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Should the Repertory Company Come Back?

ART TIMES April 2008

Back in the good old days – which means the 19th century for the USA and up to the 1960ís or so for the UK – there were such things as repertory companies. Actually, I shouldnít be quite so limiting; there are a few repertory companies around even today. Just not many. Theater managements did not use the system well, and in comparison, long runs and jobbed-in actors looked better.

But back in the good old days, a theatrical company would be put together for an entire season, an entire year, or even longer, and the companyís actors would perform a variety of roles over a variety of plays during that time.

Actors would get to know each other. Directors would get to know actors. Audiences would get to know actors. Thereís a great deal of nostalgia for this, and itís easy to see why. In todayís theatrical world, working relationships and even personal relationships can be fleeting, or in the worst case, nasty, brutish and short.

So we look back to the days of the repertory company. Was it heaven or hell?

The problem was that in many cases the system was used without skill or imagination. Actors would be typecast, and so would the repertory, plays being chosen not for actual intrinsic dramatic merit but because they fit the typecast company. This was the age of the country manor murder, the country manor farce, the comedy of manners, with maybe the odd Shakespeare thrown in.

Yes, artists would get to know each other. Did that necessarily mean anything? It could, of course, but only if such relationships were carefully nurtured and encouraged. It took a real matchmaker of an artistic director to make such things happen, and that kind of directorial talent did not always flourish under the repertory system. Sometimes actors would form strong working relationships; other times actors would form strong personal and professional enmity. It could always cut both ways.

Yes, audiences would get to know actors. That also cut both ways. Sometimes audiences would turn out in force because So-And-So was on the stage. Sometimes audiences would stay home with great determination rather than sit through another performance by So-And-So.

Every system has its drawbacks. The repertory company system has to be used intelligently and in such a way that full advantage is taken of its strengths. For example, a repertory company is in a unique position to do plays that require long rehearsal periods. A rep company is uniquely suited to growth and development of the artistic staff—assuming there are people there capable of the mentoring required, and capable of the growth desired. A rep company could be in a great position to develop new work.

In a few cases, the repertory system is coming back. There are formal rep companies functioning here and there, and there are informal companies centered around certain directors. Itís out there, it can be used. We are a country and a culture that likes to identify with public people and personas. If we find someone at a rep company near us that we can identify with, we will form a far stronger relationship with that company. Consider Brian Bedford and William Hutt, to name just two, at the Stratford Festival.

The rep company structure is no panacea. But done well, it offers very strong advantages. Itís worth a shot. I hope more companies take their shot at it.

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