Reviving Repertory

by Jessica Showers

in American Theatre magazine

“Repertory” has morphed over the years into a relatively meaningless term. Thirty-seven of TCG’s current member theatres use the word in their company names, but how many of them regularly run in actual rotating rep? With the costs and mental and physical challenges associated with the practice—when a company of actors performs in concurrently running productions—the answer is: very few. And those that do, like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, are seasoned to its rigors.

Given this, starting a new repertory company sounds like a tough undertaking, but Marvell Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Lenny Leibowitz can’t keep the excitement or determination out of his voice. The dream of a true, New York-based, rotating repertory theatre espousing new work stuck in his mind since his first visit to Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. But Marvell’s mission suggests you shouldn’t have to cross the country (or its borders) in search of real rep when, as Leibowitz put its, New York is such a fertile breeding ground for theatre talent with the right range and stamina.

“What I love so much about rep is it allows actors, designers and artists not only to stretch their muscles in an expansive way,” he says, “but it also allows plays to test themselves against each other because they’re in counterpoint.”

Leibowitz and Marvell’s managing director Amy Estes hope to fill what they consider a gap in New York’s theatre scene, beginning with Marvell’s inaugural season Feb. 22, at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex. The company will start by running two plays on the same bill, as a sort of theatrical double feature. For example, if you wanted to see Ingmar Bergman’s Nora, adapted from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, next Thursday night, J.M. Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen, also featuring a female protagonist named Nora (who could very well be played by the same actor portraying Nora’s Nora—stay with me) would immediately follow the first production: same actors, different roles, different set. In March, these plays will be joined in rotating rep by another pairing: Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding and S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk.

“It’s brain-bruisingly complex,” Leibowitz admits, laughing. “But it just takes a fresh way of thinking, and a lot of trial and error and endurance, and being okay with being lucky.”

Leibowitz and Estes (whom Leibowitz describes as a “theatre polymath”) met while running New Harmony Theatre in southwestern Indiana. They quickly realized they shared a love for rep and decided to introduce The Repertory Project in 2008 by collaborating with the University of Southern Indiana Theatre. The program brought New York Equity actors to work alongside students in two plays—The Crucible and Much Ado About Nothing—in rotating rep.

Leibowitz says this was “the warm-up, where we learned the ropes” for Marvell. Marvell’s first production was a May 2010 workshop run of Before the Rain, a new musical (co-written by Leibowitz) with an African-American cast and a gospel score.

“It was exciting to see what was working and which songs were moving the story forward,” Leibowitz recalls, “but most important, it was exciting to set an imprimatur of a focus on new work.”

Marvell plans to include at least one new work in each of its future seasons. This season centers on four charismatic, plucky female protagonists pitting themselves against seemingly immovable traditions. The rotating repertory theatre tradition, in contrast, hinges on being able to change. And fast.

“I think that the time really is now and there has been a call in the theatre community and in the press for a company like this,” Leibowitz says. “Rep is a full-immersion theatre experience; it’s theatre on an Olympian scale.”