Q&A on the Nature of “Rep”

With Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy

“Repertory” has a variety of meanings in the theatre world. How do you define it for PSF?
Yes, repertory can mean the plays or types of plays you do, but doing plays in rep means offering multiple productions in the same theatre, alternating performances between them daily rather than offering them sequentially: e.g. Hamlet in June and Pride and Prejudice in July.

Shakespeare’s company, we believe, had dozens of plays in repertory at a time and could alternate between them on short notice. We’ve been doing a touch of rep for years: our children’s play takes place in the Schubert Theatre, the same space as two other productions each year. We use the same scenic designer so the changeover can be a smooth one, as there is usually a 10:00 a.m. children’s show followed by a 2:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. main production. But neither the casts nor the primary audiences are the same.

This year, we will offer productions in true rep for the first time, alternating two plays with the same cast in the same theatre—our main stage—so you can see Hamlet one day and Pride and Prejudice the next day. The sets for these two productions will be designed to rep, so the look and functioning of each will be quite different even though they are using the same space.

Why is repertory a part of PSF’s programming this year, and what about the future of rep at PSF?
Rep is essential if PSF will become a destination theatre over time so patrons visiting from some distance can see multiple productions in a single visit. Our long-range vision is for PSF to become a destination, and we wanted to begin exploring this mode of production.

Another driver: both actors and audiences love rep. Actors love the richness of the challenge­—alternating roles each day—and audiences love to see them do it.

It also helps PSF address another issue: average house size. Our previous model was fairly uniform with respect to the number of performances per production, which did not reflect the varying power of each play to attract an audience of a certain size. Empty seats impact both the actors’ and the audiences’ experiences; the more full the house the better the experience for all involved. In the old model, some of our productions would sell out and some would play to less than full houses. Our ability to predict attendance has been good, but our ability to match the performance run to the attendance has been limited. In rep, we can assign one production more performances than another to maintain a higher average house size.

The future? We anticipate continuing rep in future seasons. We expect to learn more about the opportunities and challenges this year.

Do you have any personal experience working in rep as an actor or director?
Very few theatres do rep. In the beginning of the regional theatre movement in this country, 50 or 60 years ago, many of the first regional theatres hired a company of actors for the season and some did productions in rep. Now, most theatres hire actors by the show and do productions sequentially, often for financial reasons.
Rep is more complex. Destination theatres tend to rep, but there are very few of them. Most of my work in the field has been in the sequential model. Other than when I earned my Equity card as an actor on a school tour that alternated Hamlet, R&J, and Julius Caesar, and our rep mode with the children’s shows, this is my first experience with true rep.

What kinds of challenges and opportunities does rep offer an actor? A director? An audience?
Challenges include, for example, finding an actress who will be equally wonderful as Elizabeth and Ophelia. (We did: Mairin Lee.) Those two roles require very different characteristics, so you need actors with range—rep is a great opportunity for actors to show their range to an audience that has a recent point of reference of their work.
Also, at a glance, one would say that Hamlet is mostly men and Pride and Prejudice mostly women, so how can the same cast do both plays? Because many of the women in P&P are young and can be played well by our terrific acting interns, and most of the principal roles match up well, it works better than one might expect.

We want to avoid overwhelming the costume shop, given that the plays open at the same time, and we need to choose plays that can work scenographically in a rep model with a changeover that won’t last much longer than an hour. We all have to keep in mind that the matinee of one play comes down at 5:00 p.m. and another play starts at 8:00 p.m., several days a week.

Directors have to stretch out the rehearsal process, alternating rehearsal slots similar to the performances, and each director knows that actors cannot focus the entirety of their attention on that one role. But, on balance, everyone wins here, mostly the audience.

How did you choose to pair Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice? What other pairings would you like to do?
We started with Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard, but the feeling was that the combined weight, despite the buoyancy of Chekhov, might be too much. This adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is bright and energetic and has been very successful across the country. It has an ideal cast size to make the rep practical.

Other pairings? Perhaps Much Ado About Nothing and The Cherry Orchard sometime soon. Or Much Ado with The Lion in Winter. Thankfully, there are many possibilities, which is good because we have many years ahead of us.

Is there anything you would like to add for our readers?
For a patron, the richest encounter with the Festival is to see most or all of the productions each season, to get the widest and most dimensional aesthetic experience. Rep adds yet another dimension, to see terrific actors stretch themselves even further and continue to grow. That’s pretty exciting.

Part of the magic of live theatre is watching the transformation of the actor into the character before our very eyes—here and now, in the room with us. In rep, we get to come back and see the same actor make yet another transformation, but one made in a unique creative process unavailable except in very special places; places like the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.