Reading with TACT
Scott Alan Evans and Cynthia Harris of The Actors Theatre Company talk about performing the greatest plays you've never seen.
Sometimes thwarted plans yield the most exciting results. When a group of professional actors and directors came together in 1992 to stage the kind of theater that they felt was lacking in the New York scene, they discovered it was a far more expensive venture what they had anticipated. To keep the fledgling company alive, they developed a series of play readings and soon realized that the company had found its niche: "concert performance."
The Actor's Company Theatre, TACT, has made its mission to present works of literary merit that too often go unseen. The troupe's format of thoroughly rehearsed, staged readings is designed to focus on the text itself, rather than action, and the actors perform with scripts in hand. The mission to present professional readings with the addition of music (provided by Manhattan School of Music students), after-play discussions, and refreshments with the artists has brought TACT a loyal following.
TACT is now in the midst of its current season and will be presenting Alexander Ostrovsky's A Family Affair from February 16 through 19. Two of the company members and co-artistic directors, Scott Alan Evans and Cynthia Harris, spoke to TheaterMania about their company and the upcoming show.
THEATERMANIA: What concept originally brought the company together?
SCOTT ALAN EVANS: Well, it's a group of professional actors who all make their living through acting, whose work in film, television, the commercial world, and theater didn't always or rarely satisfied their real artistic needs. We also have a common love of literature.
CYNTHIA HARRIS: We noticed that in New York theater today, which is highly commercial, there is a whole body of theatrical literature that would never be approached because of the confines of professional Broadway or Off-Broadway productions, which are so expensive that it's hard to do a production with more than 5 people. And we were ready to attack great roles--the important roles of theater--in plays that aren't often done in this country as opposed to England, which has the RNC or the National. Personally, I felt like I was at a stage in my development as an actress where I could challenge myself to do these great roles, but there was no place I was ever gonna do them! And the audience would never see these plays.
EVANS: They'd certainly never see them with the kind of professional actors we have in our company. Some of these plays are done at universities and regional theaters, but we're able to draw a caliber of actors that you don't always see.
HARRIS: There was another factor in our minds: The young of America have no idea what theater is. They know what it is to put their feet up on a sofa and watch television, but they don't know that theater is exciting, fun, amusing, moving. We thought, maybe, it was up to us to try to change that.
EVANS: One of the things that we did was to cut our ticket prices. We allow everyone access to the quality of our material and these productions.
HARRIS: I'll give you an example. You know that Voices! reading series at City Center? They rehearse not at all, do the reading for one night, and they charge $35 per ticket.
EVANS: We, on the other hand, don't call our productions "readings." We call them "concert performances" because, if you go to a concert, the singers don't stand there with their heads in their scores. They use them on a stand for reference. That's what our actors do; they hold the scripts and use them for reference. Our productions are rather extensively rehearsed, so we really bring the plays to life.
TM: How much rehearsal time do you have?
EVANS: We rehearse over a two-week period, around people's schedules.
TM: Is there a core group of members that you work with?
EVANS: What's really amazing is that this is an ongoing company of professional actors that acts like a rep company. We invite new people to work with us all the time, but the company does cast primarily from itself. When we need to go outside, we bring in really great people. We add new members several times a year, but the company stays remarkably stable. We've never had anybody quit. It's a really great artistic home.
HARRIS: We are allowed to come and go. I did a [TV] series for many years, and I commuted to New York. I was committed to the company without hurting my living doing commercial television, film, or whatever. But I always come home.
TM: How many members do you have at the moment?
EVANS: There are 27 actors. We have an adjunct company of composers, stage managers, etc., as well.
TM: I'm interested in TACT's relationship with the Manhattan School of Music.
EVANS: That's something we're extremely proud of. It's been ongoing from our first season; we have this creative partnership with Manhattan School of Music and their faculty, their alumni, and their current students. We commission exclusive, incidental musical scores for all our productions, which they compose and which are played by many of their musicians live at our performances.
TM: Tell me about your upcoming production.
EVANS: It's called A Family Affair, and we're doing an adaptation by Nick Dear, a hip British playwright. This, for us, is a very small show; only eight characters.
TM: How many do you usually have?
EVANS: Anywhere from eight to 27.
HARRIS: We did Madwoman of Chaillot.
EVANS: That had 25 characters, I think.
HARRIS: We did Mame--the original play, not the musical. We range. Our productions are fun.
TM: What are you looking for when you choose plays to produce each season?
EVANS: Our mission is to present neglected or rarely seen plays; plays that you can't see in New York City, or that haven't been produced in a first class production in at least 15 years. That's kind of the boundary we've placed on ourselves.
HARRIS: And then we go on to the next thing: What would suit the company, and what would suit the audience? What do we feel they might enjoy that they've never even heard of, or never thought they would love? What would show the company to best advantage and allow them to grow and learn?
EVANS: In addition, we try to balance the whole season so there's a great mix of plays. Perhaps a British play, an American play, a Russian play. The last several seasons, we've centered our choices around a central theme. Last year was politics; this year, we're calling it 'TACT Turns the Tables,' and all the plays we're doing have unexpected twists and turns.
HARRIS: We just did a fantastic play that I think would make a great commercial musical: The Admirable Crichton by J.M Barrie. It's about an Edwardian family that gets shipwrecked, and everybody's position shifts. The master is incapable of running the ship, so the butler becomes the master and then they get rescued.
EVANS: It's a perfect example of the kind of play we do; many people have heard the title, but very few people have ever actually seen the play. They may have read it in college but they've never had a chance to see a production of The Admirable Crichton, partly because it has 23 characters. That was a huge success for us.
TM: It seems the company has gained quite a bit of popularity, but you only do three performances of each play. Have you ever thought of extending?
EVANS: No. We can do [these readings] and get the actors we get because the time commitment is not extensive. The people who are part of the company are all making a living and acting elsewhere,
HARRIS: We're planning an important move next year that will allow us to have more of an audience. We have to work at it, because we're non-profit; we do it all ourselves.
TM: The New-York Historical Society is where you perform now, correct?
EVANS: Yeah, and it's about a 250-seat theater. Because we only do three performances of each play, that's too small.
HARRIS: The other thing we do is serve wine and seltzer. At the intermission and at the end of the show, the cast mixes with the audience, and it's like a family. "We missed you last month, where were you?" "I was out of town." "Oh, welcome home!" It's amazing.
EVANS: There are many theaters that say they have a company, but someone works with them once and they never work with them again. Our company is not that large, and if someone is available and the role is right for them, they're in the show. Our audience becomes very familiar with the actors; there's great pleasure for them in seeing an actor play one kind of role in one show and a very different kind of role in the next, or a major role and then a cameo. What's really funny is that our audience is proprietary; we're their company.
HARRIS: And when we're not in a play, we're in the front of the house doing other things, like greeting. We're always there. If you're starring in something on television, it doesn't mean you can't usher for our company or do a walk-on. It's so great not to worry about billing!
TM: Anything else you'd like to mention about TACT in general or your upcoming performances?
EVANS: I think you need to see what we do. It really is special.