The news last week that Reprise Theatre Company is suspending operations brought into stark focus the economics of a midsize theater attempting to concentrate on lean, concert-version productions of lesser-known musicals of yore. There has been speculation on whether the quality of the productions, or the quality of the classics the theater produced, was worth the effort of reviving them. But that's almost beside the point, which is the challenges a theater of this size faces when it attempts to do something that defies the commercial odds.
The news pulls focus onto a smaller but in many ways similar company in Venice, Pacific Resident Theatre, which has two spaces, including its tiny “Co-op.” The company has been going strong since 1985 with a rare dedication to little-known classics (in addition to the new plays it also produces).
Among the sometimes controversial differences of scale is that PRT — without the financial pressures of paying union-scale rehearsal salaries to actors — can afford the time to polish its productions, and that polish has been among its signatures. (Even so, a few small theaters pay actors on principle more than the union's cut-rate allowance for intimate venues.)
“I feel that the audience in L.A. is so hungry for a real production of those [lesser-known] plays, something where enough time and care has been put into it, so that they get to see the play in all its dimensions,” says artistic director Marilyn Fox.
“I think our subscriber audience is extremely sophisticated,” she adds. “They have good taste, they're very knowledgeable. They have a real love of the best and clearest writing. They will appreciate Thornton Wilder's Our Town or Frank Wedekind's Lulu — you can present lots of different kinds of things to them, [and] if the play itself is well done, they will enjoy it.”
Pacific Resident Theater launched its string of hits with Brecht's Happy End (which the company restaged in 2005), followed by the West Coast premiere of James McClure's Thanksgiving (which had premiered in Louisville in 1983).
“We've always gone back and forth between old and new plays, the older plays being lesser known, but what the company determines to be gems,” Fox explains.
She recalls how the theater was leaning toward a production of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, when Stephanie Shroyer, then artistic director, argued for its lesser-known antecedent, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which enjoyed a successful run at the theater in 1990.
Explaining the company's viability, Fox says the stalwart subscribers help launch the success of a play, allowing it to stick around long enough for nonsubscribers to catch on. So in a reversal of expectations, the older audiences are the pioneers. When a production has been playing a while, younger audiences start showing up.
“I think a younger audience will come to a hit that they've heard about, something more edgy, like a Big Love [by Charles Mee], something more Brechtian. But anything that runs a long time starts to pick up a younger audience,” Fox says.
Fox says she often thinks about graduating to midsize status, where actors have to be paid medical benefits and union salaries; she goes back and forth between the benefits of that transition and the box office pressures, compromises in the artistry and potential problems with employing large casts. She points to classical repertory company A Noise Within as a troupe she's keeping her fingers crossed for, noting that it seems to be off to a good start transitioning from a small theater in Glendale to new midsize digs in Pasadena. “So I think it's possible,” Fox says.
Yet the economic plights of midsize Reprise Theatre Company, not to mention the struggles of the large Pasadena Playhouse, linger as a cautionary tale about the divide between getting what you ask for and being able to do what you want.