Stages of Summer: Former director documents UWEC summer theater

by Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Wil Denson
Wil Denson

Summer theater in Eau Claire was born in 1965, the child of former UW-Eau Claire President Leonard Haas and a troupe of dedicated performers. Over the years, the theater was called the Patio Playhouse or the Company Playhouse, but most consistently it was called “that summer theater down by the college,” according to Wil Denson, who joined the university theater faculty and became involved with summer theater in 1966. Denson, a playwright, director, and professor who directed the theater for more than 25 years, will host a reading of his new book, Life Upon the Wicked Stage: Director’s Cut, which details the history of the program, at the Volume One Gallery on Feb. 9.

Nothing was more important to Denson than the summer theater during the years he directed it. He worked tirelessly through the warm months for little pay, striving to achieve ticket sales and reputation that would keep the endeavor going.

By Denson’s reckoning, it was easier in the first two decades. They had talented volunteers and actors and an engaged audience. By the mid-’90s, however, attendance had dropped off. Theater-goers were an aging group without replacement from newer generations. It was harder to find students who could afford to work without pay during the summer months. The final season took place in 1998.

The friends Denson made during his decades with the summer theater have kept in touch and urged him to write down his memories of the company. Along with accounts of the theater’s 126 productions, the book contains cast and crew lists, 50 full-page photos, and more.

“The book is intended for the multitudes of people who worked with me there as well as the thousands and thousands of Chippewa Valley residents who formed our audience,” Denson said. “Perhaps the book can call up a pleasant memory or two.”

Everyone is welcome to attend the reading, which runs 7-9pm Friday, Feb. 9. Former summer theater actors and musicians including Larry Heagle, Steve Turek, Jeff Rochon, and Carole Spenser will perform readings from the book. Copies will be available for $15.

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