Today, the company isn't culled exclusively from the ranks of Juilliard but includes a handful of top training institutions around the country, including Yale, NYU, and North Carolina School of the Arts. Despite the wide pool from which to pick, Harley finds it more challenging than in years past to secure actors who have both the interest and the ability to do classical rep.
"They were in less of a hurry 28 years ago," she reflects. "The first company stayed together for four years; some [companies] stayed for six, and one for eight. They were less concerned with film and television and more concerned with being great stage actors. Now, two or three years is the maximum that you can keep an actor. It's tougher to make a living doing [stage work], and people think slightly differently--understandably so." Neither Jean, who is in his second year with the Acting Company, nor Barron, who is in her first, plans to return next year.
Given the financial impossibility of making a living exclusively from theater acting, Nicholas Martin, the indefatigable director who found time to stage The Rivals, doesn't fault young actors for steering their careers toward TV and film. "On the other hand, if something like the Acting Company is available to you, it's a magnificent way to see the country and to feel like you're bringing theater to people who might not see it. I would find that irresistible," says Martin, who as an actor worked with Rosemary Harris and the late Ellis Rabb at the now-defunct Association of Producing Artists (APA) repertory company after college. "When I look back on those days, they were probably the happiest of my life because repertory is thrilling."
Harley would agree, and doesn't plan on changing much about the way the Acting Company does business. With an annual budget of about $2.2 million, the company will continue its popular Salon reading series of infrequently produced plays, which brings together alumni and current theater professionals. For each of the next five years, the company is commissioning a stage adaptation of a classic American book. Willa Cather's O Pioneers! kicks off the series next year, to be followed by Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson and Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. And Harley would like to stage an alumni show to mark the troupe's 30th anniversary. Previous reunions included productions of The Cradle Will Rock and On the Verge.
Looking back at her career with the Acting Company, is there one accomplishment that fills Harley with pride? "Just keeping it alive is a major accomplishment," she says. "There's less and less of this kind of theater around the country, so it becomes more and more important."