a stage they could afford to rent on even the smallest budget.
Among these companies was Mercury Players Theatre, one of the first to perform on the new stage.
""Brave Hearts made it possible to start a theater group,"" said Marcy Weiland, Mercury Players' artistic director.
Weiland has been with the company since the beginning, acting in its first production, ""Family Life: Three Brutal Comedies by Wendy Hammond.""
The company's second production, in March 1995, was another collection of plays: ""Little Slices: Thirteen Plays by Joe Pintauro.""
""'Little Slices'-- everyone loved it, the cast, audience, critics--it was a huge success by Brave Hearts standards,"" Weiland said. ""Tom Laskin, the Isthmus reviewer, wrote 'in two productions Mercury has become the best theater company in town.'""
In the summer of 1995, Weiland took over the role of artistic director after founder Paul Wells took a job in New York,
""I kind of got dragged into artistic directing. I had never produced anything before but nobody wanted it to end,"" she said.
With Weiland at its head, Mercury Players has continued its strong start, producing 27 plays over the last five years.
Mercury Players' mission statement reads: ""Mercury Players Theatre is dedicated to presenting new and little-known plays to our community. We seek out plays that surprise us, in the belief that unexpected experiences, shared between performers and audience, generate inspiration and insight. We produce plays that entertain and stimulate, illuminate strategies for living in modern society, push the boundaries of widely accepted art. We respect our audience and we strive to show the widest range of human experience, as truthfully and attentively as we can.""
It is evident that Weiland's guidance has shaped this company, for the mission statement encompasses her own views on theater.
""I like plays that are about something. You either learn something new, find a new perspective or way of looking at something. As an audience member, I like escapist stuff--silly comedies. But as a producer that's really hard,"" Weiland said. ""Like Buck [Hakes] with 'Blitzkrieg' you have to want to make it happen.""
Buck Hakes has been working with Mercury Players Theatre since December 1995. In that time he has written, produced and acted for the company. His latest endeavor has been ""Project Blitzkrieg.""
Last year Hakes received an e-mail from a friend living in New Orleans describing a production she had just seen in Atlanta, and he immediately wanted to bring something like it to Madison.
""The basic concept is to create eight short plays, from concept to writing, casting, directing, and performing them 24 hours later,"" he said. ""I was so excited. It's this crazy daring thing to do. I started in on Mercury. They said 'O.K. We'll rent the theater for one day.' July 15. And it was a huge success.""
The night-long writing session took place at the home of two Mercury Players company members. There were eight computers scattered throughout the house and each writer adopted one for the evening and wrote furiously to complete a script by 8:00 a.m.
When it was time for the plays to get cast, the group ran into an obstacle.
""Buck and I anticipated hundreds of actors. We told the writers to write lots and lots of characters. We showed up Saturday morning and had 14 actors. We got on the phone and hit the streets asking people if they wanted to be in a play. We ended up with about 30 actors, two or three who had never been in a play,"" Weiland said.
But in the end, everything came together, and the production played to a sold-out house. Mercury Players is hoping for a repeat this Saturday when they present ""Blitzkrieg 2: Electric Boogaloo.""
The concept is the same as last summer's production, but to avoid casting problems they held advance auditions on Monday and Tuesday night where any interested actor could stop by the theater, fill out a short form and get a Polaroid photo taken. At the end of the evening on Tuesday, there were about 50 actors who had filled out forms and guaranteed, in triplicate, their commitment to Saturday's 12-hour rehearsal/performance process.