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How Do You Build a Compelling Repertory Season?

Date: Jul 11, 2019

Two veteran theatre companies bring plays by Shakespeare, Stoppard, Václav Havel and more to NYC this summer


Producing just one show is tough. Rotating multiple shows at once with overlapping cast and crew? That may sound like lunacy, but it's the nature of repertory theatre. While this model is popular at regional theatres, it's not as common in New York City. But this summer, two venerable troupes are mounting thought-provoking repertory seasons Off-Broadway.

Founded by the late legendary producer/director/actor John Houseman in 1972, The Acting Company is presenting Shakespeare's unsettling "problem comedy" Measure for Measure alongside Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation of Richard Wright's groundbreaking novel Native Son at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street from July 14 to August 24. At Atlantic Stage 2 through August 4, PTP/NYC pairs a program of two Tom Stoppard one-acts, Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot's Macbeth, with an evening of politically charged shorts: three by Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel (Audience, Private View and Protest), bookended by Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe (written in tribute to Havel) and Harold Pinter's New World Order.

Finding actors who can handle such diverse and challenging material is key to a successful repertory season. PTP/NYC, which is aligned with the theatre program at Vermont's Middlebury College, selects about a dozen third- and fourth-year students to work alongside established professionals. "It's total immersion," says Cheryl Faraone, who cofounded PTP/NYC in 1987 with Richard Romagnoli and Jim Petosa. "It's tough, but it's deliberately tough. When they're not acting, they're the tech crew, they run the shows. They loaded up the truck in Vermont, they unloaded it here in New York, and they work the entire season."

For decades The Acting Company picked its performers from Juilliard's graduating Drama Division. Recently however, the troupe has broadened its base. This season's cast also includes new alumnae from other leading conservatory programs, including American Conservatory Theater and Yale. "We're driven by our dedication to developing young classical actors, that's at the heart of what we do," explains artistic director Ian Belknap. "I really want to show young actors in repertory to New York City audiences. I see a lot of places developing playwrights, but I don't see a lot of people spending time developing actors. The skills required to do a play like Measure for Measure are different from the skills you need for a contemporary text like Native Son."


As for choosing repertoire, both artistic directors stress that the plays must speak to each other. The Acting Company always juxtaposes a classical work and a more modern text that share thematic resonance. "At the heart of this season's plays are two young people trying to figure out how to live in the world," says Belknap. Meanwhile, PTP/NYC has a history of producing what its triumvirate calls "politically and socially acute theater." According to Faraone, "We're interested in work that connects to what's going on in the world, but not necessarily with an equal sign. In other words, we'd never do something that was a Trump parody." The thread connecting this season's two programs is Havel's "living in truth" philosophy, the notion that embracing truth is the only way to fight tyranny.

Since Havel's plays were banned in his homeland in the 1960s and '70s, they had to be performed covertly in peoples' living rooms. Inspired by that phenomenon, Stoppard's Cahoot's Macbeth is about an audience gathering in an apartment to see a greatly truncated version of the Scottish Play that's interrupted by a bumbling but powerful government inspector. In their darkly comic way, both Cahoot's Macbeth and Dogg's Hamlet depict language under pressure and the collision of citizens living in different spheres -- a metaphor for our divided nation.

Although less overt about it, The Acting Company's season also has political undertones. Native Son and Measure for Measure both center on individuals trying to navigate corrupt societies. In the former, an impoverished black man in '30s Chicago succumbs to a life of crime only to realize systemic racism sealed his fate. In the latter, an aspiring nun in 17th-century Vienna must outwit a crooked official who wants her virginity in exchange for the life of her brother, who's set to be executed for having premarital sex. "The notion of a leader giving an absolute edict that polarizes society and calls into question its very principles certainly reflects our current moment," says Belknap.

The rehearsal process is where these companies diverge. Since The Acting Company uses the same performers for both plays, they prepared each separately. "For many this is their first job, and splitting days between two different [projects] can be a pretty steep curve and lead to burnout," explains Belknap.


With one exception, PTP/NYC's performers appear in one program each, so they rehearsed the Stoppard plays for half the day, then segued to the Havel lineup. Christopher Marshall -- who first worked with the company as a Middlebury student 25 years ago -- is the sole actor in both evenings, and he relishes the opportunity to play such different characters in such different shows, sometimes on the same day. "To be able to do two parts literally within a four-hour period of each other is so enriching," he says.

And that's what makes repertory theatre such an exciting experience for audiences, too. It's a chance to see versatility in action, both in terms of the performances and the plays themselves. As Faraone says, "It's a way to take our limited performance time, which is essentially a month, and say as much as we possibly can."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Acting Company's Measure for Measure and Native Son; and PTP/NYC's Havel: The Passion of Thought. Go here to browse our current offers.

Michael Paller, former dramaturg and Director of Humanities at the American Conservatory Theater, is a freelance writer..

Top image: Jason Bowen in The Acting Company's production of Native Son. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.