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In the Company of Actors

From Shakespeare to Willa Cather and beyond, The Acting Company does it all.

Corey Behnke, Michael Thomas Holmes,
Royden Mills, Matt Hoverman, and Gregory Jackson
in The Comedy of Errors
(Photo: Ken Howard)
Next year, The Acting Company, which uses the slogan "classics for our times" as part of its promotion, will celebrate 30 years of those times. Margot Harley, now producing director, has been watching over the troupe since day one. That vaunted day came about in 1972 when she and John Houseman, the company founder as well at the founder of the Juilliard drama division, decided that their graduating acting students were "well trained, but not in every performance aspect."

Harley's speaking at a crowded mid-Manhattan restaurant about the current Acting Company season and the many seasons and actors (approximately 300 thesps by now) preceding it. "To become a good actor," she insists, "you have to do it and then you have to do it over again, and over and over and over." One of the best ways to really get that experience, she says, is by touring. And so she and Houseman decided that students graduating from the four-year Juilliard program would be offered the opportunity to extend and complete their education in a touring company.

Now, in 2001, students who include not only Juilliard grads but alumni from other programs (NYU, Yale and like that) are on tour in Darrah Cloud's adaptation of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! with songs by Cloud and Kim D. Sherman, and in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors with songs by Trevor Nunn and Guy Woolfenden.

Why two musicals? "I'd wanted to do musicals for a while," Harley says, "but they require actors who can sing!" And, this year The Acting Company has them. According to Harley, "[Associate producer and director] Richard Corley] wanted to do O Pioneers! I'd been thinking about The Comedy of Errors for some time. Kevin Kline (a former Acting Company member) had mentioned it and, when Judi Dench was here in Amy's View, she reminded me about it." Dench, who sings from time to time, was in the original production of this Comedy of Errors treatment at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

So the Acting Company season was plotted and very little had to be done to get it ready on a $2.2 million budget, $1.4 million of which Harley has to raise. Cloud agreed to change the opening scenes and add a few song to O Pioneers! And The Comedy of Errors, which was adapted as a musical in the 1970s but not set in that period the first time out, was given a '70s look.

Committed as she is to keeping her company going, Harley looks at the last 30 years and sees a number of pluses and minuses. "The original idea was twofold," she says. "We wanted to give actors the chance to do the great classics, and we wanted to build an audience for the classics." She says that she knows the building audiences part is working because, when people she meets learn who she is, "they tell me what the productions have meant to them." She relates that, when the immediately recognizable John Houseman was alive, "he liked to walk around and people would always stop him and say, 'I must thank you for the Acting Company. You changed my life.' "

Matt Hoverman, Royden Mills,
and Erika Rolfsrud in O Pioneers!
(Photo: Ken Howard)
To change as many lives as possible, Harley pushes for a large number of matinee performances, so that younger people get to attend. ("We're at the mercy of our bookers," she declares.) And she keeps an eye on ticket prices. ("Who the hell can go to the theater now?" she wonders aloud.) Tickets for The Acting Company's shows are generally in the $15 to $20 range, but go as low as $8 and rarely higher than $30. Often, on non-matinee days, the company heads off to schools to perform a one-hour Shakespeare program during which the actors talk to students; this year it's a truncated version of Romeo and Juliet, next year it's Othello.

Harley goes on the road herself every month or so, and reports that some changes aren't fortuitous. She notes that, although The Acting Company will do a new play every once in a while, bookers are reluctant about handing out dates for those because the titles are unknown to prospective audiences. "Even with Shakespeare," she says, "some bookers only want the more familiar titles." She also comments that, whereas the company was out performing for eight months per year in the early days, touring is now down to five months annually, with many split weeks and one-night stands.

And, she says, actors' goals have changed. "In the early days, they would kill to go with the company," she recalls. "It isn't true anymore. For many young actors now, that isn't what they want to do. You can tell the difference between who sees it as a gig and who sees it as an opportunity." She insists she can tell the giggers from the opportunity seizers by the questions asked during casting: The giggers want to know, "Will we play L.A., and can I get out of rehearsals for an audition?" Although Harley is aware of the attraction of movie and television careers, she doesn't entirely understand why young actors don't jump at the chance to join a group of roving players. "The Acting Company is completely young," she notes, and its members "get to play parts they don't often get to play. So often, actors get out of school and they don't do anything. Their agents tell them they have to stay in New York."

Harley herself started as a dancer and worked with Doris Humphrey, Helen Tamiris, Hanya Holm, etc. When she realized that she couldn't live on a modern dancer's wages, she went into Broadway shows; but she found that unrewarding, and so decided to train at LAMDA. Having done that, she concluded that she was a dancer, not an actor, and gave the whole thing up. On a whim, she sent her résumé to Houseman, who was just starting at Juilliard. She was "hired in about eight minutes" to become the administrator of the incipient drama department. "I thought Houseman must have been desperate," she says, "but he always said he wasn't. I learned everything I know from John."

So she was there in 1968 for the first class, which included Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, David Schramm, David Ogden Stiers, and Mary Lou Rosato, Mary Joan Negro. And she was there when those same aspirants ventured out as the inaugural Acting Company. Looking back, Harley says that her favorite production was probably the version of The Three Sisters that the third-season touring company mounted.

Harley goes on with her fundraising and casting and planning; she has it in mind to mark next year's anniversary with an alumni production. Calling herself "dedicated," she explains that her devotion arises from the belief that "We make a difference."


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