My very first professional job as an actor was in 1983 at the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in Holland, MI, performing in three of the season's four summer productions. While pursuing my MFA at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, I did 17 shows in three years at the Hillberry Rep. And this summer marks my fifth season - and fifteen shows - at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. I love repertory theatre.
Once upon a time, nearly all professional theatres were repertory in nature; some had dozens of plays ready to be performed on a few hours' notice. Nowadays, whether due to economics or audience preference, (or more likely, both,) rep theatre is increasingly rare. Producing one show at a time means a theatre only need maintain a company to fit the size of the current show. It also allows for more elaborate production values. When I was in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" in 1996-97, it took six weeks to move the set from Toronto to Vancouver; not to create a new set, mind you, just to move the existing one. In an age of spectacle, rep is increasingly rare.
But there is something magical about repertory theatre, something I guess I'd call "extra-theatrical" for both audiences and for those who create it. As an audience member, you can see a show in the afternoon, go have dinner, then come back and see something completely different in the evening. New play, new set, new lighting, costumes, props, sound. But there's one thing that's, well, both the same and yet completely different - the actors. The great actor, director, and teacher, Konstantin Stanislavsky, once said, "Today Hamlet, tomorrow a supernumerary." At a rep theatre, that can be true in the space of a few hours. Rep theatre gives audiences the opportunity to see more facets of the actors they love - and more opportunities to discover new actors to love - in the space of only a day or two, a compressed enough time to still remember the nuances of the last performance, and to compare and augment them with the next.
People sometimes ask me, "how do you learn all those lines?" Yup, they really do. Jokingly, my answer is usually, "not very well." While it's true I have to learn three times as many lines at MSF as at most gigs I have during the year, I consider it a fantastic challenge. There's never really any risk of confusing one play's lines for another's - each play is very much its own world - but the sheer volume of words that need to be memorized to the point where they become second nature is, indeed, a great test for an actor. Rehearsals are quite a challenge, too. There were a few days last week where we rehearsed one show in the morning, tech'ed another in the afternoon, and performed the third at night. Rep is not for the theatrically faint of heart. But there is a thrill - a constant freshness - to performing rep that can't be duplicated. It's as amazing to me to play Falstaff in the afternoon and Bottom in the evening as it (hopefully) is for an audience member to see it.
So I'd like to set you a little challenge: if you've got tickets to one of our shows this summer, come see another one. Better yet, see them on the same day. I can pretty much guarantee you an unique theatrical experience. And you might, like me, get hooked on rep.