Staying Put: Is It Time to Revisit the Lost Ideal of Permanent Acting Companies?

Article excerpt

LAST SPRING, WHEN SAN Francisco's American Conservatory Theater announced the formation of a core acting company of four for the coming season, local audiences responded with a burst of enthusiasm that caught artistic director Carey Perloff by surprise. The board of directors "lit up," Perloff recalls. Subscribers e-mailed their approval.

In fact, many ACT patrons had been longing for the opportunity to watch actors they admired develop and transform over time. At least some must remember back to 1967, when William Ball first swaggered into town with his large and illustrious ensemble (which included Rene Auberjonois, Sada Thompson and Peter Donat, among others). Perloff herself has been "hungry for a company" for a long time. She believes that an ongoing, committed group of actors-in-residence can nourish an organization--and affect a community--in unique ways, and be deeply nourished in return.

Although the old European ideal of company was one of the founding principles of the regional theatre movement, that ideal has largely been abandoned. The common wisdom is that it can't be done today in America--that it's practically and economically unfeasible for actors as well as organizations. And yet some theatres do maintain full-time acting companies of various sizes and levels of yearly commitment. Among them are Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, R.I., the Alley Theatre of Houston, Shakespeare Theatre of Washington,. D.C., American Repertory Theatre of Cambridge, Mass., the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and some of the Shakespeare festivals--most notably, the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival of Ashland, which boasts the nation's largest resident acting company (at more than 70 for the current season), as well as such newcomers to the concept as the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, whose current full-time ensemble of five is augmented by the CSF Young Company, a team of seven full-time intern artists who perform both on the mainstage and in area schools. And now ACT has made a back-to-the-future leap that might prompt other regional theatres to rethink their policies on actor employment.

"We complain that we don't think actors are loyal to us, and we're losing them to other media, but what are we actually doing about it?" Perloff asks. She concedes that the move to create a company requires "considerable financial commitment," a choice ACT was willing, albeit cautiously, to make. The four actors--Marco Barricelli, Steven Anthony Jones, Gregory Wallace and Rene Augesen--will receive a weekly salary (a "little more" than what ACT's leading actors make) for 52 weeks. "Actors think that a yearlong commitment is monumental, but we do it with administrators all the time," Perloff observes. In addition to mainstage work (including understudying and assistant directing), the core four will attend fundraising events, participate in season planning and teach in the conservatory.

"Having a commitment to an entire organization is an interesting new phenomenon for me," admits Barricelli, who first won the hearts of Perloff and ACT audiences when he appeared in The Rose Tattoo five years ago. "Before, I wanted the show to do well," he reasons. "Now I want the organization to benefit from having done the production."

For Barricelli, having a role in choosing plays is the single most important aspect of the new arrangement. Last year, even before the company was officially formed, he successfully lobbied for Glengarry Glen Ross and Enrico IV, two plays he cared about deeply (and--as the critical response confirmed--performed in brilliantly). Barricelli acknowledges that actors give up a lot when they take themselves out of the market to settle down at one location, but for him the decision was a no-brainer. He's already done the "L.A. thing," and he scoffs at the notion, sometimes bandied about, that company actors, relieved of the familiar struggle to survive, could become complacent, lose their edge. …