Once abundant, resident theater companies have become a rarity.
Joe Haj, producing artistic director for PlayMakers Repertory Company, said he can count the number of companies with a staff of actors in house on one hand.
Since his arrival in 2006, Haj has been working to restore PlayMakers to its repertory theater roots, which he said is greatly enhanced by the presence of resident actors.
With the upcoming production of “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” PlayMakers is continuing its reputation as one of the country’s top epic storytellers.
Hannah Grannemann, PlayMakers’ managing director, said the University’s partial funding is a large factor in the company’s financial ability to put on such productions.
PlayMakers receives about $700,000 in University support annually. It accounts for 28 percent of their $2.5 million annual budget.
“These plays are expensive, even for us, but would be impossible unless you’re at the biggest theaters in the country,” Grannemann said.
“There, the revenue side has to be so high to be able to justify it.”
“The Making of a King” repertory — which opens Jan. 28 and runs until Mar. 4 — is projected to bring in $210,000 from combined subscription and single ticket sales, Grannemann said.
She estimated that other main-stage productions bring in about $100,000 each.
PlayMakers’ two-part performances have garnered audiences of about 14,500 each year.
November 2009’s “Nicholas Nickleby” sold 14,402 tickets and brought in $206,240, while last spring’s “Angels in America” sold 14,547 tickets and brought in $220,042.
Jeff Cornell, a long-time member of the company and cast member for both “Henry” plays, said the audience response to PlayMakers’ epic productions has challenged the cultural perception that shorter is better.
“There’s something about going in the other direction and expanding concentration over a lengthy story,” he said.
Seven hours of theater sounds daunting, but Grannemann said ticket buyers have responded positively.
“We see a counter-cultural trend for these types of work we put on,” she said. “It’s a real testament to our audience.”
Ray Dooley, also a company and cast member, said the viewers revel in the rare challenge of joining an extended event.
“The audience understands that they’re being asked to join an epic journey,” he said.
Haj, who programs the seasons, said the planning begins early.
The plays are chosen based on the mood the company, the actors or the nation is in, he said.
In December 2010, months before announcing the finalized 2011-2012 season, Haj worked on adapting Shakespeare’s scripts to fit the repertory theme of exploring the cost of war.
Designing begins by storyboard soon after and continues to progress through the rehearsing, staging and technical processes.
But none of the performances are a guaranteed success.
McKay Coble, a costume designer for PlayMakers, said the epics especially are an opportunity to grow as a company.
“It’s looking around the room and saying, ‘I wonder if we can do this,’” she said.
Dooley said that challenge is what theater actors thrive on.
“At least once a year, a theater ought to program a production where they have no idea how they’re actually going to do it when the time comes,” he said
He points to the people making up the company as the reason for the repertory’s successes.
“This is a company that is committed to the very last person, to making a success of this and making something excellent,” Dooley said.
“Everyone comes in every day with that attitude.”
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