Production of several different plays in a single season by a resident acting company. The plays chosen may be classic works by famous dramatists or new works by emerging playwrights, and the companies that perform them often serve as a training ground for young actors. In Britain the practice, intended to make high-quality theatre available throughout the country, began in the early 20th century. Repertory companies, or stock companies, originally presented a different play each night of the week while preparing and rehearsing new plays. The system evolved to the current practice of presenting a series of short, continuous runs of each play.
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A repertory theatre can be a theatre 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. The companies were not known for trying out untried new work, however. The methods, now seldom seen, would be also used in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The acting company would consist of a "leading lady", a "leading man", a "juvenile", both male and female (ingenue) for the young often romantic roles, a "character" actor and actress (for the older parts) and perhaps a "soubrette". A "guest star" name might be brought in to boost attendance which only might cover the added cost. Hence the resident cast would number 7, plus the resident director, usually doubling as the artistic director in charge of the whole enterprise, and in addition there would be the stage director, the "ASM" (assistant stage manager), some (unpaid) apprentices, and lights and sound technicians. Newcomers to the profession would often start their careers in this fashion, and members would not only gain a foundation upon which to base a career, but, apart from the apprentices who might even pay for the experience, also be sure of a steady income for one or more "seasons". The season might last for 6 months, basically because the schedule was exhausting, both mentally and physically. Examples of performers who went on to universal recognition are Jeremy Brett, Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris, Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Harold Pinter, Imelda Staunton, Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, Geraldine McEwan, Ronnie Barker, Dirk Bogarde, who wrote about his start at tiny Amersham rep in 1939, and Michael Caine, who recounts his time spent at Horsham rep in the early fifties, to present just a few.
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, and hanging and focusing lights, and setting sound equipment. Monday: Morning, runthrough, no costumes usually (save wear and tear), mainly for the techs. Afternoon, "Full Perfect" Dress Rehearsal, maybe a few friends in front to gauge reaction, then copious notes. 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 again on Tuesday.
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.
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 reexamination. Moscow Art Theatre and Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg are the world’s most notable practitioners of this approach.
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.