By Rob Melrose
Richard Nelson is hard at work directing his production of Little Comedies, short plays by Anton Chekhov translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. These translations were commissioned by the Alley as a project for our Resident Acting Company (RAC). Richard embraced the spirit of this project so that it would be exclusively for the RAC and cast each play from within the company. Our nine RAC actors are the only actors in this project which is nice both for company-building and to celebrate one of the last acting companies in the American Theatre, something both Richard and I feel should be cherished.
For most of both American theatre history and in fact world theatre history, acting companies have been the norm. Today, we often talk about whether or not we value buildings or artists. In Shakespeare’s time, the building was the Globe theatre, but the theatre company was the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later the King’s Men. When Shakespeare wrote a play, he knew which actor would be playing which part and could tailor it to fit the actor’s talents (for example Hamlet and Richard III were written for Richard Burbage; Feste and Touchstone were written for the Shakespearean clown Robert Armin). Molière worked with a company his whole career that eventually became the foundation for the Comédie-Française in Paris. To this day in Japan, Kabuki and Noh theatre companies trace back their lineage generations with techniques being passed down for centuries.
The U.S. regional theatre movement started with resident companies at most theatres. Growing up in Minneapolis, I used to go to the Guthrie Theatre regularly and my heroes were the resident actors I saw show after show. One of the highlights of my career was being invited to direct Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days featuring two of the Guthrie’s stars during my childhood: Sally Wingert and Richard Ooms. It was a highlight not only because Sally and Richard are delightful, talented, generous artists with decades of experience, but more importantly because they shaped my imaginative and spiritual self as I was growing up in a way that no movie star ever could have. The physical presence of the actor in the theatre has an impact that stars on the screen can never achieve.
Though I never met him in person, I have been influenced greatly by the artistic director of the Guthrie during my formative years. Garland Wright worked hard to build a company at the Guthrie when most theatres were disbanding theirs. He valued training and found ways to give actors a variety of experiences so that they grew during their tenure with the company. For example, he brought in Chekhov expert (and later my acting teacher) Earle Gister to work with the company before a production of Uncle Vanya. He brought in an expert in Sanskrit theatre techniques before a production of Naga Mandala.
I’ve tried to carry on this spirit of giving the company unique opportunities to grow and add to their already impressive skills. Last fall, commedia dell’arte maestro Antonio Fava worked with the company for two weeks on the characters of commedia dell’arte and the comedic bits called lazzi. This culminated in our production of The Servant of Two Masters in the spring. This fall, I’ve been spending every moment I can watching Richard Nelson working with the company on his unique style of theatre. His theatre is so intimate that we have pulled the chairs of the already intimate Neuhaus even closer to the center to make the audience-actor relationship even closer. We have hung over sixty microphones so that the actors can speak in almost a whisper and the audience can hear it. Along with these technical adjustments, there are countless ways that Richard adjusts how the actors think about the text and how they speak to each other. In my five years at the Alley, I have directed members of the company in nine plays and six filmed projects and for me, it is such a delight watching a director getting new performances from the company that are unlike anything I have experienced from them to date.
What makes a company special is that instead of the work with Richard Nelson and Antonio Fava dispersing to the four winds when the project is over, the company hangs on to what they learned with these artists as experiences they all shared and can draw from together in the future. And of course the audience gets to see that growth over time and to grow with the actors. Perhaps a young person in the audience of Little Comedies may be invited to direct some of these actors at the Alley years from now — how life changing that would be!