In late summer 2013, when David Frank knew for sure he would be directing Much Ado, he didn’t have to think about who would be his Beatrice: Colleen Madden would. She is one of the company’s stars, a small woman with a big voice, an extraordinary actress. I saw her take Benedick’s arm in playful surrender to their newly blossomed love, and moments later I watched enraptured as he knelt before her and asked, “How doth your cousin?”
“Very ill,” Beatrice replies.
“And how do you?”
She looks deep into his eyes; all the protective cynicism has melted from her face, transformed into trust and devotion. Her hand goes to her breast. “Very—ill—too.”
I bought it completely. She loved this guy so much she could barely stand it.
And then I saw her do it again, and again, and again, dozens of times over the course of the summer, every time as utterly convincing as the first. That’s acting, I suppose, but Madden’s ability to conjure that quiet emotion and reproduce it precisely night after night was a revelation to me.
“I have very clear memories since the third and fourth grade of doing school plays, and I really loved it,” Madden told me. “That lit my fire. But I never considered doing it for a living. It just didn’t occur to me. I assumed I’d be a teacher like my parents.” Her mother was an Irish immigrant, her father the grandson of Irish immigrants. When they met, in New York, she was thinking about going back to Ireland and he was on his way out of the priesthood. He was a Franciscan and a peace and justice activist. He later became a psychology professor, she a special-ed teacher, but the two of them were always “very active on the social justice scene,” Madden remembered.
The family moved around some and eventually settled in Pittsburgh. Madden studied Chinese at the University of Pittsburgh and along the way spent about two and a half years in China and Taiwan. “I loved studying the writing, and I loved speaking it, but I didn’t really love living there. So when it became time to apply for grad school, my heart really wasn’t in it. I remember I went to a play in Pittsburgh and saw a director I had worked with—I had been doing plays all through college, in the community or in college productions, and I was getting a fair amount of notice—so during intermission of this play I saw this director and he said, so, I’m assuming you’re going to grad school for theater. And it hit me like a thunderbolt that I could do this—this was a possibility!”
She wound up at the University of Delaware’s Professional Theatre Training Program, a three-year classical program founded by Sanford (Sandy) Robbins, who had transplanted it to Delaware from the Milwaukee campus of the University of Wisconsin. While in Milwaukee Robbins and his program had developed strong ties to APT, and the relationship continued after they moved east.
“That’s where I met David Frank,” Madden recalled. “He came, as I think he had for every class, because APT used a lot of students from the program. He saw a play that I happened to be in, and then the next year I graduated and I auditioned for him in New York. And he didn’t take me that year, because I was Equity. I had been offered a union job as soon as I got out of grad school. And I remember I auditioned for him, and he was very very nice, but he was saying, well, we’re trying to save money to re-cover the seats. He was saying we can’t afford another union person. OK, whatever, but of course I figured he’s just not into me.”
Evidently, and not for the last time, she was failing to grasp Frank’s intention. “A year later I get a call out of the blue from Brenda DeVita, whom I’d never met.” DeVita was APT’s casting director at the time; she has now succeeded Frank as artistic director. “She said, we’re looking for someone to play Sonya in Uncle Vanya. I know I’ve never met you but David loves your work. Can I offer you a contract?”
It was January 2001. By this time Madden had appeared in an off-Broadway show and played a doctor on ABC’s All My Children. There was some talk of a long-term role there. She was “cater-waitering” as a hedge against leaner times, but she had a good deal on a nice apartment in Brooklyn and on the whole was pleased with her New York situation, and wary of leaving it. “I’d always heard about APT, and I was interested in going. But when I first got the call from Brenda, it was a bit of a hard sell. It’s the actor’s plight: should I take this job? Even some of my friends now who are doing well in TV and film—they still go: Should I, shouldn’t I? That’s part of the reason we have agents, people making those decisions for us.”
New York agents tend to take a dim view of places like APT. It’s where? They want you for how long? Madden’s agent was reluctant. But in 2001, SAG and AFTRA, the TV, film, and radio actors’ unions, were threatening to strike. If they did, not much would be happening in New York. “I didn’t want to go for six months, but there was probably going to be a strike. I was probably safe. Some friends said no! You’ve got to stay. You’re getting a lot of work. Some said oh no, you should go; you’ve always wanted to go to APT. And one of my friends said I think you’re going to go to APT, you’re going love it, you’re going to meet a guy there, and you’re going to get married.
“That sounded terrible.”
But she took a flyer. “And at the airport I met another actor from New York, who also was getting some traction in his career. He was also coming to APT; we found each other at the gate. He said the strike surely is going to happen, I think we’re safe. After we got to APT, we got news that the strike was not happening. He was unhappy. He did not have a good time that year. He was just full of regret and didn’t fit in.
“And I was just full of joy. And just had a marvelous time. I loved it immediately. I took to the company, they took to me, I loved the difficult conditions—the bats and the mosquitoes and the hot and the cold and the rain—and I loved having to walk up the hill for rehearsals.”
As predicted, she met a guy—an actor, James Ridge. On their first date, she rode with him on his motorcycle. At the end of the season, both were invited to join APT’s “core company,” which meant a long-term commitment and a guaranteed wage.They got married. They bought a house and had kids. It’s a life that not many actors get to live. Now Madden’s mother lives nearby (her father is deceased) and her brother Aran has come from Pittsburgh to found Furthermore Beer, Spring Green’s microbrew. Madden is active in the community and something of a celebrity in a very small town.
“Some of the people I worked with, the folks who came to New York to make it big, they thought I was crazy. I remember having a discussion with one of my friends whom I’d just done the off-Broadway show with. She was saying oh my gosh, you don’t want to go to Wisconsin; you’ll miss everything here. But as far as I know, she’s not acting anymore. It’s hard to stay acting in New York, to make a living and do things that are actually satisfying to the soul.
“I did worry that I might be missing out on something, and I certainly have. But that’s life. You open a door and other doors close. If I had stayed in New York and somehow become very famous, I don’t think that life would have suited me at all. I like this kind of work. It has afforded me a family. We’re not making buckets of money, but it’s OK, and I have room to breathe.
“As soon as I got to Spring Green, I felt at home. I remember looking up that night and seeing the stars—I hadn’t seen the stars in like a year.”
costume drawing courtesy Robert Morgan and American Players Theatre