By Matthew Munroe
For the past 6 years, the IU Summer Theatre season has included the performances of two shows in repertory, but what exactly is repertory theatre? I know I have asked myself this question, as almost every major city in the United States has a professional theater with “Repertory” in its name, but as it turns out, very few of these theaters truly use the repertory system.
True repertory theatre employs a resident company of actors that perform a rotating repertoire of plays, sometimes presenting different plays as often as every night of the week. According to Jim O’Quinn’s article “Going National: How America’s Regional Theatre Movement Changed the Game” in the American Theatre journal, many of the United States’ so-called repertory theatres were formed in the 1960s and 70s (during the burgeoning regional theatre movement) with a resident company performing a repertoire of plays in rotation. However, most were unable to sustain the repertory system and thus switched to the commercial model of one play at a time with actors hired on a show-by-show basis. As a result, IU Summer Theatre is about as close as any modern American theatre gets to true repertory.
In my research, I was surprised to learn that the practice of repertory theatre dates back to the Renaissance when theatre troupes, such as Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were formed to provide entertainment for growing urban centers and towns. These troupes of anywhere from five to sixteen actors would perform a rotation of plays selected from a collection of plays the company already knew. This mode of theatrical production required a new type of virtuosity from actors, forcing them to learn and perform multiple roles at the same time.
As the repertory system developed, one person emerged as the organizer of each repertory troupe. This was the actor-manager, who began to gain prominence in the late 18th century, and according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “As an employer, he was concerned less with the welfare of the actor and more with the profit he could extract from the public.” It was the emergence of this figure that signaled the end of the repertory system.
As cities continued to grow and theatre attendance increased, the actor-manager realized there was more money to be made from longer runs of a single play than from a rotating schedule of plays, and repertory troupes began to give way to stock companies of actors who were hired for one or two plays at a time. And that has now become the standard mode of theatrical production across the world, but particularly in the U.S.
There are still a few repertory theatres in Europe, such as the Comédie Française in Paris, the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, and the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia. I had the opportunity to study at the Moscow Art Theatre for a week this spring, and the experience of seeing the repertory system in action was incredible. Every night of the week the Moscow Art Theatre produced a different show from their repertoire. Stagehands would come in every day to transform the space, sometimes as radically as changing the set from a white, amorphous space to a realistic living room paneled in black marble. And the theatre was packed every night, including Mondays.
In Russia, the theatre culture is much larger than in the US. As I learned while I was there, the Communist ban on religion during the 1900s allowed theatre to emerge as the center of community and culture, a role traditionally held by the church. And that culture still exists. In Russia, it is the theatre stars who are the country’s big celebrities, akin to the Hollywood stars of our country.
Additionally, the Moscow Art Theatre and the other major repertory theaters in Europe are state-subsidized, which helps explain why almost all American repertory theaters no longer use the repertory system. Producing repertory theatre is expensive, and the independently financed theaters in the U.S. could not support it. As Jonathan Michaelsen, Departement of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance Department Chair and director of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, told me, “A lot of theaters have gone away from repertory and gone to stock because it’s easier, it’s not as expensive…The glory of [repertory] is you change the set. The downfall is you change the set, so you have to do changeovers…You’re building two [or more] shows at the same time.”
However, doing only two shows “in rep” for two weeks in the summer reduces the expense, affording the IU Summer theatre the chance to use it. And they choose to employ it because it provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate actors to work with professional actors in a professional setting, while also facing the challenge of creating two very different roles at the same time. As Dale McFadden, Associate Department Chair and director of Sense and Sensibility, describes it, “The [repertory] argument is that you see not only one play, but you come back the next day, and you see a different play, with the same actors using different parts of their own artistic repertoire, and there’s an enjoyment both in the play and in the changes the actors have made in showing their talent to an audience.” That is what makes repertory exciting and why the next productions of the IU Summer Theatre season will be fun and unique!