This month we're taking a break from the usual in this column. I found out this week that a venerable touring company closed its doors. On the heels of that information I saw two different touring companies show their stuff.
The company that closed its doors is Repertory Theater of America. In the 1950s the company started work as the Bishop's Company – a company dedicated to bringing theatre into churches across America. Although not officially affiliated with any particular church, the company had loose ties and support from a Methodist bishop, thus the name. Throughout the late 50s and early 1960s, the Bishop's Company provided valuable jobs to numerous young actors (including a young Sam Shepard) and valuable performances of serious plays to local congregations throughout America. The company's repertory included a staging of the novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" and a famous staging of Shaw's Saint Joan with only three actors. In 1967, the company changed to the Alpha-Omega Players, made several moves to various "home" locations, and started the evolution into an entertainment provider. Over its nearly 50-year history, 100s of actors, a score of directors and designers and technicians found work under its auspices. Evidently the body-blow of the 9/11 attacks hurt the enterprise, and the "trickle-down" recovery never made it to this boat. Although never an entry in the history books, the loss of this company will be felt in yet less early jobs for young actors. Luckily, though, that's not the entire end of this story.
One area of performance is "issue" or "activist" theatre. This writer saw a small group of actors on tour with a play to teach college folks about the dangers of rape. Four young actors with a few chairs and a few hand props were all that was necessary to create a play that gripped a full house. (I'm guessing that was "near" beer they were drinking – or a "two-a-day" schedule would be awfully interesting.) The play was simple in outline. Two couples are at a party to celebrate the last day of college. One boy commits acquaintance rape on a woman with whom there was a previous relationship. The audience was very angry with the actor who played the rapist. The actors did their job.
As this column gets committed to the little electrons that will transport these words to cyber-life, the writer has just helped another company strike and load out after a touring performance of "Midsummer's Night Dream." A small pack of actors, a truck load of platforms and lighting equipment and costuming starting a year-long tour of the USA.
All of these touring actors are young. The touring life is not for old farts. Particularly with the Shakespeare play, these people are a self-contained company in which the group loads in a ton of stuff, sets up, performs a show, strikes, loads out and moves on – sometimes in one day.
Both shows were not brilliant. But they didn't have to be. The actors had great spirit and great energy. The mise en scene reflected the need to adjust every night. Often both plays were about the featured actors of the scene getting center to talk and then going away. The ability to create vivid characterizations varied in the groups by experience and/or talent. But any small fault was more than compensated for by the great verve and dash of being young and having the greatest job in the world.
These people won't always think so. When it gets to be late February and the weather is awful (nowhere has great weather in late February) and there's car trouble in some out of the way place and the hotel is a whole in the wall dive; these people won't be thinking, "My goodness, but I have a wonderful job." But it is.
These people have full-time jobs as actors. They're getting the paid opportunity to travel when they're young. They have jobs with very little supervision – as long as they show up at the right place at the right time, no one cares what they do with the rest of their time. And, if they're wise, they are learning experience about performing that can't be taught in a classroom. They'll learn how to perform to amazingly different audiences from day to day and night to night and maintain performance energy regardless of conditions. That lesson alone is worth the whole tour.
Oh, to be a stow-away . . . . . . .
©2003 Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director
stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist
He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of
the theatre faculty of Alvernia College
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