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A repertory theatre (also called repertory, rep or stock) can be a Western theatre or opera production in which a resident company presents works from a specified repertoire, usually in alternation or rotation. In British English a similar term, "weekly rep," denotes a movement started in the early 1900s that focused on shorter runs of a single new work, rather than having several plays ready to perform at any given time.
The acting company would usually consist of a leading lady, a leading man, a set of juveniles (one male and one female ingenue for the young often romantic role(s)), a character actor and actress (for the older or eccentric parts) and perhaps a vain and girlish soubrette. The company might occasionally bring in a guest star to increase interest, albeit in exchange for a cost increase often large enough to offset the rise in revenues brought by any increase in attendance. The resident cast would number seven, plus the resident director, usually serving as the artistic director in charge of the whole enterprise. Additionally there would be the stage director, the assistant stage manager (ASM), some unpaid apprentices, and light and sound technicians. Newcomers to the profession would often start their careers in this fashion, and members would gain a foundation upon which to base their future careers. Paid members could also be sure of a steady income for one or more seasons, which might last for six months. Examples of performers who went on to universal recognition are Errol Flynn, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Jeremy Brett, Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris, Ian McKellen, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer, Harold Pinter, Imelda Staunton, Lynn Redgrave, Arthur Lowe, Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, Geraldine McEwan and Ronnie Barker. Dirk Bogarde wrote about his start at tiny Amersham rep in 1939, and Michael Caine has recounted his time spent at Horsham rep in the early fifties.
For weekly rep and for a typical three-act play, the actors' week would start on Tuesday, and go as follows:
Tuesday: notes on last night's opening of the current play from the director, then a sit-down read-through of the next week's play with some discussion by the director, on-the-feet blocking of the moves for Act I, with a few questions from the actors, followed by the second performance of the current play (which would also occupy every evening up to and including Saturday).
Wednesday: run Act I of next week's play and start to block Act II, but break early because there would be a matinée of the current play.
Thursday: finish blocking Act II of next week's play, run Act II and block Act III.
Friday: run Act III, run through the entire play with no scripts in hand, and technicals - meaning lights and sound - to watch, and write down cues.
Saturday: run through again, stop and go to test lighting and sound cues; costumes may be used if ready. Two shows today, including a matinée; the evening show closes the current play. After the last show, the set would be struck (taken down) by the crew - usually apprentices - and the stage manager.
Sunday: for actors, an opportunity to brush up on lines and moves, and for private rehearsals. However, for the crew it would mean putting up the new sets, hanging and focusing lights, and setting sound equipment.
Monday: in the morning, a run-through, usually without costumes (to save wear and tear), mainly for the technicals. In the afternoon: a "Full Perfect" dress rehearsal, maybe with a few friends seated in front to gauge reaction, then copious notes. In the evening, 8 o'clock opening night, followed by notes from the director, visits with friends from the audience and maybe a party nearby. The process would start all over again on Tuesday.
From the audience's point of view, local communities would become fans, and champion their favourites who would be treated as celebrities. Sometimes entire families would make a visit to their local rep part of the weekly routine, like going to church, and for the young people it could became part of their future appreciation for live "legitimate" theatre.
During the forties, fifties and sixties, two impresarios dominated the field of British rep, mostly in the North. They were Harry Hanson and his Court players, and Frank H. Fortescue's Famous Players, with Arthur Brough in Folkestone for the South. Their system was the toughest of all, for if you joined one of their companies, it could mean "twice-nightly" shows, and a new play to learn every week. Rosemary Harris has told of her 50 consecutive weeks of doing just that at Bedford rep. That cannot happen any more, owing to the restrictions of British Equity, which came to mandate just eight shows a week, including perhaps two matinées. Fortescue, who died in 1957, was known to be a strict and upright man. When Pygmalion was playing at one of his theatres, the sign "FOR ADULTS ONLY!" would be posted in the front of house, because of Eliza Doolittle's line "Not bloody likely!".
Not to be overlooked is a form of touring rep known as "bus and truck", which involves transporting the actors and sets for about five different plays which can be performed in smaller communities on consecutive nights.
In Russia and much of Eastern Europe, repertory theatre is based on the idea that each company maintains a number of productions that are performed on a rotating basis. Each production's life span is determined by its success with the audience. However, many productions remain in repertory for years as this approach presents each piece a few times in a given season, not enough to exhaust the potential audience pool. After the fall of the Soviet regime and the substantial diminution of government subsidy, the repertory practice has required re-examination. Moscow Art Theatre and Lev Dodin's Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg are the world's most notable practitioners of this approach.
In German-speaking countries, most opera companies function in a similar way, too.
Today in the UK, the practice of rep is more likely to be seen in large cities in the manner applied by such well-known established companies as Birmingham Rep in the Midlands of England, which states in its programmes: " 'The REP' presents a season with each play generally having an unbroken run of between three and six weeks. This is the form of repertory theatre that the majority of theatres like The REP -- which are also called producing theatres -- now follow." Actors have the luxury of at least three weeks of rehearsal, and audiences see better shows. Repertory can still be found in the UK in a variation of guises: in Sidmouth (12 plays), Wolverhampton (eight), Burslem and Taunton (four each). The Sheringham Little Theatre produces an in-house repertory season each summer, running from June until September. Weekly repertory theatre is also produced by the Summer Theatre season at Frinton-on-Sea. This season has been running for 77 seasons now, and until recently maintained its links with the oldest traditions of British commercial theatre by being run by the actor Jack Watling, his son Giles and his son-in-law Seymour Matthews. In 2004 it was taken over by Edward Max, who ran it alone until 2012. For the next two years it was run by mtp Ltd. Now Clive Brill is the producer, working with Edward as General Manager. The recent 75th anniversary season was marked with a stage appearance by Richard Wilson, who has since become the Patron of the Friends of Frinton Theatre.
Frinton saw the early launch of actors such as Michael Denison, Vanessa Redgrave, David Suchet, Jack Klaff, Neil Dudgeon, Owen Teale and Lynda Bellingham. Theatre practices like this remain popular within theatre communities, and continue to give first jobs to graduating drama students.
In the United States, the repertory system has also found a base to compete with commercial theatre. Repertory theatre with mostly changing casts and longer running plays, perhaps better classed as "provincial" or "non-profit" theatre, has made a big come-back in cities such as Little Rock, AR, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, Houston, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Buffalo, Kansas City, and Seattle. Festival theatre now provides actors with work in the summer.
America's oldest resident repertory theatre, Hedgerow Theatre, is located in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. It was founded by actor Jasper Deeter in 1923. The present producing artistic director is actress and director Penelope Reed. Other notable repertory theatres include the Guthrie Theatre, which was set up as regional repertory theatre concept that is free from commercial constraints in the choice of repertoire. It is aligned in objectives to the repertory and resident theatre movement that emerged in the United States in the 1960s. This sought to establish an alternative and decentralized theatre network outside of New York, one with non-profit-making status and focused instead on the art of the theatre as well as the development of artists, craftsmen, and administrators. Publicly funded theatres that belong to this type have been receiving erratic support since the 1980s.
The Association of Producing Artists (APA) was one of the most successful repertory theatres in the United States, touring for four years and holding residencies in several cities before finally joining the Phoenix Theatre in New York, where it was known for staging plays with modest prices. Currently, the American Repertory Theatre is considered one of the most distinguished repertory theatres in the United States. Since its foundation in 1979, it has earned several awards including a Pulitzer Prize (1982), a Tony Award (1986), and a Jujamcyn Award (1985).
The crowning achievements of repertory theatres are North America's largest classical repertory theatre company, the world-renowned Stratford Festival, founded in 1953 primarily to present productions of William Shakespeare's plays, and North America's second largest repertory theatre company, the Shaw Festival, which presents plays written or set during the lifetime of George Bernard Shaw or following Shaw's ideal of socially provocative theatre, founded in 1962.
The Vagabond Repertory Theatre Company was formed in March 2009 by artistic directors Nathaniel Fried and Ryan LaPlante, and currently resides and performs in Kingston, Ontario. However, the old English-style repertory theatres such as Ottawa's CRT (Canadian Repertory Theatre) and Toronto's Crest Theatre no longer exist--although they did have a version of summer theatre in smaller holiday districts, such as the "Straw Hat" players of Gravenhurst and Port Carling at Ontario's vacation Muskoka Lakes area.
Among the benefits of such a system are increased variety and better quality, due to fresh actors and shopped in directors. The theatre can afford to take risks, and a show that is likely to attract a large audience will effectively subsidize a show that is less likely, especially if season tickets are sold.
Drawbacks to the repertoire system are increased production costs as each show will need separate sets, props, costumes and actors (although sometimes an actor will be engaged to play in more than one production). Many such companies are large and are able to have a smaller space available to workshop an experimental production or present play readings. But the standard should be higher than under the old-time repertory system because of more time for rehearsal. Also, many repertoire companies today have non-profit status, so that budgets and income should be higher because they will not just depend upon ticket sales. However, the downside is that promotional costs will also be much higher, due to having to employ a separate staff.
"Clearly for young, up and coming actors there is far less opportunity to them to work on the stage because the old rep system has been gone for decades," Glenda explains.