by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
Jewelers recommend a gift of silver to commemorate a 25th anniversary, and they have a point beyond the pecuniary. Cultivating a relationship over a quarter century in today’s world is an accomplishment, and a milestone worth celebrating.
Even rarer than a thriving long-term relationship is a theatre company that has successfully nurtured a dream of performance into the reality of a 25th anniversary season. A Noise Within (ANW) has entered the second half of that landmark season, and they have clearly earned their silver. And perhaps more noteworthy: the company has sustained a classical repertory during this quarter century, a unique contribution to the Los Angeles performing arts landscape.
The goal of an ongoing company was far from the minds of three graduates of the MFA Acting Program at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in 1991. Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, Geoff Elliott, and Art Manke were looking to make their mark in the busy landscape of the Los Angeles theatre scene. Knowing that LA was filled with similarly trained performers, they opted to focus on their collective strength: classical theatre.
A fortuitous meeting with the De Pietro brothers, who owned the Glendale Masonic Temple, offered the trio a performance venue. The ground-floor space had most recently been used for church services and the nascent company arranged the leftover pews to create a thrust stage.
In the beginning, necessity may have dictated the choice of a thrust, but it became an important and ongoing aesthetic touchstone for the co-founders. As Rodriguez-Elliott explains, “The thrust stage creates a unique actor/audience relationship — so close we can feel and almost touch each other. I remember Gordon Davidson saying that when he first stood on the Taper stage, he felt it was a space where he would be able to have a conversation with the audience, and he was sold. I think that is pretty much how we feel about the thrust stage.”
With little more than a plank, a prayer, and several seriously depleted bank accounts, they opened with a production of Hamlet directed by Manke. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception, they immediately threw themselves into the task of creating a company and a mini-season, mounting two more shows — a second Shakespeare and a Restoration Comedy.
By their next season, they had doubled the number of shows and offered their first modern classic with a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. They also realized that the idea of a company felt more important than a showcasing opportunity.
“There was a moment when the artistic impulse we were following (the desire, as actors, to perform the works we were trained to do) became something bigger than ourselves,” says Rodriguez-Elliott. “We committed ourselves to creating a place where our community could come together and have great conversations around the great stories.”
After the success of Our Town, the definition of those stories broadened, adding 19th and 20th century plays to their seasons with increasing frequency. By ANW’s third season, they had begun the difficult task of constructing a board from local civic leaders and creating an infrastructure that would allow them to become a viable professional company. They had also established an educational component.
Interestingly, the early 90s saw the development of two other companies with a similar sense of purpose. Both Antaeus and the Matrix Theatre Company utilized highly trained stage performers in their well-received productions. But only ANW was dedicated to a true rotating repertory system — one in which a group of performers would play roles in three thematically connected plays during the fall season, followed by three different plays during the spring.
Rotating rep was a mainstay of the regional theatre movement in its early days, but by the 1980s, most of the resident companies connected to theatres were dissolved, and rep became an occasional experiment in regional houses. Granted, the mammoth operations of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, more recently, the Utah Shakespeare Festival kept rep alive in the Western Region, but no one in Los Angeles managed to take on and tackle the complexities of producing ongoing seasonal rep. (Though it should be noted, Gordon Davidson famously tried to create and maintain a repertory company at the Mark Taper Forum; he claimed that actors wouldn’t commit to a year’s work at the risk of bypassing opportunities in the film and TV industry. Among his efforts to create a classical rep was to bring in Antaeus, performing The Wood Demon on the Taper stage in 1991.)
Despite the many challenges the system created, the idea of actors working in rep remained central to the founders’ conception of ANW. And, perhaps even more importantly, to its spirit. Elliott believes that, “… rotating repertory has the unique ability to build a strong sense of community among artists, between artists and their audience, and among audience members.”
Planning three productions in rep is more intricate than simply tripling the days on the calendar. Solving problems related to scheduling actors, directors, and designers are daunting enough, but throw in union rules, changeovers and the vagaries of LA traffic and your paperwork is more likely to look like NASA analysis than a conventional rehearsal and performance schedule. The trio faced these problems, finding solutions as they could, and collecting advice from other theatre veterans like David Emmes and Martin Benson at South Coast Repertory, who became mentors.
“Somehow, despite the recession, it all began to have a life of its own – and friends and supporters came out of the woodwork in unimaginable ways to help get us to the finish line.”
25 years on, the planning remains complex, but the company has found a structure that works for them and is worth the effort. “… [It] requires a wide variety of efforts to maintain the level of performance throughout an eleven-week/three-play season,” Elliott explains, “having brush-up rehearsals to keep actors sharp after they come back from a short hiatus; upkeep on the sets, which are taken apart and put back together so that they look as good on closing night as they did on opening… and, for the audience, it allows a show to build up word of mouth that it never would have with consecutive performances.”
The company also benefitted from the opportunity to use Equity’s 99-Seat Plan. While the Plan had not been designed with a rep company in mind, the ability to use union actors with only a minimal stipend during performances was a financial godsend that more than made up for any rehearsal strictures the Plan’s rules presented. Use of the Plan was key in those critical early years, offering the fledgling company breathing room to discover both its identity, and its audience.
Elliott is quick to point out that Equity was also helpful and patient during their slow, incremental move to a full contract. “[Equity has] always been willing to find a way to make it work; they respect that the resident company and the repertory production style are central to our mission and they have been committed to helping us honor that.”
With financial help from the City of Glendale, the company had been able to bring the space up to code and construct a true theatre with 145 seats on the third floor. But, as with so many companies in Los Angeles, their ongoing problem was the venue. Downtown Glendale, where the Masonic Temple sat, was developing rapidly and their tenancy in the space was always uncertain. When an opportunity arose to become a resident company at the Luckman Theatre on the campus of Cal State LA, ANW gambled that a secure space would be worth the move. Even though it meant a huge geographical shift for their audience.
The company soon discovered that working within a college bureaucracy and with a staff unprepared for the workings of a full-time company was not a good match. They performed their 1999-2000 season at the Luckman, then returned to the Masonic Temple. Still existing on borrowed time.
When ideas for a permanent space stalled in Glendale, the company looked further afield and found strong allies within Pasadena’s civic leadership. A developer showed them a likely property on Foothill Boulevard, east of Old Town Pasadena and the Pasadena Playhouse. The company worked out a unique deal with the developers and the city in which ANW was given the land to build a performing arts facility. That settled, they faced the daunting challenge of raising the money.
The original budget for the new building was $16 million and by July of 2008 they had raised half that amount and went public with the capital campaign. Rodriguez-Elliott describes the next hurdle:
“In late 2008, the recession took the nation to a new, more sober place. No one had ever raised money in this kind of financial environment. We cut the project a bit: losing a larger rehearsal space, a second space, classrooms, a trap room, more storage – facilities that we hoped we could revisit later. And somehow, despite the recession, it all began to have a life of its own – and friends and supporters came out of the woodwork in unimaginable ways to help get us to the finish line.”
They broke ground for the new theatre in 2010 and are currently in their sixth season in residence. From the audience perspective, the new theatre has an inviting and open lobby space, comfortable seating for 283, a subscriber lounge, and adequate parking. One can even Go Metro to ANW.
From the production perspective, there were obstacles and surprises, but the move was relatively smooth. “A building is like a living being and anyone who owns a home can attest that there’s always a list of maintenance and repairs that need to be tackled…” offers Rodriguez-Elliott. “You are faced with higher bills for everything: electricity, insurance, landscaping, maintenance, and complicated HVAC systems, which is the sobering reality of what it costs to run a state-of-the-art facility.”
That sobering reality includes the fact the ANW’s budget has tripled since the move from Glendale. This is somewhat balanced by the fact that they have been able to greatly increase their audience base in the new theatre and are now serving 40,000 patrons annually. The subscription renewal rate is a surprisingly high 85%, but, as with so many artistic institutions, approximately 50% of their budget comes from contributed income.
The Elliotts, as co-founders and co-Artistic Directors (Manke left to pursue freelance directing over a decade ago), are now tested veterans of the Art vs. Commerce battleground. They have created stability on the commerce side which allows the company to practice their art. And they remain refreshingly passionate about their original dream. As Rodriguez-Elliott puts it, “ANW has always been focused on the story being the star. We embrace and activate the language. We strive to create environments (scenically) that are bold, arrestingly beautiful, large-scale, provocative, and transformative, and the audience brings their own imagination to complete the picture. We like to think that ANW is one of the few places where you can have an epic experience in an intimate setting.”