The many talents of Wisconsin’s James DeVita

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

At one time, Wisconsin theatergoers had to wait until American Players Theatre opened each June to get a glimpse of actor James DeVita’s latest Shakespeare-under the-stars characterizations. For many, his performances became one of the main reasons to make the trek to the Spring Green open-air amphitheater.

But in the last decade or so, things have changed. DeVita, who once filled his offseasons with only the occasional stage role in Milwaukee or Madison, has branched out in other directions.

In fact, the Long Island, New York, native may be Wisconsin’s most successful theatrical “triple threat,” adding playwriting and direction to a résumé already chock-full of memorable classical and contemporary performances.

He’s also the author of YA books and crime thrillers.

Consider what DeVita has teed up for 2017:

  • In January, DeVita and wife Brenda DeVita, APT’s artistic director, joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall for its “Beyond the Score” performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, with DeVita in the role of the Russian composer.
  • On Feb. 24, DeVita narrated The Soldier’s Tale — Igor Stravinsky’s moving chamber work about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil — in a performance with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at the Capitol Theater in Madison’s Overture Center.
  • In February, DeVita helped sift through 350 submissions, stringing 12 of them together to create the narrative for Theatre LILA’s original production of The Bed, which he is co-directing March 10-19 in the Frederic March Play Circle in the Wisconsin Union Theater on the UW-Madison campus.
  • On March 20, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre will host a staged reading of Christmas in Babylon, DeVita’s play about a working class family’s holiday in Babylon, New York, in the Skylight Bar & Bistro in the Broadway Theater Center.
  • Madison’s Forward Theater commissioned and will stage the world premiere of Learning to Stay, DeVita’s stage adaptation of Erin Cellelo’s novel about a returning Iraq War veteran, which runs March 23-April 9 in The Playhouse at Overture Center for the Arts.

Once summer hits and APT is in full bloom, DeVita will direct his own adaptation of Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as appear in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and APT’s November shoulder-season production of August Strindberg’s Creditors.

DeVita talked recently with the Wisconsin Gazette about his migration from acting to writing and directing, and where he finds his creative muses.

Wisconsin Gazette: Many who saw your autobiographical play In Acting Shakespeare were no doubt surprised to learn that your career began as a commercial fisherman. How did you make the change to acting?

James DeVita: Actually, I worked mostly on charter boats, open boats and I also clammed and scalloped. Commercial fishing was less lucrative then, but the few commercial boats I worked usually stayed within 20 miles of shore and we did day sets, which means we were back at the dock the same day. So, I wasn’t Deadliest Catch or anything.

Suffice it to say, fishing is a hard way to make a living after the romantic bloom washes off. I tried many things as a young man, dropped out of college twice, and, the third time back, at yet another community college, I saw a play — and thatUPAF was it. I was hooked. (Pun intended.) I was 22 years old when I first became interested in acting. But if I’m ever out of work, I can still fillet fish.

I assume that acting came first, but you have over the years moved into writing and directing. How did that happen?

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a writer. I still have my sixth-grade teacher’s note pinned up in my office that says, “Perhaps one day you will be a writer. Work hard.”

I always loved reading and writing, but never showed anybody anything I had written until I was about 31. I was too embarrassed. Who was I to think I could write?

The first thing I wrote was a one-person play, because I was out of work in Milwaukee at the time. It was called Waiting for Vern. Michael Wright, now the artistic director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, was the first person to see anything I wrote. We were both very young actors trying to make a living in Milwaukee at the time. He helped me edit and rewrite the play, and he eventually directed me in it.

Shortly after that, First Stage Children’s Theater took a chance on me to adapt a novel (bless them), and I ended up being resident playwright there for almost 15 years and writing as many plays within that time.

So, my writing grew out of my acting and then directing grew out of my acting.

Directing, then, came third in your theatrical skill set?

Yes. I started directing about 10 years ago with small shows and then worked my way up to Richard II and Romeo and Juliet. This year I’m directing Cyrano de Bergerac.

I think directing is a very natural outgrowth of acting. If you are in this business long enough — and I have been in it a long time now — directing is a very common next step. The lion’s share of good directors with whom I have worked have, at one time, been actors. I love actors, and I trust them. I find great reward in facilitating a rehearsal environment where they feel free and confident to do what it is they do best and to explore without judgment.

How do you approach the different disciplines of acting, writing and directing?

I find them all equally difficult. They are all skills that are not master-able, and each time you see how much better you can get. “Fail better,” as Samuel Beckett said.

I do find much in common about the three disciplines. Rough first drafts of chapters feel to me much like my first rough rehearsals as an actor, which feels much like my first attempts at staging as a director. All three are judged by what I’ll call a sense of authenticity.

What is that? It’s subjective, of course. But I feel, when reading a book, or watching a play, or watching an actor, we crave a sense of authenticity, something in us wants to believe that what we are seeing has a sense of truth to it, that these events and people actually exist. If “truth” is not the best word to describe it, then I would say that authenticity is at least the feeling that what you are watching, or seeing, or hearing is at least not not true.

What’s next for you?

I am currently 50,000 words in to a second novel in a series featuring Detective James Mangan. It picks up where my last book, A Winsome Murder, leaves off. I can’t say much, as it’s a mystery, but those who know the book might find it fun to know that Detective Mangan has left Chicago and moved to a small town in Wisconsin!