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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 05:15 pm

Magical Spring Green

A visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, one of his most acclaimed works

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Taliesin’s waterfall that Frank Lloyd Wright designed adds to the natural beauty of the landscape.
PHOTO BY MARY GALLIGAN

Taliesin’s waterfall that Frank Lloyd Wright designed adds to the natural beauty of the landscape.
PHOTO BY MARY GALLIGAN

In the first act, an evil-looking insect perches on an actress’s arm. Later in the play, bats take flight during a heated argument and finally a small plane drones overhead as the actors reveal a terrible secret. At the American Players Theatre, the outdoor setting is part of the drama, in this case a performance of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons on a warm September evening in Spring Green, Wis.

Combining art with nature comes naturally in this small town in southwestern Wisconsin, 300 miles from Springfield and well worth a weekend visit. Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with the area’s natural beauty as a young boy. Many years later, the founders of the American Players Theatre chose it as the perfect outdoor setting where they could perform the classics, especially Shakespeare’s plays.

The rolling hills, bluffs and picturesque valleys near the Wisconsin River provided a peaceful refuge for Wright, who had abandoned his first wife, children and his architectural practice in 1909, causing a scandal that followed him to Europe. When he moved to Spring Green in 1911, he built the house he called Taliesin, Welsh for “shining brow,” on a hill about 60 feet above a valley. Over the next 48 years, Wright made Taliesin his personal residence and one of his most acclaimed works.

Olgivanna Wright’s recently restored bedroom is part of the house tour.
PHOTOS ©PEDRO E. GUERRERO, COURTESY TALIESIN PRESERVATION, INC.
Through the end of October, visitors can tour both the house and most of the complex, which includes Wright’s living quarters, guest rooms, studio, the Hillside School where he founded his architectural fellowship, farm buildings, gardens and terraces. Taliesin has four different tours, as well as specialty tours offered once a month. Reservations are recommended for all tours, which include walking up steps and hillsides. Accessible tours are available by special arrangement with three weeks’ notice, and an exterior shuttle/walking tour is available on November weekends.

Preservation work is ongoing at all four primary buildings on the 600-acre site, with the long-term goal of opening most of the buildings year round.

The bedroom for Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna, has undergone a major renovation, making it a highlight of the house tour. The living room is the spectacular centerpiece, with large windows that open onto the hillsides and valley, framing the views like Wright’s favorite Japanese prints. The room includes chairs and tables designed by Wright, a six-paneled Japanese screen and Chinese rugs.

All tours start at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, designed by Wright in 1953 as a restaurant overlooking the Wisconsin River. The building now includes the Taliesin Bookstore and the Riverview Terrace Cafe, a good spot for lunch or dinner.

Wright may have played a role in the American Players Theatre’s (APT) decision to settle on 110 acres of rolling, wooded hills near Spring Green. “There’s a story that both Wright and Randy Kim (Randall Duk Kim, one of the original founders no longer with APT but who appears onstage and in films) were both zealots and found powerful magic here,” said James Bohnen, a director who’s now in his 17th season at APT. “Randy Kim had looked all over the country and someone told him you should go to Taliesin where Frank Lloyd Wright lived.”

Wright designed the Hillside School in 1902 for his two aunts who ran a boarding school. When he began his architectural school, he added a 5,000-square-foot “abstract forest” drafting studio.
PHOTO BY MARY GALLIGAN


Now in its 34th season, the APT has made its own magic in the woods. The Up the Hill theater has 1,148 seats and wonderful acoustics in its natural amphitheater. The 200-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre down the hill allows the season to stretch into November.

Besides All My Sons, this fall the Up the Hill theater is presenting: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. The Touchstone Theatre features an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Dickens in America by James DeVita, and Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel. From Nov. 1 to 24, the Touchstone Theatre will present Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton.

The APT attracts some of the best directors and actors in Chicago and other cities in the Midwest, and some company members have become part of the community. Two years ago Bohnen opened Arcadia Books, a bookstore and cafe, in downtown Spring Green and bought a house in the area. “Arcadia has become what I hoped, a meeting place for people and a place where cultural discussions can happen. It’s what I couldn’t do in Chicago,” said Bohnen, who for 15 years was artistic director at Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theatre.    

American Players Theatre information is available at www.americanplayers.org or the box office at 608-588-2361. Information about Taliesin tours is available at www.taliesinpreservation.org. Or email Taliesin at tours@taliesinpreservation.org.

Spring Green is located 40 miles from Madison, Wis., and about 190 miles from Chicago. Other attractions nearby are the House on the Rock, Governor Dodge State Park and Tower Hill State Park.

Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer in Chicago. A Decatur native, Mary received her master’s degree in journalism from Sangamon State University (now UIS). She has worked as an editorial writer for Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers, Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report magazine, an editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, and adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University. 

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