Last fall’s Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of State of the Union featured something local audiences take for granted but is nationally unique: a stage full of actors in their 40s, 50s and 60s, almost all members of the Rep’s resident company. “It was a remarkable cross-section of mature actors, full of Broadway- or West-End-caliber artists,” says the play’s director, Michael Halberstam, who is the artistic director of Chicago’s Writers’ Theatre.
Halberstam is not alone offering such praise. Directors from around the country – in fact, around the world – routinely laud the Rep’s ensemble. As longtime company member Jim Pickering says, “Just about everybody who comes here as a visiting artist wants to come back – actors, directors, designers.” Returning this season are set designer Todd Rosenthal, winner of a 2008 Tony Award; Budapest director László Marton; and the former artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Ben Barnes.
They are not only drawn to the company’s acting talent, but also to the Rep’s dedication to an idea increasingly rare in America: that the heart of a theater should be a group of actors working together regularly. The Rep had embraced this idea of a resident company for decades, but under Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddy, it has become the cornerstone of the theater’s identity.
In September, Hanreddy and Managing Director Tim Shields announced they would be leaving the Rep. Shields has already moved to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. Hanreddy will leave at the end of next season. Such an upheaval in leadership can often trigger major changes in a company’s approach. Yet despite the declining economy, the Rep’s board of directors still seems committed to a resident company, which under Hanreddy and Shields turned into something approaching a theatrical brand.
The idea behind a resident company goes back centuries in theater history. But in America, it wasn’t until 1963, with the opening of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, that the first true repertory theater began. Until then, America was dominated by the Broadway and roadhouse model. Companies like Milwaukee’s Fred Miller Theatre, founded in 1954, brought “New York” to the provinces by bringing stars like Sylvia Sydney, Eva Le Gallienne and Ethel Waters to town to perform with local supporting actors.
The Guthrie’s resident company soon became the model for other regional theaters, including the Fred Miller, after it became the Milwaukee Rep in 1963. In 1966, Tunc Yalman, a Turkish director trained at the Yale School of Drama, became artistic director and created a resident company. Nagle Jackson took over from Yalman in 1971 and continued the approach. When Jim Pickering first performed at the Rep in 1974, members of Yalman’s core group were still around.
Jackson’s commitment to a resident company was strong enough to attract Rose and Jim Pickering and other actors from across America. “Rose and I were both trained at Penn State by associates and students of Sanford Meisner and the Neighborhood Playhouse,” says Pickering. “We were trained to be in companies – in the tradition of the Moscow Art Theatre or the Group Theatre.”
Jackson’s successor as artistic director, John Dillon (1977-1993), largely continued this approach, Pickering notes, “but it was only under Joe that it was truly named a resident acting company.”
Hanreddy says the Rep’s approach helped attract him to Milwaukee. “The resident company,” he says, “was a good match for the kind of plays I wanted to do, for the kind of institution I wanted to run, for the kind of artistic life I wanted to have.”
Hanreddy’s first exposure to theater was in San Francisco, where he watched the resident company of the American Conservatory Theater perform. “Part of my excitement about theater was coming back to see great actors in different roles, and sensing the sort of esprit de corps surrounding that.”
In 1978, he made that excitement tangible by co-founding the Ensemble Theatre Project in Santa Barbara, Calif., which was built around a resident company. As artistic director of the Madison Repertory Theatre from 1986 to 1993, he again focused on the company, building it from a largely unpaid group of actors to a more professional organization.
When Hanreddy moved to Milwaukee, there were five actors in the company remaining from Dillon’s tenure (the Pickerings, Richard Halverson, Ken Albers and Catherine Lynn Davis). Hanreddy expanded the company with several actors he’d worked with in Madison and other theaters. Familiar names like Lee Ernst, Laura Gordon, Torrey Hanson and Mark Corkins joined the roster, and the resident company as we know it today took shape.
When Shields arrived as managing director in 1998, he quickly saw the resident company as a major asset and began making it a central part of the theater’s public identity. He started the highly successful Rep in Depth program, in which resident company members give presentations about the play before each performance. Company members were recruited to write program essays, and they featured prominently in marketing campaigns.
This shift showed a savvy understanding of Milwaukee audiences. Shields and Hanreddy realized most Rep subscribers weren’t tuned in to the comings and goings of the New York theater world. While other regional theaters try to sell the latest play by Theresa Rebeck or Donald Margulies, the Rep emphasized the resident actors – known quantities for Milwaukee audiences. “We tried to make the resident acting company ‘stars’ for our season-ticket holders,” says Shields. “And to a large degree we’ve succeeded.”
Shields’ initiatives – which also included starting telemarketing campaigns for subscriptions and fundraising – led to amazing growth for the Rep. By 2003, it was selling an unprecedented 23,000 subscriptions per year, more than double the figure when Hanreddy arrived 10 years before.
Certain commitments are required from both the theater and actors to make the resident model work. The actors make themselves available for the entire upcoming season. In return, Hanreddy “builds a season” for each actor: guaranteeing a minimum number of work weeks, but also making an effort to offer an artistically satisfying year that combines lead and supporting roles. After the season is set, the actors are free to pursue any projects that don’t interfere with their Rep schedule.
The stability of guaranteed work for a year is rare in the acting world and offers company members the possibility of a relatively normal life: limited travel, home ownership, health insurance (available from Actor’s Equity, the actors union, to those working at least 20 weeks during the previous year). Company actors are paid weekly, usually above the minimum Equity rate ($750 for a theater the size of the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater).
The theater benefits as well. Casting actors through an entire season allows the theater to overlap actors’ schedules, so in the same week they can perform in the evening and rehearse an upcoming show during the day. With three performance spaces, the Rep can thread an actor through several different shows in different spaces. Ultimately, this allows the theater to mount large-cast plays in a more cost-effective way.
And the community benefits, too. Through its resident company and intern company (which brings in recent theater program graduates, many of whom continue their careers here), the Rep has helped build the local pool of acting talent.
Building a creatively fulfilling season for up to 12 actors is a daunting task, involving complicated flow charts to map each actor’s movement from project to project. It can sometimes require artistic compromises: casting a company member even when the director believes a non-company actor is better for the role. And there can be complaints from audience members about seeing the same actors perform. These are just some of the disadvantages other artistic directors will note.
Indeed, by the time Hanreddy had built his resident company, the model had been largely abandoned elsewhere. The ever-tougher economics of theater made smaller casts the norm, and artistic directors wanted complete flexibility in selecting and casting plays. Most theaters moved to a system in which the plays came first and actors were simply part of the production hardware. Moreover, the lucrative lure of television and Hollywood made a Los Angeles or New York address de rigueur for aspiring actors, who became less interested in the eight-show-a-week regional theater trenches.
But for Hanreddy and other champions, a resident company’s advantages outweigh its disadvantages. Actors who regularly work together develop a mutual vocabulary and sense of trust that makes it easier for them to get at the heart of a play. “The understanding between these actors is very different,” says László Marton, the artistic director of Budapest’s Vígszínház theater, who has directed several shows at the Rep. “There is a sense of freedom and imagination you don’t see when strangers work on a play.”
The actors also have a vested interest in the company’s success. “This is not just a job out of town,” says Halberstam, “This is their home. They have pride and a personal stake in the outcome.” Rep actors, for example, meet weekly during the season to discuss plays and programming ideas. And because casting for company roles is often finalized well in advance, actors may prepare for their roles long before rehearsals begin.
Still, in dire economic times, the simplest way to cut a theater’s budget is to stage small shows. In recent years, the Rep’s audience has declined. This season, the theater cut back the number of performances in the Powerhouse Theater to keep the houses fuller. With tough times ahead, it’s surely tempting to shift away from a resident company.
But so far there are no signs of any such adjustment. “Anytime you have a change in artistic director,” says John Kordsmeier, a vice president at Northwestern Mutual who is president of the Rep’s board of directors, “you get a different perspective on the art.” But the new strategic plan the Rep will present to applicants confirms its commitment to a resident acting company.
That said, no one knows how much the economy could affect planning, even for next season. The Rep’s board and staff have drafted several contingency plans to handle varying degrees of hardship, which could include some adjustments to the current company model. It’s possible the theater could reduce its commitment to a resident company, with fewer guaranteed weeks or a reduction in the group’s size.
But it may turn out that a resident company will help the Rep weather the economic storm. As Hanreddy notes, casting local actors eliminates the considerable expenses of hiring out-of-town talent: casting fees, travel, and outlays for room and board.
The Rep’s practice of using out-of-town actors only as a last resort, in fact, may point the way for other theaters facing budget problems. The American Conservatory Theater, where Hanreddy first saw a resident company at work, revived its company a few years ago. The national success of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre has also drawn attention to the advantages of a resident company. American regional theater may be returning to its original impulse – to nurture a group of artists who serve the community where they live. After years of staying the course, the Milwaukee Rep may find itself leading the vanguard.
Paul Kosidowski, a regular contributor to this magazine, worked as the Rep’s literary director from 1999-2006.