A renaissance is happening in the regions’ theatres, says Liz Wilson, as people realise that ensemble companies can increase camaraderie and reduce costs
“As an idea, it’s centuries old: a group of actors rehearse a play, perform it, rehearse another play, perform both side-by-side, then keep adding and adding work,” said Theresa Heskins, the New Vic Theatre’s Artistic Director. “Shakespeare did it; Henry Irving did it; Laurence Olivier did it.” No-one is making claims to be doing anything new, however for several theatres in the regions, working with an ensemble company this season has been a revelation. And for other hardy perennials, such as Theatre by the Lake in Keswick and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, it continues to be the financial model that sustains their organisations.
York Theatre Royal and the New Vic in Stoke, both with a past tradition of an ensemble company, are experimenting with it again this season and have discovered tangible benefits to acquiring lots of new staff. York is the only one of those theatres opting not to play its shows in rep, but for all of the theatres there are two distinct financial advantages to an ensemble company: Firstly, it allows you to have a larger company of actors and so expands your repertoire; and secondly it has the potential to reduce the amount of non-earning time for your company of actors. The more normal rep model (of roughly 50% of time in rehearsal and 50% on stage in front of an audience) can change quite radically. Patric Gilchrist at Theatre by the Lake calculates that over the 30-odd weeks that they have an ensemble company of 12 actors, they can reduce their non-earning time to 20% rather than 5O%.
Having a company of actors also gives you the ability to do other activities that can be income generating. In York, two of the actors from the ensemble company who are not featuring in the following main theatre and studio shows have spent two weeks with the director of one of York’s associate companies, tutti frutti, devising a piece of theatre for the very young that has played to packed audiences in the studio theatre during the day. It has created theatre for another age range and brought new income to the ensemble season. Equally, the New Vic actors have been involved in a new, three-week New Vic Fringe Festival offering storytelling experiences on tap for audiences and reading new and undiscovered works, including a ten-minute Jane Austen play.
All of the theatres can also cite less tangible financial benefits. Audiences love to see actors playing different roles across a season, both Theatre by the Lake and the Stephen Joseph Theatre have developed an ever-expanding pool of actors that keeps this fresh, both aiming for an ensemble made up of 50% familiar faces and 50% new. The New Vic has seen a marked increase in season ticket sales for the ensemble season which, anecdotally, is motivated by the desire to see the same actors being challenged in different roles. Moreover for those theatres doing it afresh it is the chance to surprise audiences and say “Look what we are doing now!”
For the two theatres that are trying their hand at this for the first time in years there have been some challenges in gauging the expectations of advance sales. This is especially true when you offer a play in repertoire over a long period and it becomes more tricky to predict how your resident audience will choose to attend. For those more practised at this model, such as Theatre by the Lake, there are years of audience behaviour to study to make sense of the trends.
However important this financial model is for those theatres that operate it regularly, there are so many more benefits that working with a company over a period of time brings. “There is a great advantage in having a group of people who can work together with a group of directors over a long period,” said Ian Forrest, Theatre by the Lake’s Artistic Director. “Young actors have the opportunity of watching older actors at first hand and learning from them. That’s quite rare now and for people straight out of college it’s a great opportunity.”
There are clear benefits when your company of actors know each other and the theatre well. For the staff of the theatres there is a greater sense of a creative community. There is a shorthand in the rehearsal room that comes from familiarity that really serves the process of theatre making. More than that, the company of actors understand better how a particular theatre works and that includes the rest of the staff and the space. This is especially true of working in the round. This all adds up to presenting the best possible work on stage which, as we all know, is the best way of ensuring your financial sustainability.