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The Actors Company (2008) The Actors Company (2008)
photo Jason Capobianco

In a career that has included being an arts documentary script writer for ABC radio, a part-time lecturer in drama, research assistant to Rex Cramphorn, editor of Theatre Australia and, notably, reviewer for the National Times, Sydney Morning Herald and now on his own website (www,, Waites has closely observed for over 30 years plays, careers and movements. In that time he has seen ensembles and other collaborative efforts (Australian Nouveau Theatre, Lighthouse, Gilgul, Keene/Taylor Project, Paris Theatre) come and go and has a clear understanding of their inherent complexities, of the differences between top-down and bottom-up models and of many a contemporary actor’s desire to be a collaborator—more than “a gun for hire.” The essay’s dynamic functions around these often binary complexities.

STC artistic director Robyn Nevin’s admirable desire was to create great acting opportunities of a kind difficult to achieve in the standard show by show theatre model. But is a large state theatre company the place to do it? Waites posits contradictions in Nevin’s handling of the ensemble, some circumstantial given the nature of the institution that housed it, others seemingly at odds with her own experience. As a young actor in the 70s Nevin had been part of the Performance Syndicate, an intensely collaborative ensemble directed by Rex Cramphorn. But, given her wider responsibilities for the STC, she could not lead the Actors Company nor act with it. Instead, after a failure to appoint a leader, three successive ‘managers’ were appointed for the ensemble. Waites writes, “This failure to find a ‘first among equals—should that read ‘to decide between democracy and autocracy?’ was to underpin many of the conflicts that lay ahead.”

A consistently top-down approach meant that seasons were programmed and plays cast without consulting actors, let alone discussions shared about direction and design. Some guest directors had never or only briefly seen the actors at work, and similar casting decisions were made from show to show. Even more critical, from the beginning there seems to have been no discussion between Nevin and the actors about precisely what their purpose was as an ensemble.

Nevin’s closest contact with the ensemble came with directing Mother Courage: “despite a major incident during rehearsals, by opening night [in May 2006]...everybody on stage looked good.” After several frustrating months the actors had arranged their own meeting and Nevin wandered into it—a tense encounter ensued: “[T]here is no avoiding the brutal fact that something terrible had happened that Easter Monday. It was not immediately apparent, but a wedge had been driven between Nevin and the actors. After so much work in getting the ensemble started, Nevin could not get over the feeling she had been profoundly betrayed. It seemed to her that she had given birth to a spider that ate its own mother.”

Waites reports that in interviews Nevin was “no less critical of herself” than he has been in his essay. Her belief that an ensemble forms and evolves through working together, not through talk, had proven problematic. Company spirits however were lifted by Barrie Kosky who, if “leading from the front”, offered “intense participation” in the creation of the epic, The Lost Echo. Waites praises Nevin: “Few in Australia had given Kosky this kind of unflinching support.”

Casting of a fixed number of players (Waites calls it the Holy 12) proved to be problematic. Kosky would have liked two senior female actors in the ensemble, Benedict Andrews a range of guest performers to keep the situation fluid. But in 2007 Andrews’ production of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla, showed that fixed numbers and gender constraints “can occasionally produce an unexpectedly successful result.” Again the ensemble was working with an auteur, and on a complete version of the set from the first day of rehearsals. Responding to Andrews’ very precise demands, “individuals felt it safe to take risks. They would try things they would never have dared try in a one-off production.” As with The Lost Echo, the combination of auteur and ensemble appears in Waites’ essay as a fruitful model, although with provisos introduced by the company’s more complicated experience with Andrews on War of the Roses, dealt with later in the essay by Waites.

Waites’ praise for The Season at Sarsaparilla is considerable, especially if we think about it in terms of STC’s exports to New York—Hedda Gabler, A Streetcar Named Desire. “If there was ever an Australian production that deserved to be seen by the rest of the world, it was [The Season at Sarsaparilla]. For me in my 30 years of following and writing about the making of Australian theatre, this production represents, both culturally and creatively, the highest point. An onstage Everest.” This one show alone makes Waites grateful for the existence of the Actors Company.

Difficult times followed: problems with directors, serious arguments, resignations, illness. But the work kept being made and the pressures of back to back productions alleviated. Waites’ deftly sketches ensemble members: Pamela Rabe as the “nurturing ‘wolf mother’”, the experienced, inspiring older men, the ‘malcontents’ (a complex picture) and offering glimpses of other members. Rabe’s direction of Daniel Keene’s Citizens (with Tim Maddock directing Soldiers in the other half of the double bill, The Serpent’s Teeth) appears to have been a relief for the company, being directed by one of their own and in terms of their own working method.

So why didn’t the Actors Company survive beyond three of its projected five years? The new artistic directors, Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett thought it financially unsustainable, but even if they had the money they had reservations, “we thought it was too sacred.” Like some others, Pamela Rabe, for whom working as part of the ensemble had been “the most important and electric experience of my professional life,” was left with a sense of unfinished business.

Waites ends his paper with core lessons “any state theatre company would do well to heed if it set up an ensemble within a broader company framework.” He doesn’t say they shouldn’t do it, although the essay points towards very likely intractable institutional problems.

First, he recommends stable leadership that will provide assurance and continuity. Within this framework, guest directors need to fit “the ensemble’s over-arching goals.” These, of course, are the first things that need to be established. Presumably Waites would want the role of the actors clarified—what kind of ensemble will they be getting themselves into, what precisely will be their creative contribution? Secondly, he argues for more flexible ensemble numbers—although he doesn’t address how this might affect the very sense of ensemble that comes from familiarity and continuity. Thirdly he recommends alternative activities for ensemble members—regular skills classes, small-scale experimental works: “opportunities to explore ‘simplicity’ and ‘intimacy’” as opposed to constant involvement with “juggernauts.” To do this he might have added directing opportunities given his what-if support for Rabe as potential Actors Company leader (a huge challenge, mind you, for a beginner director).

By the time of the War of the Roses, the Actors Company was far from its original self, featuring guest performers including Cate Blanchett and only small roles for some long term members, but there was just enough of a rewarding sense of continuity, not least evident in a scale of vision rarely seen in this country, expertly inhabited and realised by its actors. Perhaps what we witnessed over the years was in fact a directors theatre enabled by a variably willing ensemble. Without doubt the supreme performances of the three years were seen in the productions by Kosky and Andrews, who each, at different points in the essay, wonder about the role of the director—Kosky about an inherent Australian resistance to the strong director and Andrews about the best work coming from strong leadership. The degree of creative freedom an actor has within an ensemble led by an auteur is likely to vary as enormously as the differences between auteurs. Some are more authoritarian or democratic than others—but, essentially, the vision is the director’s. Other kinds of ensemble, not part of larger institutions, are about creative power sharing—the director’s vision is important, critical even, but subject to creative cooperation, even compromise. The Actors Company is a very particular case, whereas in Lighthouse, say, under Jim Sharman, the ensemble was the company, not one company inside another, but the lessons can still apply.

Waite’s essay is eminently readable, the writing relaxed and evocative, the tone aptly personal as he draws on his considerable experience of theatre and his judgments for the most part are fair and considered. Occasionally the writing is calculatedly dramatic, tipping into hyperbole, making the reader wary: “...the lines of communication were simply not as open and flowing as they needed to be. Sadly, it was this that triggered the descent into the maelstrom that occurred over the course of the next two productions and left the Holy 12 permanently damaged.” This kind of narrative forecasting is also not uncommon, if adding a certain novel-ish suspensefulness.

Like much else in Australian theatre history the Actors Company is unlikely to be documented anywhere else soon, so this perceptive, intimate essay is more than welcome as a critical homage, a tribute to a partly successful, sometimes highly significant venture into too rare a form in this country, the ensemble.

James Waites, Whatever Happened to the STC Actors Company?, Platform Paper No 23, Currency House, Sydney, April 2010

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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