On a recent Monday morning, the Acting Company wrapped up its four-month national tour with a performance of Macbeth at a Pittsburgh high school. By afternoon, the 13 members of the repertory company and their stage manager were on a bus bound for New York.
Not much respite awaited them there. They would be on stage again on Tuesday night, shifting from Shakespearean tragedy to Restoration comedy for the first of eight performances of Sheridan's The Rivals, to be followed by four more of the Scottish play. But exuberance offset fatigue as they recounted (via cell phone while traveling across Pennsylvania) their crash course in the almost extinct institution of touring repertory.
For each of the last 28 years, the Acting Company has sent out a troupe of well-trained budding professionals to perform classic plays across the country. This year, the 52-city journey took them to schools and communities from Alaska to Virginia and everywhere in between, playing houses as big as 2,000 seats.
"There must have been a group of 40 fifth graders, all waiting to talk to Macbeth and get autographs," says Christopher Jean, who plays the murderous monarch, describing the aftermath of a performance at a Philadelphia school. "They were getting ready to perform [The Taming of the Shrew], and they wanted a few tips from an actor about what to do with Shakespeare."
The company's audiences are as varied as their locales, observes Mia Barron, an alumna of the New York University graduate program, who plays the sensible heroine Julia in The Rivals and a witch in Macbeth. "Sometimes you're introducing theater to a group of people and they seem to respond very enthusiastically and deeply," she says. "Other times, because there's no tradition of theatergoing, it feels like they're not really understanding the language, and it's frustrating."
Traveling across America by bus to perform classic plays may not be every young actor's dream job, but Jean and Barron were lured by the company's reputation and their own experience in conservatory acting ensembles. "School is great up to a point," says Jean, a 30-year-old Juilliard graduate. "After that, you have to figure out what to do in front of an audience in Iowa, and how they listen differently from an audience in Anchorage, Alaska. Regionally, there are differences in the way people hear language, how they use language in their daily life, and how they listen to a play."
Both Jean and Barron were excited about being part of an acting ensemble again. "As you get to know each other," notes Barron, "you learn to trust each other and respect each other, and I think the work is better and deeper because of that.