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 the British system, however, it used to be that even quite small towns would support a rep and the resident company would present a different play every week, either a revival from the full range of classics or, if given the chance, a new play, once the rights had been released after a West End or Broadway run. However the companies were not known for trying out untried new work. The methods, now seldom seen, would be also used in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
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, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Lord Olivier, Jeremy Brett, Dame Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris, Sir Ian McKellen, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer, Harold Pinter, Imelda Staunton, Lynn Redgrave, Arthur Lowe, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir Patrick Stewart, Geraldine McEwan and Ronnie Barker. Dirk Bogarde wrote about his start at tiny Amersham rep in 1939, and Sir Michael Caine recounts his time spent at Horsham rep in the early fifties.
For weekly rep and for a typical 3-act play, the actors' week would start on Tuesday and go as follows: Tuesday: notes on last night's opening from the director, then a sit-down read-through of the next play with some discussion by the director, on-the-feet blocking of the moves for Act I with a few questions from the actors and there are performances of last week's play each night. Wednesday: run Act I and start to block Act II, but break early because there's a matinée. Thursday: finish blocking Act II, run Act II and block Act III. Friday: run Act III, run through of entire play, 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, the evening one closing the current play. After the show, the set is struck (taken down) by the crew - usually apprentices – and the stage manager.
Sunday is an opportunity to brush up on lines and moves and private rehearsals. But for the crew it means putting up the new sets, hanging and focusing lights and setting sound equipment. Monday: morning, run through, usually without costumes (save wear and tear), mainly for the techs. In the afternoon there's a "Full Perfect" dress rehearsal, maybe a few friends 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 starts 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. And sometimes entire families would make a visit to their local rep as part of the weekly routine like going to church, and for the young ones, it became a 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 tells of her 50 consecutive weeks of doing just that at Bedford rep. It cannot happen any more, due to the restrictions of British Equity which came to mandate just 8 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, because Eliza says "Not bloody likely!", "FOR ADULTS ONLY!" would be posted in the front of house. Or perhaps he was afraid of the Lord Chamberlain, Her Majesty's official censor whose duties were abolished in 1968.
Not to be overlooked is a form of touring repertory theatre 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 which 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 3 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 (8 plays), Burslem and Taunton (4 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 seventy seven 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. The Company season at the Liverpool Everyman will launch in January 2017 and run until July, with 14 actors performing a season of five shows.
In America, 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.
The crowning achievement of repertory theatres in Canada are the world-renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1953 to primarily present productions of William Shakespeare's plays and the Shaw Festival, founded in 1962, which presents plays written or set during the lifetime of George Bernard Shaw or following Shaw's ideal of socially provactive theatre.
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. But 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.
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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 playreadings. But the standard should be higher than under the old-time repertory system, because there will be 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.