The Repertoire Theater: Having an Artistic Home

Having enjoyed the luxury of being a part of the German theater system for about 20 years I now look back on it and ask why this can’t happen in the United States.

Of course Germany funds its theaters with taxpayer money and so the long established theater system which was founded by kings, princes, dukes and lords for their court because back then there was no television, movies, or any other way to watch a theatrical production on a regular basis.

When I think about music, dance, art, poetry, and theater I see that these things aren’t a modern invention but rather have been a part of human existence since the beginning of human existence. So the “need” isn’t something humans require to survive, but rather it is a “want” that explores the most intriguing science of all, the study of human nature.

I look at the town I grew up in now and look back at the place that was the pot in which my flowering artistic growth began. Living here now I see that the artistic life of this town has grown a lot and that respect and admiration of the arts has also grown. There is an orchestra here which uses great players from here, Nashville, Louisville and other places nearby and performs mostly pops concerts on a regular basis. I am happy for that. There are several theater non-profits that have been around since I grew up here 40 years ago that are basically at the same level as they were then.

These are all great. I admire the hard work, dedication, and willingness of people and companies to contribute to them. However, there is no growth in them and there is not much development of talent on a regular basis.

I am not accustomed to the way in which productions are done in theater. As I understand it, most of the time you get the script at the first reading and learn as you rehearse. In opera that is hardly possible for a multitude of reasons. You can’t be carrying around music scores on a rehearsal stage trying to handle notes, rhythms, texts (in foreign languages no less) and stage direction all at the same time. That would take forever. In opera you must have the part memorized or darned close to it on day one of staging rehearsals. Optimally, the piece has been musically rehearsed in solo and ensemble rehearsals so that everyone is ready on day one.

Having to work this way forces you to work on several pieces at once. Over a year you can do 4 to 5 operas and keep your sanity. Usually they are all new to you. After several years, the same pieces comes around again if you are lucky and you get to repeat a piece. Many singers who work on an international level can sing the same pieces over many years because they are the best ones at doing them. That is a very nice thing to be able to work on. But, of course you are always tempted by new roles, new vocal categories, and new characters.

But…I digress.

The point I want to make is it appears that in theater you do an audition shortly before a piece is to be staged and then stage the piece, learning it as you go. Theaters plan a season, before they know who is going to be doing the roles and then have auditions and take what they can get. I don’t think this is the best way to operate.

I would suggest putting together an ensemble of actors, directors, and designers. What this does is give create an “artistic home” for the people who will probably be cast anyway. Only, now, you can plan a year in advance who is doing what and when. It also gives a company the opportunity to create “stars” out of the ensemble members.

Even if the ensemble wasn’t paid any better than they are presently, which is nothing, they would have a platform upon which to build a reputation, an artistic profile, and to know way ahead of time the roles they will be doing and to be able to plan out their lives ahead of time.

Only one of these theater ensembles even has a website. They have a Facebook page, but that belongs to Facebook.

The point of having a website at all is to grow its content related to the work of the theater. In other words, it needs more content. One big improvement to these little companies websites would be to present an ensemble on it, showing a preview of who is in which pieces throughout the year, with their profiles and artist pictures on it in addition to information about the upcoming shows and interesting articles that include all of the things going on in the theater. Otherwise, the whole thing seems dormant.

For sure, this is a lot of work for somebody, but what you are trying to build is an infrastructure for an institution so it can develop and grow over time, and also where the actors can develop their skills, deepen their role study, and create an occupation with it, possibly leading to work elsewhere as well.

As it is, great, we put on plays with a ragtag group of actors and manage to put up a set and have some lighting. Sometimes when they do kids shows the place sells out, because Mommy, Daddy, Auntie and Uncle, and the whole family buys tickets to see their kids onstage. A worthy thing, no doubt. I’m not criticizing it, but I am saying that the theater can and should be more than just these two things. This is already a lot of work. I mean, you are doing good just to get the darn show opened with all of the parts in place.

What I’d like to see is for these companies to merge into one company so there isn’t a division of resources, build an acting ensemble who are basically the people who regularly act in productions anyway, but now would have an official relationship on an ongoing basis instead of always being a “guest” in their own home stage.

I get what problems could arise from such an arrangement. But, somehow there has to be growth built in, or it just stays the same, and the problems stay the same, as well as the results.

Having been hired as a full time singer in 6 different full time theaters for over 20 years in Germany helped me become a true professional in every way. I would have never been able to sing the vast repertoire I did, had I been in the USA, trying to get La Traviata after La Traviata after La Traviata. With a repertoire house, you perform a piece over the stretch of a season, or two, giving you a deeper understanding and deeper experience with them. In one season, in my first house I sang in Fidelio, Anna Bolena, Jenufa, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The White Rose, and a Night in Venice. I didn’t have to audition for any of them. They gave me the roles that my voice and character type fit me. I developed greatly by working on a consistent basis with the same ensemble, the same director, the same conductors, and the same pianists, and the people in town became familiar with me over an extended time.

Over time you age, your roles change, and your skills develop. Over time when you have been in such a growth oriented environment with the challenge of artistic consistency. Building a resume based on “Full Time” work, and creating a list of roles that you can call your own makes it possible to build a standing as an actor.

Right now, the people who are actually actors in reality, are forced to act on the side. So, it is all very alternative. That needs to change. Instead of smearing people with superficial praise, actors can get positive criticism that helps them grow in their artistry.

Theater is work and it is challenging. I learned from my first director in Germany unbelievable lessons in discipline, stage presence, acting, and projecting. It was rigorous, hard, and no kid gloves type of work and the product was performances that were solidly rehearsed and performed over a year with precision that rivals movies. I didn’t grow from people telling me how great I was, but from people pushing me farther than I had ever thought I could go. People who wouldn’t allow me to appear poorly onstage, but pushed me to openly show the drama I felt deep inside, because honestly, we are trained in life to hold in our emotions and not let them show on the surface. As an actor you must be vulnerable and come out of hiding and even though I know these things, I still need directors to pull me kicking and screaming onto the stage and demand I expose myself so that the audience feels who the character is.

So, in closing, I would love to see the theater landscape here in Bowling Green grow, and it really can only grow when there is a company that looks like an ensemble. However many people that takes is however many people that takes.

In closing I would love to start an opera ensemble where those who would want to, do operas, opera scenes, and the such to give them experience and repertoire doing the repertoire. We could do operas in English and in the original languages. Maybe one year do it in English, then the following year in original, and then in the years after do them both ways. This would be an opportunity for pianists to work on a regular basis as well.

But, I have many dreams…don’t I? A lot of great ideas. But, getting any one to move forward is a totally different matter. I am simply sharing what is on my mind and what I think would be a great way to enhance artistic activity.