Anyone familiar with summer stock theater will remember that particular dread that sets in during the last two weeks of the summer, when you realize you will soon have to head back to New York/Chicago/D.C. and start auditioning again. The feeling that this magical wonderland where you rehearse all day and perform every night surrounded by fantastically talented colleagues of all ages (often in an equally beautiful vacation environment) is already slipping away like sand through the hourglass. The harsh reality of the theater artist’s life starts coming into sharp focus, and one begins to strategize about which gigs to go out for, how to keep the lights on, and of course how to get invited back to the theater next summer so that you can be a part of the magic again, if only for a few months of the year.
The reason summer stock is so magical often has less to do with the work being done at those theaters, and much more with the working conditions for the artists. Returning to the everyday reality of working several side jobs, auditioning constantly and hustling to make ends meet is exhausting. It also necessitates that the artists spend the majority of their time trying to get the next gig, rather than on their artistic practice. And although we all take this for granted as the normal way of doing business, I can’t help but think that there has to be a better way for theaters to be run that would benefit everyone involved.
There has been a lot of writing lately about the artist versus the institution, most notably by Todd London, and Diane Ragsdale. The fact is that producing on a show-by-show basis also leads to an enormous amount of wasted energy and resources at the institutional level. Similarly the working conditions for the artists in the regional theater system might be good business practice but they are not conducive to making good art. Rehearsal periods of three-five weeks, groups of artists constantly on the road and working with new colleagues without a common vocabulary, the lack of connection to the community for whom the art is being created; all of these factors lead to an assembly-line production approach, literalism instead of theatricality in the work, and towards safe choices instead of risk-taking.
It’s not for a lack of talent or ideas that the theatre is suffering, but rather from a business model that does not serve the interests of the artists, the institutions, or the audience.
The Problem: The artists are starving to death for lack of work, the theaters are spending their resources on the institutions instead of the artists, the work is suffering from a lack of technique, support, and innovation.
The Solution: Adopt the repertory. The repertory model is the strongest argument for theater as an art form in the twenty-first century. It shows off what the theatre does best and it can realistically compete with television and new media by creating original live art directly for a specific community that cannot be found anywhere else.
For the purposes of this article, the word ‘repertory’ is defined as a model of making theater in which there is a resident acting company that rehearses during the day and performs a rotating repertoire of shows each night. The amount of shows produced and presented can vary greatly from theater to theater, but the deciding factor is that the resident acting company, the ensemble, is at the center of the work.
Repertory theaters were common in America in the early half of the twentieth-century. Tyrone Guthrie founded his theater in Minneapolis in 1963 on the repertory model with a resident acting company. Many of the nation’s 74 regional theaters have experimented with a resident acting company although with the exception of Trinity Rep in Rhode Island and a few smaller theaters (the Barter Theater in Virginia or the Hedgerow Theater in Pennsylvania) all of them have moved to line production, (putting up shows for a limited run, closing them and starting a new production), the default way of making theater in America today. The reasons for this gradual shift over time from resident companies to hiring actors on a per-show basis are many and varied, and have been brilliantly articulated by Mike Daisey in his piece How Theater Failed America. Conventional wisdom would say that resident companies are too expensive and that it is not possible to run a theater on the resident repertory model in America today. It is precisely against this mode of thinking that I would argue for the repertory model as the best chance for theatre as an art form in the twenty-first century.
Let me start with myself. My first experience with working in repertory was in 2004, I was fresh out of college and working for a year as a directing intern at the Carrousel Theater an der Parkaue in Berlin. The German state theater system is pretty much the Cadillac of repertory theater worldwide, and being able to work and learn in that system had a profound impact on me as an artist and an individual. After another year working in the independent theater scene in Berlin, I moved to Chicago and had a fantastic time working there for the next six years. I was always in search of an experience similar to what I had had in Berlin and I found it while on national tour as an actor in repertory with the Chamber Theatre of Boston, as well as two summers playing Shakespeare in rep at the Theatre at Monmouth in Maine. Each of these experiences was an opportunity to reconnect with the magic of playing in repertory, and the enormous benefits that the repertory model brings.
Benefits of the Repertory Model
Good For The Artists: The benefits of the repertory model for artists are significant. The continuity of working with the same colleagues year in and out is a core value of most theater companies worldwide and is the heart of what constitutes ‘ensemble.’ The repertory model formalizes this relationship, and prioritizes it as an asset, rather than merely mentioning it in a values statement.
At a year-round repertory theater, the actors receive annual contracts, with benefits, so that they can focus all of their time and energy on their roles, not on auditioning or chasing work to keep the bills paid. This creates a paradigm shift in the mental well-being of an actor, and her/his ability to create great theater.
Good for Institutions: The benefits of the repertory model for institutions are also compelling:
- It’s a local, live event that can be seen at a later date when the show returns to the repertory. This also makes great use of word of mouth, which takes time to set in and is always the most effective form of advertising. The repertory model develops continuity between the live art that is created and the audience engaging with it and sustains that relationship over time.
- Continuity of Resources. Entire productions are stored rather than tossed aside, which means that particularly successful shows can be easily remounted year after year. Many theaters do this anyway with A Christmas Carol, but with the repertory mechanisms in place, remounting previous productions becomes a routine part of doing business, to the benefit of the audience and the artists.
- Saves time and money on auditions. Theaters would only need to hold auditions for additional roles outside the ensemble, or for new ensemble members, potentially every few years instead of every few months.
- Being able to sell the idea of the artists as the theater’s product. The company in residence becomes the theater’s biggest asset.
- Instead of a casting director, theaters could hire a full-time dramaturg, preferably one who is also a playwright. This way you kill three birds with one stone: an in-house writer who is also a production dramaturg and can coordinate casting. This individual would be artistically involved with the production processes as well as interfacing with new artists and helping steer the aesthetic of the company. In an ideal scenario they would also write new plays for the ensemble. To those who still ask “what is a dramaturg for?” this is the clear answer.
Good for Audiences: As the audience gets to know the actors in the ensemble, they begin to identify with the actors as the protagonists in every show at the theater. In the best case, the audience takes ownership of the actors/ensemble and by extension the theater as well. This principle is already at work in many theaters around the country, where artists form a relationship with the theater and work there often. Again, the repertory model would formalize these already existing relationships and bring those actors in constant contact with the public. The actors become essential to that community and they work with the audience to create meaning together.
Is it Possible?
After receiving a fellowship in 2011 to attend the Theatertreffen festival in Berlin that spring I decided to strike while the iron was hot and set my sites on working full-time in Germany again. I am now at the end of my first season at the German National Theatre in Weimar, as the assistant to the new artistic director Hasko Weber. I could not be more delighted to be working in a repertory setting again, and learning how to run an institution of this size. I have also started to do a lot of thinking about how to create such an environment in America, and the conclusion that I keep coming to is that it simply cannot be strictly a matter of economics. Yes, the German system is federally supported and lavishly so. But should it not also be possible to run a regional theater company in America as a repertory company, with a full-time ensemble in the current funding environment?
Let’s take a look at some examples of comparably sized institutions in Germany and America: Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin.
The Maxim Gorki Theater—the smallest of the six state-funded houses in Berlin—has an annual budget of €10.7 million ($14.2 million)*. This is comparable to the annual budget of the Steppenwolf theatre in Chicago ($15,293,699 in 2012)**. With this budget, the Maxim Gorki Theater employs a resident acting company of sixteen actors, and produces ten main stage productions every year in addition to the shows in its repertory. Steppenwolf boasts an ensemble of forty-three actors, and produces five main stage shows per year with no repertory. Steppenwolf does a great job of promoting ensemble theater as a value. But like most theaters, they do not produce enough work each year to offer their current ensemble full-time work.
The common complaint from the American side is that the German theaters can only support a permanent repertory ensemble because of the public funding. But why can’t American theaters with a similar budget do the same? As demonstrated above, the smallest theater in Berlin has an annual budget comparable to Steppenwolf in Chicago, which is not even the best-funded theater in the region or the country. So clearly, it’s not just an issue of money. It’s an issue of how that money is being spent.
I am also aware that if regional theaters were to take this course (hire a resident acting ensemble and move towards the repertory model) it is highly likely that some of them might fail and bring about the ruin of their theater. This brings us back to the zombification of institutions that Diane Ragsdale writes about: the idea that (some of) the regional theaters have become “permanently failing” institutions that have resorted to low-performance, low-output strategies to sustain the organization instead of focusing on their artistic and social mission goals. They have become zombie institutions, focused more on sustaining the infrastructure than on high-performance, high-risk innovations that could revitalize the organization and potentially the art form as well. True, there are dangers involved in risk-taking: downsizing, potential loss of grant monies, finding an audience for the new type of work. It is entirely possible that switching to the repertory model could be a costly debacle that a regional theater would not be able to survive. But what is better for the future of the American theatre: zombie institutions using Band-Aid tactics to sustain failing business models, or a few of these theaters taking big risks in the hope that we can revitalize all of them?
Am I an idealist? Absolutely. But I am happy to say that I am not alone. At least one theater in England is taking big risks to implement exactly this type of model. The Lyric-Hammersmith in London announced last summer that they are switching to the repertory model, with a resident company of ten actors, ten design/support staff equally split between men and women including Simon Stephens as the dramaturg. Under the title ‘Secret Theatre’ they are producing six world premieres, each written for and developed by their ensemble. They also decided not to release any information about the plays prior to their opening, counting on the strength of their brand and this new idea to get the tickets sold. They have just opened their fifth show of the season and the experiment has been a huge success. So there’s one example of dynamic leadership and risk-taking in a major way at the institutional level. Hats off to artistic director Sean Holmes for taking the initiative; you can read his speech about the decision here.
The Repertory Makes the Work Better
Two things really strike me in Holmes’ speech.
1. His acknowledgement that the institutions themselves may not be corrupt, but are corrupting.
2. The current model of creating theater (3-5 weeks of rehearsal time with a group of actors who have often never worked together) limits us to literalism in the work. We only ever have time to stage the play, rather than interpret it. More rehearsal time with an ensemble that works together continuously leads to better, more theatrical, delightful, provocative and inspiring theater.
Finally, such a radical change in the production model of a theater would also signify a clear philosophical change in the way those theaters do business. It would signify a turn inward, away from the commercial theater of New York, and toward their communities. It would mean creating theater that is local, and specific to the community it is (supposed to be) serving. It would have to mean an intense cultural exchange with that community and a re-investigation of the company’s aesthetic.
Maybe there is an American artistic director out there who is willing to take risks and try something new. To initiate a grand plan for change that benefits the artists, the institutions and the audiences simultaneously.
And maybe, it might just lead to a fundamental shift in how we, and our audiences, approach our art form.