Jennifer Uphoff Gray, , Forward Theater Company

After the Madison Repertory Theatre closed in 2009, Jennifer Uphoff Gray sat down with other local theater types to brainstorm ideas for a new professional equity troupe. The goal, they decided, would be to serve Madison, rather than simply to pursue their own artistic obsessions.

Thus was born Forward Theater Company, notable for its strong ties to the community. This is a troupe that aggressively solicits feedback from audiences, hosting talkbacks after every show. As a result, its seasons feature imaginative choices that nevertheless appeal to a broad range of people. Forward also raises money for nonprofits and discounts tickets for needy theater lovers.

Gray, the artistic director, notes that the troupe connected with a local audience right away. "The level of support in the community blew us all away. We're about to turn 3½, and we're a resident company at Overture, we have 2,100 subscribers for this season, and we sold 96% of the seats we had available last season."

You can see what all the fuss is about at Forward's current production, 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, which runs in the Overture Playhouse through Oct. 7.

Gray, 41, grew up in the Madison area and spent 12 years working as a director in New York City. She decided to come back, believe it or not, because Wisconsin seemed like a more fulfilling place to do theater.

"New York is such a big market that you could never count on encountering an audience member twice at different shows you worked on," she says. "In Madison, the audiences have an incredible level of engagement and curiosity. There's just a hunger, not only to see great theater, but to learn about it and see it as part of our greater community."

For an artist, Gray is remarkably tuned in to the Madison economy. She notes that Forward hires local people and buys local materials, so that the money stays in the area.

"There's been all kinds of research on how a thriving creative class can elevate an entire community's success," she says.

- Dean Robbins