A Return to Theatric Roots
Madison Lyric Stage (MLS), originally conceived as a private performance site in a local barn, has risen to become one of the most innovative and cherished theaters in the shoreline. Executive Director John Johmann, along with his husband Mark Deaton, co-founded and quietly established MLS as a top-notch, audience challenging production company that is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Both John and Mark come from performing backgrounds. Deaton is artistic director for MLS, as well as an internationally renown operatic tenor, actor, and playwright who has performed and recorded with some of the most distinguished companies and orchestras around the globe. John began an acting career in New York, like many performers hoping for that big break that would allow him to trod the boards full time.
“When I came out of college I wanted to be an actor, singer, and performer, but I also had a part-time job at a public relations agency and they were very flexible with me. If I was doing a show, going on auditions, out on a tour, they were very supportive in that respect,” John says. “But as a few years that went by, opportunities began to rise at the agency, and frankly less opportunities on the acting front. So, as I began to give more time to the agency, I was suddenly having success at it and as that job became more demanding, theater for me kind of just evaporated.”
John says he had pretty much given up on the idea of performing despite his longing to tread the boards again.
“It was something that I missed desperately, but I just didn’t think that I would ever have that opportunity again,” says John. “So it was really when we moved to Madison and found this property that performing again might be doable.”
When John and Mark moved to Madison in 2007, they did so without any thought of trying to create a performance space or artistic venue on their gorgeous property. However, there was an old barn on the parcel that almost met a wrecking ball, but the couple saw a potential that they never dreamed would lead to a decade of performances.
“Honestly, the barn is older than the house. There were still animal stalls in here and it certainly wasn’t much to look at,” John says. “I always say we had very humble beginnings in a barn. The original idea is that we would do some small shows for family and friends in the barn, and brought up some singers from New York, and had some local musicians, and it really just kind of grew from there. It honestly has so much charm and it so fun to be in that ‘can do,’ roll-up-your-sleeves atmosphere.”
John says that with Mark’s encouragement he finally took to the stage again, and he and MLS haven’t looked back since.
“That very first concert we did at the barn I didn’t think I would even be a part of…‘I don’t do that anymore,’ but Mark said, ‘No, no no, you will absolutely be a part of it,’” John says. “And I can honestly say that it has been the gift of my life to be able to do this again. And to be able to express a part of myself that I had kept locked away for too long. I am a happier person, a more well-rounded person with this in my life.”
According to John, the quality and response from these private shows on their property outgrew the confines of their barn and morphed into an idea of presenting shows to the public and becoming a full-fledged theater.
“It started to become too much after a certain point. There was so much interest and to do the things on a scale that we envisioned and to attract a larger audience we would have to move outside of the barn,” John says.
With Mark’s connections, MLS is able to pay and cast a high level of talent, and with John’s public relations background, the pair are able to provide and fund a truly remarkable standard of performance that just isn’t found elsewhere on the shoreline.
MLS presented shows at several local venues trying to find its niche, all the while developing a unique set of offerings. Just before COVID shut down live performances, MLS joined forces with the Deacon Graves House in Madison and began to offer performances at the historic site.
Though they originally performed outside of the Grave home, in keeping with their unique perspective, they decided to present performances inside, helping establish their style. Their ability to be flexible and think outside of standard theater concepts came in handy when COVID reared its fangs at live performance.
“The first season we did there in 2018 we were outside under a tent…but that was particularly hot summer and we thought that people weren’t protected so much from the elements. So, the next production was a chamber opera and I said to Mark, ‘What is we did it inside the house?’ Mark said, ‘No way that’s impossible,’ but we came up with the concept of using two different rooms. We did performances for a small group in one room, and then move the actors and audience to another room, while the first room was reset the original for when they came back in. And I think it was a really, really cool concept that people really enjoyed. So, for the 2019 season we stayed in the house. It was a really intimate way to present performances and we thought that this is how we would present our seasons,” says John. “But then 2020 rolls around and the season was canceled. When we came back in 2021, we knew that the only way we could have a season was to be outdoors.”
To that end, MLS recently purchased a custom outdoor tent with a high level of ventilation for its performances.
John says that MLS has found a special place that isn’t quite community theater, but also isn’t bound to larger, big-themed shows of a professional theater. The interesting mix of opera, chamber, straight plays, and musicals have resonated with audiences and the mix, according to John, is what separates MLS and provides the shoreline with such a special venue for patrons.
“I feel like part of our mission from the beginning that we would always try to do one piece that was opera or classical in nature, one theater musical piece, and one play,” says John. “It doesn’t always happen every single year, but that’s what we try and strive for. We are somewhere in between, like a true equity theater [Actors Equity is the performing stage union] like Long Wharf or Ivoryton Playhouse and local community theaters, and I think we’re probably somewhere in between.”
John says that the support from the community has also been a huge factor in MLS’s ability to perform. Without the partnership and support, John says the theater would not have been able to achieve the level of success they have garnered.
“I feel like the arts enlighten us. The arts encourage us to think bigger than we may in our ordinary lives. Especially coming out of COVID, there is a need for community and that sense of belonging,” says John. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of the community, from an attendance perspective and from a support perspective. There have been a number or organizations in Madison that have been supportive not only now, but through the years.”
MLS is celebrating its 10th anniversary with another season of unique offerings. MLS just wrapped its first production of the season, a double bill of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins and Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, and will offer shows from June through September, including the classics Sweeney Todd, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Pippin.
“It’s another ambitious season, but we really wanted to do something ambitious for our tenth anniversary season,” says John. “The Madison Foundation has been a partner for many years now. We are developing a partnership with the Madison Rotary Club who have been of incredible help this year. The new Chase Bank branch is on board this year as well. That support is vital and critical to our ability to keep this going.”
For more information about MLS and a full listing of its season, visit www.madisonlyricstage.org.