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Can the company still play a role?

Resident actors are becoming a rarity

CAMBRIDGE -- When the American Repertory Theatre's "Oedipus" opens this week, Thomas Derrah will be the lone member of ART's resident acting company on the stage. Ditto for last fall's "Snow in June."

ART refers to all the actors who perform in a given season as members of "the company." But some have worked there steadily for a decade or two, enjoying a steady paycheck and an artistic place to call home. They're the theater's mainstays: Karen MacDonald, who can turn from a Shakespearean wench to "Mother Courage"; Remo Airaldi, whose rotund form and high voice make him instantly recognizable; and Jeremy Geidt and Alvin Epstein, two senior statesmen who were paired in "Waiting for Godot" in 1994-95.

Under founding director Robert Brustein, these actors (plus five more) appeared in most of ART's productions. But since artistic director Robert Woodruff took over two years ago, the majority of the company, now totaling five, has been seen in fewer than half the shows. Woodruff is increasingly bringing in outside directors who cast their own productions. Observers of the national theater scene say that what's happening at ART is happening increasingly around the country. The resident acting company as we know it -- a large group of actors who've been together for years, who can perform everything from Moliere to Mamet -- is becoming as rare as unmiked singers.

Instead, theaters are adhering to a new model, much like that being adopted by corporations: Be lean and outsource.

Depending on who you talk to, this is either an artistic tragedy, a corporate disgrace, or (shrug shoulders here) just the way theaters are evolving. Some even say it's smart.

But being downsized in theater, as in any field, is painful. After doing 44 shows as a member of the ART company, Benjamin Evett did not see his contract renewed last year.

"People in resident theater always talk about how the theater is family," Evett says. "ART was my home for 20 years, even when I went away. And to find myself outside that family was very distressing." He's not the only ART veteran to exit. Epstein, who appeared in 60 ART shows and directed five, has moved to New York.

When it comes to steady acting work, New England has been a relatively good place to be.ART and Trinity Repertory Company in Providence are two of the 12 major regional theaters left that even have resident companies, according to the Actors' Equity Association. Europe's had them for centuries. Margo Jones helped pioneer the nonprofit regional theater movement in the US, starting the first resident company at a theater in Dallas in 1947. In 1950, Arena Stage followed, in Washington, D.C. The '60s brought the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, among many others. Brustein formed the Yale Repertory Theatre at Yale University in 1967 and brought many of those actors to Harvard in 1980, when he established ART.

A financial burden But ultimately the idea became hard to sustain.

"A lot of the reasons it works in Europe is because it's government subsidized and because of geography: Judi Dench can do a TV series and be in `Hamlet' because they're all in London," says Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a national organization that supports nonprofit American theater. "You can't do that if you're at Indiana Rep."

The biggest reason is financial: Theaters, like the arts in general, are struggling to stay afloat as support from corporations and governments has dried up. The National Endowment for the Arts, says Brustein, used to supply grants to theaters to maintain their companies, but no more.

So supporting a dozen or more actors can be a great financial burden, particularly when the actors aren't in all the plays.

But other things are driving the change, too, says Oskar Eustis, Trinity's artistic director and a passionate defender of permanent companies.

When theater founders retire and their successors retire, and then someone new comes in, "free-market chaos reigns," Eustis says. "When the dust settles, there isn't a company. It's emotionally easier to abolish the acting company than it is to fire the individuals."

After Arena Stage founder Zelda Fichandler retired in 1991, the company was gradually disbanded, under two successive artistic directors. And it's not alone. Another big regional player, Minnesota's Guthrie, lost its company around the same time.

Excuses for the companies' demise are legion, says Fichandler, who now heads the graduate acting program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After 50 years in the business, she's heard them all and doesn't buy them.

" `Audiences get tired of looking at the same faces,' " she parrots. " `You can't do the plays you want to do. You have too much stress and strain between people who are there all the time. Actors get into a rut. It limits your choice of repertory. Actors don't want to be outside New York for that long. Actors don't want to settle down in one place.' "

It is hard to keep actors, adds Brustein, "in a culture that doesn't value resident theaters, that does value TV and movies. Actors are pressured by their agents, their peers, and their family not to be a fool but to go for the main chance."

`No aesthetic core' For those who believe that great theater can only come out of companies, this kind of talk is heresy.

Without a company, Fichandler says, "there's no cumulative experience, no aesthetic core, no way of working together. I find it difficult to understand what the joy of being an artistic director is without a group of artists with whom you work over a period of time."

A resident company, Eustis adds, provides salaries, benefits, better living conditions, continuity. Actors can finally settle down, buy a house, start families. Ten of Trinity's 16 members have been there for more than 20 years.

"We in the field have to get more aggressive and tell actors, `You can make a living, not just a job,' " Eustis says. "If not, we'll end up with theater we don't like, with TV actors who are just slumming."

Having specific people to write for, he adds, forces playwrights who work with companies to think more expansively. He mentions Tony Kushner's two-part epic play about AIDS, "Angels in America," which Eustis commissioned for San Francisco's Eureka Theatre Company.

"Tony couldn't be clearer that he didn't want to have women in the play," Eustis recalls. "Eureka had three women, so he had to write a play with women. So kicking and screaming he wrote those three parts. It's my belief that had those three women not been in the company, the play wouldn't have had the impact it had."

Others argue that good theater can be produced without a resident company -- in fact, it's the only way to go. Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie, abolished in the mid-'90s the last of the several companies the theater has had over its 40-year history.

"I was artistic director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin," he says by phone, "and having one there led to most appalling complacency among the actors. It's far better to draw from a pool of actors; it gives the audience more variety and actors more challenge."

Still, what Guthrie has -- a large pool of actors who appear again and again -- resembles an informal kind of company.

"Two decades ago, when you said `company,' it implied a group of people on full-time resident contracts who appeared in virtually all productions and clearly dominated the cast of any play," says Cameron.

These days, he says, the term is changing. "People are asking, does `company' have to be 10 people on contract? Or can it be an extended family of actors who appear over three to four years?" That seems to be where the ART is headed. For example, Stephanie Roth-Haberle, another "Oedipus" cast member, has come and gone from Cambridge for years, acting in a dozen ART productions.For the current crop of securely employed ART actors, the prospect of change is worrisome. Few were willing to talk about it. "I think any theater has a period of transition," says MacDonald, who has done about 50 ART shows. "We knew things had to change. But I've never felt from Robert [Woodruff], `Let's get rid of everything and start all over.' "

In an interview in his office, Woodruff explained his thinking.

"Institutions by their nature evolve, and what it evolves into is what we're questioning all the time," he says, choosing his words carefully. "If we want to bring Chen Shi-Zheng [who directed "Snow in June"] and we want the presence of a Beijing Opera singer [Qian Li], well, that's not going to be in your everyday company. You know? We're a little short on Beijing Opera singers. I think having Qian Li on that stage is a pretty breathtaking moment of theater."

Still, Woodruff says he was delighted when director JoAnne Akalaitis, whom he'd invited to direct a play of her choice at ART, suggested "The Birthday Party," because the parts were right for the company. Derrah, MacDonald, Airaldi, and fellow company member Will LeBow were all in the cast.

But what if Akalaitis had chosen something else, with two characters, say, or all women?

"No," says Woodruff, firmly. "Those actors need to work. We needed a project that included that idea."

In fact, the ART production following "Oedipus," Theatre de la Jeune Lune's version of Moliere's "The Miser," will feature MacDonald, Airaldi, and LeBow.

Evett's contract wasn't renewed, says Woodruff, because the artistic director wanted to take ART in new directions.

"If you're going to have an opera, followed by an international touring company . . . I couldn't afford to keep as many actors on contract," Woodruff says. "And plus, I wanted freshness, I wanted to bring new people into this building."

Evett bears no grudge, and in fact is using the occasion to start his own company, the Actors' Shakespeare Project.

"We've had a parting of the ways," Evett says, "and I'm going off in a new direction that I'm excited about." His vision for a theater seems the opposite of Woodruff's -- away from big directorial concepts and toward an emphasis on actors and text.

So as one company fades, a new one struggles to be born. Or, as Brustein says, "There's never a single answer. Society and culture don't stand still."

Catherine Foster can be reached at foster@globe.com.

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