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Acting Out

The Acting Company keeps classical rep alive across America. logo

The three witches of Macbeth
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.
A scene from
The Rivals
As a student, Jean was aware of the Acting Company's illustrious heritage. Formed in 1972 by renowned actor-director John Houseman and current producing director Margot Harley from members of the first graduating drama class at Juilliard, the troupe germinated with an ensemble consisting of Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, and David Ogden Stiers, to name a few. "They had already become a really impressive ensemble," Harley, 64, remembers. "We realized that we needed to keep them together, because they had been well-trained but they didn't have any real performance experience."

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."

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