Right now, in New York City, one of the world's finest theater ensembles is putting on a repertory season of five Shakespeare plays. England's Royal Shakespeare Company – the RSC – has brought 41 actors, along with a replica of their main theater, and put it smack in the middle of the Park Avenue Armory.
One week before the first performance, the Drill Hall of the armory is filled with steel and timber, costumes, sets, props and workers scurrying around. Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the RSC, eagerly shows off the intimate 975 seat theater, which was packed in 46 shipping containers and is still being assembled, kind of like a huge IKEA kit. (You can see a time-lapse video of the theater being constructed, along with clips from all five plays, at the RSC's YouTube page.)
"Millimeter for millimeter, it's pretty much the same as what we've built in Stratford," Boyd says. That's Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace and the RSC's permanent home for the last fifty years. "It's now Wednesday afternoon," Boyd continues. "By Friday morning, a technical rehearsal with actors is theoretically going to start!"
The RSC has come to America to do what it does best. The six week residency, which kicked off last week, features productions of five Shakespeare classics: Rome and Juliet, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, The Winter's Tale, and King Lear. And all the actors play at least two or three different roles. Sam Troughton, who plays Romeo and Brutus in Julius Caesar and understudies Polixenes in The Winter's Tale, says seeing Shakespeare in repertory is a great way to be immersed in the variety of the Bard's work.
"Five completely different worlds, utterly different productions ... and they kind of inform each other and complement each other," Troughton says. "That's really exciting. Tonight you're in Verona, then it's Rome; it might be the Forest of Arden. You know, all this from this guy's head, from Shakespeare's head!"
International Herald Tribune theater critic Matt Wolf, an American who has lived in London for the past three decades, says RSC is one of the last true, genuine repertory companies in the world:
"What's interesting about the RSC is that it is devoted to bringing the same group or a similar group of people together over several years and several seasons on a spate of plays and having them grow with one another and with the work. And New York is seeing the result of that, after several years. And that's the kind of commitment to process that we really don't se in the States, where gratification in the theater – as in every other area of life – has to be instant. And the RSC takes what I guess you might call the longer view."
There are lots of qualities the RSC looks for in actors. They must commit to a three year contract. Artistic director Michael Boyd says they've got to be versatile, and "people with a paradoxical mix of enormous megalomania and great humility, 'cuz without the megalomania, they'll never convince us that they're a tyrant and without the humility, they'll never be prepared to play the messenger the night after."
Troughton says that when this version of the company was first assembled, they all sat in a big circle in a rehearsal hall in Stratford, introducing themselves and saying which parts they were playing. It was, "very similar to a university, you know, it's the same sort of period. You kind of talk about it in those terms: in the first year, in the second year."
And these actors virtually live together and share in each other's life experiences. They watch each other's babies grow into toddlers. Michael Boyd says the company supports each other personally and professionally:
"Every single person has to take part in the understudying process. And the understudying process is really important when you're together for three years, because you will go on. People do get sick."
Mariah Gale plays Juliet, as well as Celia in As You Like It, where she also understudies Katy Stephens, who plays the lead role of Rosalind. One night, Gale says, in the middle of the play, Stephens missed an entrance. "And the stage manager came on and said, um, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we'll have to stop for a little bit, because Katy's injured herself.' And I was the only one onstage – sat in front of a thousand people. And she said, 'But it's all right, because this is her understudy!' And that's when I found out I was going on, halfway through the show!"
Gale gets a bit wistful when she realizes that the New York residency is the swan song for this particular ensemble. And even though she's played about 100 performances as Juliet, she still thinks there's more she could learn about the character. "I sort of feel that I could play Juliet for another few years and I wouldn't get sick of it," she says. "I feel that I haven't finished. And I feel that, at the end of this, I would still be able to go on and do it and discover something new. And that's what's been a remarkable discovery about this job: we've always been in rep, and we've always been rehearsing other things, so we've never gotten bored."
Her costar Sam Troughton feels the same way about Romeo. As jobs go, he says, being a member of RSC's acting ensemble is a pretty great gig:
"You've got a regular wage and you're doing fantastic projects and working with brilliant people, but you're really, you know, you're learning, you're becoming a better actor."
The RSC's residency in New York, a part of the Lincoln Center Festival, continues until August 14.