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Temple Repertory Theater combines students with professionals

By Howard Shapiro, Inquirer Staff Writer
POSTED: July 04, 2010

Usually, college students are preparing to become professionals. But Philadelphia’s newest professional theater company opens this week at Temple University, and it’s composed mostly of students – students who already are certified pros. They’ve returned, midcareer, to school.

In a move that other universities with well-rounded theater departments are making, Temple has started its own professional repertory company, which will produce work apart from the academic year’s roster of undergrad plays, readings, and workshops. Instead, master of fine arts students will take the major roles during the Temple Rep summertime season.

Almost all these MFA students already are professional actors – members of Actors’ Equity, the union of stage pros – who are taking a break from their careers to study for advanced degrees in theater. They range in age from early 30s to 60.

The new Temple Repertory Theater begins its inaugural season this weekend, with those actors performing the leads in two classics. Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters began previews Saturday night and will open Friday, and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure starts previews Tuesday and opens Saturday.

Why does a university with a large roster of theater-training courses and a busy year of performances need – or even want – a professional theater?

The answer has become clear as more university-run repertory theaters open, especially in top-tier theater departments: A professional company on campus bolsters the theater program by giving undergrads additional entrée into their fields. It also makes recruiting easier and provides another theater company for the larger community.

Nonprofessional students work in minor roles and stagecraft positions alongside actors who have been in the business. In that atmosphere, theater educators say, there’s no business like the business of showing, when professionals are the role models.

“Having the opportunity to work alongside a professional is a trump card when it comes to recruiting,” says Dan Kern, who heads Temple’s acting program, has been Temple Rep’s chief inspiration, and is now its artistic director. Early in his career, Kern’s work with a repertory theater – a resident company that employed actors with long-term contracts – made a deep impression on him, he says, and Temple’s method of establishing such a troupe was to bring professionals into its MFA program as students.

The department made the degree attractive to theater professionals, offering scholarships and stipends; it also narrowed the time required to earn a theater master’s, from three years to two. The establishment of Temple Rep as a summer theater was part of that new calendar; what once was the third year of study is now two summers of professional work at Temple Rep.

For master’s candidate Genevieve Perrier, 36, an Equity actor who appears on stages around the city – most recently in Theatre Exile’s Shining City and its coproduction with Act II Playhouse of Any Given Monday – “it’s definitely been a busy summer, but very exciting.”

“It’s an amazing opportunity to retrain and be part of these two big shows – and in repertory, which I’ve never done before,” Perrier says. She says she also was attracted to the program because the master’s students earn university-level teaching certificates after completing their roles as teaching assistants.

For Stan Demidoff, newly minted from Temple’s undergraduate theater program and on his way to the graduate acting program at New York University, three small roles in Measure for Measure are providing his first experience in an Equity show. The cast, he says, is “capable of more things on a greater level than what I’ve been used to.”

An eye-opener for Demidoff, 23, has been working with Douglas C. Wager, who leads Temple’s directing program and is artistic director of the theater department’s school-year productions, in a professional setting, rather than in a student show.

“It’s one thing to see him direct undergrads and another to see the interactions between him and Equity actors. The expectations are a lot higher.”

That’s one reason why, “when you look at the top 10 theater programs, they’re all associated with professional theaters,” says Roberta Sloan, former head of the theater department, which thrived under her leadership in the last four years. “Some of our undergraduates are getting marvelous experience because they play the smaller roles,” she says. “They’ve already commented to me how much they’re learning.”

Sloan went to bat for the new company, and Enterprise Management Consulting, a group in Temple’s Fox School of Business, determined in an extensive study that Temple Rep was viable. The Philadelphia Theatre Alliance helped by enlisting its member companies to aid by giving information to the study.

Temple’s provost gave the department $21,000 for the project, and last season’s student production of Rent provided more from box-office receipts. Altogether, the production budget for Temple Rep is about $75,000.

Unlike other theaters operating under Actors’ Equity contracts, most university professional theaters have special agreements with the union that permit them to pay little or nothing to faculty and full-time students who are Equity members and already being paid through salaries, scholarships, or stipends.

Temple has yet to negotiate such a contract, but Equity has granted waivers to three faculty members and eight graduate students who have earned Equity membership and are in Temple Rep’s shows.

“That’s what makes it financially viable,” Kern says. “The cost of actors and the overhead of the theater are the two largest expenses.” Temple Rep’s overhead is minimal; performances will be at the theater department’s Tomlinson Theater, in an intimate setting with both performers and audience on stage. Depending on how the playing area is arranged, the stage will hold 150 to 180 seats.

Kern is directing Three Sisters, Chekhov’s classic look at provincial and elitist Russian life in the late 19th century. He’s performing in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s look at what passed for justice in old Vienna. Performances of each will alternate, with more or less the same cast.

Temple’s is the second university-run professional repertory theater in the region; the University of Delaware in Newark opened Resident Ensemble Players two seasons ago, and has mounted high-level productions to general critical praise.

These new troupes are the salvation of American repertory theaters, which offer actors steady gigs and artistic attachments, and which were becoming rarer by the decade. An outgrowth of early traveling troupes and the stock companies of character actors who once backed up guest stars at houses such as the Walnut Street Theatre, many repertory companies sprung up about 40 years ago, when the modern regional-theater movement began to take root.

But theater companies that cast each play from scratch became the major model, artistically and financially. Their artistic directors could handpick talent for each show. Plus, without a roster of actors and stagecraft artists to support, they could choose plays with the bottom line in mind, one- or two-handers to round out a season of bigger, costlier works.

In metropolitan Philadelphia, the 35-year-old People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern has been a repertory house from its inception. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre produces its two-play season in repertory. Six-year-old BCKSEET Productions, which produces professionally in the Red Room of Society Hill Playhouse, has been a repertory company for the past two seasons, and a new professional repertory troupe, Quintessence, premiered this spring at the Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy. Several other local companies, among them 1812 Productions, adopt some of the trappings of repertory by working often with a core group of artists.

Many theater artists who have worked in repertory cherish the experience, particularly for its stability. Others, whose careers are more usual show-by-show pastiches, enjoy forming a new family of artists each time.

Wager, the Temple directing program’s head, spent two decades in repertory at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. “Theater is a collaborative art form,” he says. “And working with a group of artists over time is the best way to make theater.”

Wager’s Measure for Measure originally was to have been the 1936 Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman comedy You Can’t Take It with You, for which rights had been secured; they then were withdrawn when a team of producers decided to revive it on Broadway this fall – “a last-minute blow,” Kern says.

But the show must . . . well, you know, and Kern says that Wager is directing Measure for Measure with a new, modernist spin. And at a new company whose makeup has a decidedly traditional spin, in a modernist way.

Temple Rep’s Inaugural Shows
Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters began previews Saturday and runs through Aug. 1.

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure begins previews Tuesday and runs through July 30.

Tomlinson Theater, 1301 W. Norris St.

Tickets: $15-$25. Information: 215-204-1334 or www.temple.edu/theater.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage.

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