The Actors Company Theatre -- which, for nine years now, has become known for presenting readings of less-than-famous plays involving established NYC theater artists -- begins its 10th season on Monday, October 7 in its new home, the 400-seat Florence Gould Hall on East 59th Street.
Under the auspices of co-artistic directors Cynthia Harris, Simon Jones, and Scott Alan Evans, TACT kicks off the season with Anita Loos's 1946 comedy Happy Birthday. The story of a timid librarian who loosens up when she follows the man of her dreams to a bar and has her first drink, the play ran on Broadway for more than a year, starring Helen Hayes. It will be followed at TACT by Sheridan's 18th century comedy The Rivals (November), which was presented earlier this year at the company's annual summer benefit event in central Pennsylvania; Graham Greene's 1957 Tony nominee for best play, The Potting Shed (January); Jean Anouilh's 1941 Eurydice (March); and Paul Shyre and John Dos Passos's 1959 USA (May), set in the early 1900s.
To qualify for a TACT presentation, a play must not have received a "first-class" New York production in the last 15 years. Beyond that, the co-directors search for works from various countries and eras. Many of these plays require large casts -- Happy Birthday has 21 characters -- and would be prohibitively expensive to stage on a full scale.
"Basically, what we're doing is reviving plays whose titles we've all heard, but never seen," says Jones, an actor who first appeared with TACT in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party. "It's somewhere between radio and a full production." Evans says that the company's was formed, in part, as a response to the road that New York theater had taken in the early 1990s: "It was at the height of the big mega-musical," he says, "and [TACT] was definitely a reaction to this spectacle that Broadway had become -- the reliance on the technical and not on the artistry that actors bring to a text."
Over the years, TACT has accumulated more than 500 subscribers and now has an annual budget of $250,000, according to Evans, who directs many of the three-performance productions. Initially formed by a handful of veteran stage actors, the group's inaugural presentation was Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. When Evans was asked to direct a reading of Uncle Vanya, it occurred to him that the traditional play-reading setup -- with actors sitting and facing one another, waiting to "act" until they have a line -- ostracized the audience. So he turned his cast outward toward the house. "It does something really great for the actor -- forces them to listen and allows them to be present even when they're not talking," he explains
Past TACT productions have included The Madwoman of Chaillot, Light Up the Sky, Auntie Mame, and Look Homeward, Angel. The ensemble has swelled to 30-plus actors, including Paul Hecht, Larry Keith, Nancy Opel, and Cynthia Darlow. Last year, the group broke with tradition by presenting a full-scale production of a never-before-seen Noël Coward play, Long Island Sound; although the company is sticking with concert performances for 2002-03, Evans says there's talk of doing another full production next season. For more information on the group, visit the website www.tactnyc.org.